Andante moderato [6'07]
Allegro molto, con spirito [11'29]
Adagio cantabile [9'28]
Lento maestoso [2'47]
Children's Day: Allegro [7'21]
Communion: Largo [8'14]
Together with its companion CDA67540, this pair of exciting discs from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Litton offers thrilling new recordings of all four of Charles Ives’s extraordinary symphonies.
The idiosyncratic nature of Ives’s early musical training (simultaneous but competing marching bands, etc) is well known, but before we can delight in its fruits, we find Ives-the-student writing a (relatively) conventional Symphony No 1 under the watchful, if not always approving, stare of his tutor. The result is almost a pastiche of all that we know and love from the late-nineteenth century symphonic tradition: Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky.
Released from college in 1898, Ives rapidly shook off such influences, entered a new century and set about expanding his extraordinary vision through three further symphonies, culminating in the spiritual marathon of the fourth, which—Ives tells us—poses (and answers, threefold) the cosmic questions ‘what?’ and ‘why?’.
Alongside the four symphonies we have Central Park in the Dark, and an Ives-sanctioned orchestral arrangement of his most popular (and outrageous) solo song, General William Booth Enters into Heaven. The commanding baritone of Donnie Ray Albert tells the story of General Booth—founder of the Salvation Army—approaching the pearly gates, the great unwashed in his following (Dallas Symphony Chorus) assured of being ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb’: Hallelujah!
Captured live during concerts in Dallas, the recorded sound is every bit worthy of these epic works.
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The symphonies of Charles Ives trace an immense creative journey, from the brilliant apprentice work the First Symphony, through the quietly revolutionary Americana voice of the Second and Third Symphonies, to the spiritual epic of the Fourth Symphony. Together, these works belong to the first blooming of American symphonic music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In many ways, however, by the time of the Fourth Symphony Ives was writing a visionary music whose innovations and implications prophesy the twenty-first century and beyond. That kind of prophecy, in any case, is what he had in mind.
The story of Ives’s singular musical education remains essential to understanding him. His last mentor in composition, Professor Horatio Parker at Yale, had studied in Germany and there imbibed a relentlessly conservative view of music. When the young Ives arrived at his first lesson and showed Parker a ‘Fugue in Four Keys’, the keys being simultaneous, Ives was curtly directed not to bring in anything else like that again. Dutifully if resentfully, Ives settled into four years of Germanic musical discipline, writing fugues in the style of Bach and his First String Quartet and First Symphony, both of them vital and precocious works in a safely late-Romantic style.
At Yale, in other words, Ives had to keep largely under wraps an experimental streak that in his teens already extended to sounds never heard in music before: technical experiments to which a later time would attach terms like polytonality, polyrhythm, and spatial music. These revolutionary concepts had come not from abstract speculation but from his father, a town bandmaster given to imaginative tinkering with the elements of music.
Charles Ives’s father George Ives started his musical career in the Civil War, as the youngest bandmaster in the Union Army. After the war he returned to his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, founded a band, and took up music-teaching. When he discovered in his young son Charles a tremendous talent, George began teaching him the rudiments and found him the best keyboard teachers available. By the age of fourteen Charlie was a professional church organist.
Besides gaining a rigorous traditional training in music, the boy with the open ears and steel-trap mind absorbed his father’s ideas. George Ives would march two contingents of his band around the town green in opposite directions playing different tunes, to see what happened as they passed. He invented gadgets to play quarter-tone scales, taught Charlie to sing a song in one key while being accompanied in another. He played his trumpet for his son from varying distances and over a pond, so Charlie could gauge the effect of space on the timbre. To these inspirations George Ives added something which was at that time unique in history: absolutely any combination of notes is acceptable, he told Charlie, if you make sense out of them. No composer had ever been given such licence.
Along with that extraordinary gift of freedom, George Ives also bequeathed his son a love for the musical life of small towns and everyday citizens, amateurs playing in bands and singing in camp meetings and fiddling at dances. To George and Charlie it was all just humanity, people worshipping and rejoicing, praying and holidaying from their hearts and souls, with music woven into and expressing it all. For Ives, physical, tangible music came to seem an exterior symbol of a deeper human reality, and that unseen spirit was itself the real music. ‘Music’, Ives would write, ‘is life.’
So in his work Ives would recall and recast the hymns and marches and popular songs of his youth, because for him these simple melodies expressed eternal human verities. Any music was holy to him if it was honest and authentic—from a glorious fugue or symphony to a ragtime tune, a sentimental or funny parlour song, a hymn bellowed out by the local stonemason.
As usual with Ives, there is a paradoxical counterpoint to this intense idealism. In his way he was a skilful and thoroughgoing craftsman, though never a slick one. He had been a near-prodigy as an organist and had been trained as both organist and composer by the best teachers in the country. He had a rare understanding of shaping large-scale forms, and thought always of the technical aspects of what he was doing—here a study in polyrhythm, there a way of systematically organizing dissonant harmony. A late-Romantic at heart, based on his father’s ideas Ives meticulously explored most of the ‘modernist’ musical vocabulary—polyrhythm, polytonality, polychords, atonality, spatial music, collage, statistical effects—years before musical ‘modernism’ itself was born.
For another paradox, despite his all-embracing philosophy Ives was one of the most critical composers who ever lived. On some days, at least, no music was good enough for him, least of all his own. He suspected music may not even have been born yet. ‘Music is life’, he declared, but he dreamed of a transcendent someday when life would become a kind of music, every man and woman a composer. ‘In the history of this youthful world’, he wrote, ‘the best product that human beings can boast of is probably Beethoven; but, maybe, even his art is as nothing in comparison with the future product of some coal-miner’s soul in the forty-first century.’
To do what he came to see as his bit in the evolution of humanity toward that distant, transcendent glory, Ives started with a high-Romantic symphony quite up to date for the 1890s, and went on to three symphonies that in highly individual ways set out to create the ultimate democratic music, to join the voice of the American people with the great European musical tradition.
If in the end Ives arrived at a singular conception of music, it took him a number of years to get there. All the same, those years of searching and experiment are marked by some splendid and even historic works, among them the Second and Third Symphonies. In his teens, while Ives was fooling with polychords and polytonality, he was also writing songs, marches, church choruses and the like in familiar modes. Already his music ran, as it would for a long time, in two streams: the experimental and the traditional. His middle two symphonies tend toward the latter.
Ives came out of Yale in 1898, already on his way to being that rarest breed of musician: a true symphonist. At that point he knew experiment was going be part of his music, and his efforts in that direction had gained him his first tastes of derisive laughter. He perhaps already suspected that the kind of music he needed to write, whatever that might become, would be beyond the pale for most listeners. So to pay the rent Ives went into the insurance business.
From his youth Ives had been a relentlessly hard worker, able to parcel out his wide-ranging labours efficiently. It was during his first years in New York around the turn of the century—spending his workdays in the office, his Sundays as an organist and choirmaster, his evenings and holidays at the piano—that he finished his Yale homework assignment, the First Symphony, wrote the Second Symphony partly based on older pieces, and brought together three organ works into the Third Symphony.
If it was Ives’s destiny to mediate between American and European elements in his music, the Second Symphony was his first important effort in that direction. Like the First Symphony, the Second is a big late-Romantic work in the spirit of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorvák. But its melodic material is new: quotes and adaptations of American tunes ranging from hymns to college tunes to the sentimental and sprightly songs of Stephen Foster. At the same time, there is an abiding presence of Dvorvák’s ‘New World’ Symphony, and beyond that snippets of other familiar European pieces, their presence sometimes subtle and sometimes startling, like a window quickly opening and closing on another world: bits of Brahms’s First in every movement, hints of Tchaikovsky, Bach and Wagner. Some of these moments are undigested, and Ives was annoyed at them in later years, but they are clearly to the point of uniting the Old World and New.
The Andante moderato first movement is a stately fugue, Bachian in approach but recalling the brooding side of Brahms. The animated middle section suggests Bachian counterpoint, but its source is a fiddle tune called Pigtown Fling. With a jaunty lilt and a Scotch snap, the second movement Allegro molto breaks in, the first theme of this proper sonata form derived from the Civil War song Wake Nicodemus and the gospel hymn Bringing in the Sheaves. The wistfully pretty second theme quotes the Ivy League tune Where, oh where are the pea-green freshmen?. Memorable in the development section are a warm and beautiful reminiscence of When I survey the wondrous cross and a snippet of Brahms’s First Symphony.
The Adagio cantabile third movement is Romantically passionate, the main theme starting with an evocation of the hymn Beulah Land and ending with an earnest peroration on America the Beautiful. The middle section of this ABA form reaches a climax of almost Tchaikovskian passion. The fourth movement’s Lento maestoso amounts to a long introduction to the finale, its material a shortened recall of the opening-movement fugue (revealing the Second, like all the Ives symphonies, as a ‘cyclic’ work, with themes recurring among the movements).
Then Ives applies the spurs: the finale is marked Allegro molto vivace and amounts to a rollicking fiddle tune. The theme is Ives’s, but its underpinning is Foster’s Camptown Races, which finally emerges onto the surface in the horns. Part of the breathless and headlong quality of the finale comes from its quick shifts of direction, like montage in film; an example is the fife-and-drum corps that breaks into the end of the first-theme section (we’re back in sonata form). The gentle second theme evokes Foster’s Old Black Joe. The finale’s coda is a romping Ivesian quodlibet, recalling that old genre in which familiar tunes are stacked up in counterpoint. Here it is a grand brass-band review of themes from the whole symphony that climaxes with the trombones blaring out Columbia, the gem of the ocean at ffff—as loud as possible, if not louder.
Then comes the famous last chord, a yawping tone cluster that Ives added decades after the symphony was finished. It is generally taken as the old Ives thumbing his nose at the conventionalities of the piece, but his explanation makes a quite different point: he noted that at old-time dances fiddlers would often signal the end of the evening with a raking dissonance across the strings. So the end of the Second Symphony is another demonstration of Ives’s love of the concrete realities of everyday music, and their indelible connection to the heart and soul.
The Second Symphony is a kind of joyful revolution, the first work for the concert hall with an unmistakable American voice. But for nearly fifty years it was an unheard revolution: largely finished by 1902, it did not receive its premiere until 1951, by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. And Ives never wrote another piece like it.
The Third Symphony, titled ‘The Camp Meeting’, mostly finished in 1904, looks back to the fervent gospel hymns in the camp meetings of Ives’s youth. Its three compact movements are based on organ pieces he wrote for his organist/choirmaster job at Central Presbyterian in Manhattan. (He left that position in 1902, ending his last formal connection to the musical profession, and for the next twenty years composed largely in isolation before the slow discovery started.)
The first movement, ‘Old Folks Gatherin’’, starts with a swelling introduction depicting that gathering. Then the strings strike up a dancing fugue on O for a thousand tongues. Though traditional sonata form lingers in the background, it is elided and adapted: the second theme flows into the development, which ends in a poignant Adagio cantabile recalling the introduction; the recapitulation is not literal but a further development of O for a thousand tongues.
The second movement, ‘Children’s Day’, is of course Allegro, headlong, and fun. The slightly slower second theme would seem to be the middle part of a tidy ABA form. Instead, Ives develops that material for a while before coming back to a much-changed version of the opening theme, in the ‘wrong’ key. He only arrives back at the home key of E flat in the last measures, which include a cyclic reminiscence of the first-movement introduction.
In the spiritual and impassioned finale, subtitled ‘Communion’, the touches of formal and tonal innovation in the first two movements become a prophecy of Ives’s more advanced music. The movement is chromatic and complexly polyphonic, recalling the improvisations organists play during a communion service. The form is distantly ABA but the effect more through-composed, arriving at an ethereal convocation of the motifs of the symphony led by the old gospel hymn Just as I am that concludes many church services. Over the whispered last chord we hear distant church bells.
The Third Symphony was premiered in 1946 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Ives told the press ‘Prizes are badges of mediocrity’, and hung the citation proudly on his wall. The Pulitzer shows how agreeably the symphony fit into the folk-based ‘Americana’ school that dominated the country’s new music in those days. But for Ives the Third like the Second had been a way station to which he never returned. All the same, these two symphonies are as Ivesian as they can be. Whether the ideas at hand were traditional or revolutionary, Ives could not help being himself.
Ives wrote well over one hundred surviving songs, together amounting to the finest and most varied, deepest, broadest, and sometimes funniest collection of art song by an American composer. Most people familiar with the songs, including Ives himself, have tended to consider General William Booth enters into Heaven the summit of his song-writing.
Ives called it a ‘glory trance’. Arranged for orchestra, chorus, and soloist by a colleague under Ives’s direction, it is a little cantata evoking the frenzied tent revivals that continue in ‘charismatic’ circles to this day. Simultaneously loony and exalted, ‘General Booth’ is also one of the best short demonstrations of what Ives was all about—his incomparable ability to mingle the comic and the spiritual, the concrete and the visionary.
The song sets Vachel Lindsay’s poem that imagines General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, beating a big bass drum as he leads his parade of drunks and floozies into heaven, to the consternation of the angels. A series of brilliantly painted vignettes interspersed with Hallelujahs and wild refrains of ‘Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?’, the song mounts to a manic climax before the appearance of Jesus brings calm to the scene. Then the parade begins again, transformed. At the end, with a few simple chords from an old hymn, Ives captures the miracle. This comic parade, this rabble of thieves and whores, are washed in the blood of the lamb. It is one of the highest moments in Ives and perhaps in all song: the ridiculous transformed into the sublime, in an instant, before our ears. But at the end there is no arrival—because in Ives there never is—only a higher journey, a deeper question. The parade continues on, Booth’s big bass drum fading into the heavens.
Jan Swafford © 2006
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