Allegro, con molto [11'35]
Adagio molto, sostenuto [8'29]
Scherzo: Vivace [4'16]
Allegro molto [12'50]
Comedy: Allegretto [10'52]
Central Park in the Dark [9'46]
Together with its companion CDA67525, 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.
Captured live during concerts in Dallas, the recorded sound is every bit worthy of these epic works.
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.
The two symphonies on this disc are as good a representation as one could find of the absolute poles of Charles Ives’s music, from the most conventional to the most visionary. The First Symphony in D minor was begun around 1898, when Ives was a student at Yale, and finished perhaps as late as 1901. The composition of the monumental Fourth Symphony stretched from around 1910 into the 1920s, but it integrates a fugal movement written at Yale.
Ives always presented the First Symphony as a glorified homework assignment, done under duress as a senior thesis, of necessity written in late-Romantic style with heavy contributions of Brahms, Dvorák, and Tchaikovsky, its composition involving a steady struggle with Professor Horatio Parker, who was scandalized by the profuse modulations. Once in a while, though, Ives admitted a grudging affection for the piece.
It is true that few people who don’t know it would ever guess that this symphony is by Charles Ives. It seems a product of some 1890s European, or an American imitator. In fact, Ives was enormously gifted at imitating a range of styles, whether a Victorian parlour song or a German lied or a take-off of Debussy. Games with styles would be an important feature of his music. Here, he hits late Romanticism spot-on. And in the end, as usual, Ives imbues this work with a powerful personality. The First Symphony is tuneful, rousing, funny, sometimes spine-chilling. For all its rampant (and rambling) eclecticism it is one of the most entertaining and individual symphonies in the American repertoire.
It begins with a pulsing string figure over which a clarinet sings a wistful theme that Dvorák might have admired. In the background lurks a certain Romantic fatalism that will come and go in the movement until it boils over in the coda. The development section begins with a remarkable stroke: a quiet, haunting, endlessly rising chord sequence decorated with wisps of melody. Ives would not forget those chords; they turn up again in his valedictory Psalm 90.
After a second movement based on a Dvorákian quasi-spiritual for cor anglais comes a nimble and delightful canonic scherzo, which in scoring and execution can only be called masterful. The finale is entirely of the ‘banish care’ variety, filled with romping themes and vigorous march rhythms until it ends brassily with one of Ives’s grand parades of themes from the whole symphony.
The Fourth Symphony began to take shape only about a decade after the First, in the white heat of Ives’s full maturity. That maturity began around 1908 with his marriage to Harmony Twichell, who encouraged and inspired him as no one had since his father. At first the Fourth Symphony seems to have been part of a collection of ideas that finally separated out between this work, which we might call an epic ‘earthly’ journey, and the never-finished Universe Symphony, which was to be a ‘cosmic’ journey. Ives said relatively little about the Fourth, but what he did say (through an intermediary) conveys much: ‘The aesthetic program of the work is … the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life. This is particularly the sense of the prelude. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies.’ This is a work about ultimate questions, then, and the most far-reaching of quests.
The first movement is short and introductory, but it sets up all the essential elements: first a heroic, surging, questing bass proclamation answered by searing strings, then in the distance a group of harp and strings (offstage or in a balcony) answers with a gentle, lyrical gesture based on Nearer, My God, to Thee. This opening foreshadows the battle between march and hymn in the second movement, and meanwhile echoes the traditional ‘heroic’ and ‘lyrical’ themes of symphonic first movements. A chorus enters singing a hymn:
Watchman, tell us of the night,
Here the music introduces the protagonist of the symphony—the Traveller, the Pilgrim—and points to his destination, the glory-beaming star of the spirit.
The first answer that existence provides is what Ives calls the ‘Comedy’, standing in for the traditional symphonic scherzo. A kind of pandemonic battle in the form of contending hymns and marches, the Comedy is at once an evocation of the roiling modern cityscape Ives knew in Manhattan (which he called ‘Hell Hole’ and ‘Babylon’, not without affection), and a retelling of Hawthorne’s cosmi-comic Bunyanesque story The Celestial Railroad, in which an impressively modern if clearly demonic railroad company is selling trips to the Celestial City in outstanding comfort, the passengers invited to laugh at the pilgrims struggling through the swamps along the route. After a charming stopover in Vanity Fair, the passengers catastrophically miss their connection. Ives’s realization of the story is breathtaking and sui generis, a rip-roaring ride through masses of sound tumbling and crashing in air. At the end comes a gigantic eruption in six or seven keys of Yankee Doodle. On first acquaintance the Comedy is apt to leave you unsure whether to clutch your sides laughing or run for your life, or some combination of the two.
Ives was at heart a religious composer, no less in his uproarious moments than in his gentle ones. The third movement, based on a fugal movement for string quartet written at Yale, is set in the quiet of a New England church. He described its part in the symphony’s programme as ‘an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism’—that applying both to the music and to organized religion. Based on the hymn From Greenland’s icy mountains, it is a beautiful and finally soaring movement with an eloquent C major simplicity, as far from the Comedy as one could imagine. But like Vanity Fair, the church is not the destination this Pilgrim seeks.
The finale begins with a quiet patter of percussion that will continue throughout behind the music, perhaps suggesting the pulse of the universe. Then comes a distant recall of the symphony’s opening bass line, now not heroic but hushed and searching. From there one of the most mystical movements in any work gathers in a growing stream of murmuring and singing voices, near and far away. The colours and textures are diaphanous, the gestures elusive. Yet one realizes that this teeming host is somehow moving in the same direction, on myriad paths. Over and over, woven into the texture, is the opening phrase of the hymn Bethany: ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’. In those words we find the meaning of the symphony, intimated from its first moments.
A downstriding bass line begins and the music mounts in a slow wave to an ecstatic climax that subsides until it coalesces, as if out of mist, onto an old harmonic figure of the kind that introduces a hymn. Then the coda and arrival: a chorus wordlessly singing the whole of ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’, which has been the secret theme and destination of the Fourth Symphony from the beginning. The hymn emerges like a revelation, like an innate spirit that has been with us all along, making itself manifest after a long journey. At the end the music seems to evanesce out of hearing, into the stars, still searching. The journey is not over, but we are Nearer.
There are far-reaching philosophies in this music. Ives intended the Fourth Symphony as a work of universal religion, rising out of his own Protestantism but reaching far beyond it. In impassioned lines he once imagined music becoming ‘a late revelation of all gospels in one … A conception unlimited by the narrow names of Christian, Pagan, Jew or Angel! A vision higher and deeper than art itself!’ Ives never expected to reach that revelation, or humanity to reach it for aeons, but he believed with all his heart that we would get there someday, and that music—his music, all true music—would be a fundamental part of that great journey. Like few other works, the Fourth Symphony speaks to our highest selves, and leaves us looking upward and beyond.
In 1902 Charles Ives resigned from his last organist–choirmaster job and thereby, as he put it, ‘quit music’. After that divorce from an audience, his experimental side burgeoned. Two small but important companion works from 1906 show his gathering focus and direction: The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark. For the first time in history, these works create an aural collage by superimposing different kinds of music.
Ives wrote that Central Park in the Dark is ‘a picture-in-sound of the sounds of nature and the happenings that man would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air) when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night’. The ambience of the trees in New York’s Central Park is evoked in a mysterious, unchanging wash of strings, playing a series of atonal chords built on a pattern of expanding intervals. Bit by bit we begin to hear events around the park, conveyed by solo violin, two pianos, and a small group of winds and brass: vague rustlings, ragtime from a bar across the way (featuring a hit tune from the 1890s, Hello, Ma Baby). While the background remains unchanged and unperturbed, the external sounds swell in volume and activity to an Ivesian poly-everything climax conveying a runaway horse and carriage crashing into a fence.
After these human and animal interruptions the music fades back to the eternal hum of nature. Central Park is a prime example of Ivesian impressionism: not the external wind-and-sea Impressionism of Debussy, rather the impression of a moment or an event on the heart and soul of a listener.
Jan Swafford © 2006
Other albums in this series