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A breathtakingly beautiful recording of American modernist Charles Ives' choral music by the accomplished St Olaf Choir, which, since its founding in 1912, has set a standard in the choral art, serving as a model for choirs of all levels.
A New Englander, born in Connecticut in 1874, Ives was a young aspiring composer by the time MacDowell had moved to Boston to establish himself back in America. But unlike MacDowell or Ives’ distinguished and influential professor at Yale, Horatio Parker—and indeed many other American composers after them—Ives chose not go to Germany or France for his primary musical training. Nor was he ever overwhelmed with the achievement of Wagner or Mahler, as were so many other composers of his youth. Ives’ musical training was entirely American, in the Protestant spirit of William Billings and the marching bands that proliferated in the late 19th century: it began at home with his mother, who was a prominent local choral singer, and his bandmaster father, George Ives.
Like his 18th century shape-note forebears, George Ives was largely self-taught. He had studied Bach and some counterpoint and given his son a firm grounding in music. Their relationship continued up until his death when Charles was a student at Yale, an event which deeply affected him. In his later years he remembered his father’s tuition: “…he thought that man as a rule didn’t use the faculties that the Creator had given him hard enough…he would have us sing a tune in E flat, but play the accompaniment in C…he made us stick to the end, and not stop when it got hard.” These and other glimpses into his childhood give an insight into the individuality of his talent, as does a disagreement Ives had with Horatio Parker. Parker had commented on one of Ives’ Psalm settings, on a certain unacceptably unresolved 9th chord. When Ives complained about the unreasonableness of this to his father, he replied, “Tell Parker that every dissonance doesn’t have to resolve if it doesn’t happen to feel like it, any more than every horse should have to have its tail bobbed just because it’s the prevailing fashion.”
The Celestial Country was composed sometime before 1900, probably when Ives was organist at the fashionable First Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield, New Jersey, just over the Hudson River from New York. The choir he wrote for would have been very much the same as in his native Danbury, Connecticut, the sort in which his mother sang. The optimism of the (portion of Bernard of Cluny’s Hora Novissima) text he chose to set was well in keeping with his Emersonian upbringing. The first performance a few years later (in April 1902)—exactly 100 years from the date of this recording—was in New York at Central Presbyterian Church. Longer than his psalms, it is in many ways a culmination of his creative activity over the previous ten years. And it was to mark the end of a decade of Ives’ various positions as a church musician.
The origins of The Celestial Country were by no means accidental. Just at the time Ives enrolled at Yale, Horatio Parker, who had himself just returned from study in Munich with Joseph Rheinberger, received a commission to write an oratorio for the New York Choral Society. It was he who had chosen the medieval text of Cluny’s long poem and created Hora Novissima, the largest orchestral/choral piece achieved by an American at that time. Ives was clearly impressed, but in his own strong, independent way addressed his own thoughts, as if to back Parker, by using different portions of the same poem and translating them into English. His oratorio, while scored only for strings and organ (taking the wind parts, with added trumpet, euphonium and timpani), follows Parker’s scheme, with choruses, soli, an a cappella chorus and instrumental interludes. But there are distinctive differences, including plenty of unresolved dissonances and false relations especially in the organ/cello entr’acts. Parker’s work was grand and Victorian, while Ives’, though indulging in the finale with as much Wagner as he would ever display, strives for a modern, more streamlined expression. A new century, a new world was at hand.
Viewed from the perspective of the instrumental works to follow, The Celestial Country is conservative Ives. But it can also be seen as a milestone of how far music in America had progressed from the shape-note hymns of only a century before. And again, though tame in the light of what was to follow, it is rebellious by comparison to the heavy German romanticism of his teacher and the expectations of the world surrounding him (Mahler was very shortly to arrive in New York). Hearing the St Olaf Choir perform this oratorio is not only fresh and thrilling, but an exercise in the best kind of authenticity. For this choir, itself nearly a century old, was founded in this same period by a Norwegian choirmaster who had also studied in Germany. But like Ives, the choir’s mission has been in a new world. Over the past century, this “symphonic” ensemble has maintained its heritage within the romantic tradition though its youthfulness as well as its unblemished technique seems wholly symbiotic with all the energy of Ives at the age of 25.
The first decade of the 20th century saw Ives’ most “classic” works such as The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark, the latter of which has been described as an anti-symphony. These bold experiments in the clash of tonality and atonality in unsynchronised, calculated chaos, gave way to a later Ives quite unlike the early romantic Ives or the dissonant iconoclast in the early years of the century. It is to this third period of Ives’ creative life that Silence Accompanied belongs. By the end of the Great War in 1918, the loss of America’s idealism, along with the intellectual elite to which it belonged, seemed codified for Ives in the collapse of support for Wilson’s League of Nations. (President Wilson’s pedigree had included the presidency of Princeton University as well as the governorship of New Jersey.) It was a new era. Ives composed a song “An Election” in the fury of Wilson’s defeat. Soon after, he reached the end of his creative life as a composer—his pen remained dry for the last 30 years of his life. Ironically, it was precisely in this period that major conductors like Slonimsky and composers like Copland, Cowell and Elliott Carter began to champion his work.
It was also during this period that, in idle moments at his insurance firm, Ives began to take stock of his work. Between 1919-21 he collected his songs and assembled them into a collection which he published privately the following year. In the immediately subsequent years he began to plan sets, or mini song-cycles, jotting down his ideas on office notepads along with ideas for orchestrating songs in between business appointments. It is in this spirit that I assembled Silence Accompanied. The title comes from a line of the Milton text of the song “Evening” and seems to express what this final period of Ives’ composition was about. More Debussy than anything Germanic, it experiments with stillness and the microcosmic events that stir it, quite often in the voice of tiny distant bells. The orchestrations are from indications by Ives or implied from similar examples.
The cycle opens and closes with two works at the beginning of this later phase: an “Adagio” for strings, piano and bells (before 1912) and “Mists” (1910) with a text by his wife (composed for her mother’s funeral). Two other works, the “Hymn” (1904) and “A Christmas Carol” (December 1894), refer back to find this reflective tendency already latent in the early and middle periods while “The Collection” (rev 1920) is an example of a revised earlier work—probably from an anthem now lost. The other works illustrate a different musical potential: in “Evening” (1921) a sparseness of setting, static harmony thinly spread, with tiny motivic events; in “Afterglow” (1919) the incredible contrast of very dense chromatic blocks, not bombastically portrayed as in other piano works, but as whispers, distant rays of light. In a pair of songs (rev 1921) portraying Christian faith and stoic pessimism, “Duty” produces “a sudden eruption of energy” which repeats to a limpid apathy in “Vita”. “Sunrise” (1926) is Ives’ last work, still impressionist, but through-composed leading to a musical language left to be fulfilled by those following him, like Samuel Barber.
It is hard to assess the contribution Ives made as a composer. He remained all of his active compositional life as an incredible musical imagination withdrawn from the mainstream of music-making. From his acetic distance he dropped in the musical blasphemies (increasing to occasional bombshells) that were to unlock doors for so many composers after him. Yet, in many ways, his life remained a mystery. As a very successful and generous businessman, he had in his spare hours the luxury and courage to make his own musical explorations unfettered. But his isolation, even if self-inflicted, must have contributed to his loss of musical stamina. It was shortly after completing “Sunrise” that his wife remembered: “He came downstairs one day with tears in his eyes and said he couldn’t compose any more—nothing went well—nothing sounded right.” For the last 28 years of his life he revised and completed works only. In 1956, two years after his death, his wife gave all his manuscripts, mostly unpublished, to the Yale School of Music. It was only then that the whole scope of his creative life about which he had remained so private, became visible.
In 1902, when Ives left his post at Central Presbyterian Church in New York, he left the life of public music and crossed willingly into a land of the musical unknown for the rest of his compositional life. His alienation was a different sort than Arnold Schoenberg’s as the central figure of atonality, for his sense of dissonance hadn’t arisen from the unravelling of Wagner. Ives had rejected European craftsmanship with Parker: he was an inventor in music and not a trained specialist. Like his older contemporary, Thomas Edison, equally an icon of American individualism, his work involved testing and making things from his own atelier, driven by the power of insatiable curiosity and his ruthlessly confident mind.
Malcolm Bruno © 2003