Movement 1: Prelude: Maestoso
Movement 2: Comedy: Allegretto
Movement 3: Fugue: Andante moderato con moto
Movement 4: Very slowly: Largo maestoso
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,
What the signs of promise are:
Traveller, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that Glory-beaming star!
Watchman, aught of joy or hope?
Traveller yes; it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.
Dost thou see its beauteous ray?
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.
from notes by Jan Swafford © 2006