Charles Ives: Symphony no. 2

performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta or below with Leonard Bernstein and the Bavarian Radio Symphony:
(please note that these parts are not arranged in any relation to the movements, just 15 minute cuts)
We’ve never done Ives before. I’m excited about this one, and although… I have not listened to many of Ives’s other compositions aside from his symphonies 3 and 4, I feel at least in comparison to his fourth, this piece is probably more… approachable. In fact, at this website, which we will be referring to a bit later as well, Scott Mortensen says that this symphony is

the pinnacle of Ives’ success as a respectable composer. By “respectable,” I mean that in this symphony Ives was working within the confines of a clearly defined formal tradition. More broadly speaking, by “respectable” I also mean that this work sounds more acceptable to folks regularly listen to Romantic composers like Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. In fact, people who usually don’t like Three Places in New England–much less the Fourth Symphony–often point to the Second and hold it up as something a bit more palatable–Ives without the cranky eccentricities.

There are certainly modern things about it, but it is also clearly the endeavor of a very talented, well-trained musician, not a gimmick pulled by some enthusiastic music amateur fascinated by Americana. Not that anyone actually said that; there’s just a lot more to this piece than the cameos of some famous folk tunes, though they do certainly hold their places in the piece. This is also not an uncommon concept for Ives, and listening to his symphonies is a warm, comforting kind of affair because of the inherent familiarity they bring to the occasion.
This symphony was written in Ives’s early-to-mid twenties, and it seems he completed it before he was thirty, although it did not enjoy a premiere until fifty years later, some short time before he died. In fact, he could not even be bothered to attend the premiere, performed by Leonard Bernstein (who else?) and the New York Philharmonic. He “had to be dragged by family and friends to a neighbor’s house to listen to the live radio broadcast” says Wikipedia’s article on the piece.
It “was premiered to rapturous applause.” I can see why, but I would be curious to know if this price feels as much like wrapping up in a warm blanket in front of a fire looking at old pictures with family and friends as it does perhaps to a European listener.
The symphony is in an untraditional five movements, although by this time, it is hardly the only symphony to have a fifth movement (Schumann’s Rhenish and Beethoven’s sixth obviously precede it by some years) and an extra movement is hardly the most innovative or modern thing about this piece.
I would suggest, after a few listenings to the piece (to let the frustration of knowing that each phrase is familiar, but not being able to place what it is), have a look at this amazingly useful resource for a detailed presentation of many of the major themes in the piece that I’ll be talking about, as well as a chance to listen to recordings of both the original songs or hymns compared with the passages of the symphony where they appear. It was my most valuable reference in listening to this symphony.
The first movement, Andante moderato, is warm and lush and absolutely delightful, and based on Massa’s in de Cold Ground. This is a less-than-happy opening idea, but it is gorgeous and wonderfully contrapuntal. After about a minute, the dark, rich sounds turn bright and happy with quotes and ideas from Pig Town Fling. It is comforting and delightful, a bit quaint and very pleasant. We are introduced in this first movement alone to many quotes or hints at other hymns, songs or pieces, some among them being:
  • Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean
  • Massa’s in the de Cold Ground
  • Nettleton
  • Pig Town Fling
  • J.S. Bach: Sinfonia in F Minor for keyboard (BWV 795)
  • Brahms: Symphony No. 1
listed from the above website. As stated, unless you are musicologist, Ives biographer or some kind of historian, you probably won’t pick up on these references. That being said, we will talk a bit later about why this is still effective. For example, I feel I am at least somewhat familiar with Brahms’s first symphony (I wrote about it here, although it was one I felt was somewhat rushed), but still can’t quite pick it out in this first movement. Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean is introduced as kind of a background countermelody, but it appears fully-formed in all its glory in the final movement.
The second movement feels more directly Americana and less classically European (or Europeanly classical?), and although the movements are played attaca, the change in mood is very distinct. We begin with another hymn-type tune, this time Wake Nicodemus. I find Ives’s treatment here far more enjoyable than the original tune. The original is almost sluggish and bordering on solemn, while Ives’s strings are bouncy and fresh and have a spring in their step.
The next significant bit is based on Bringing in the Sheaves. Again, this is nothing resembling a full-on ‘word-for-word’ quote, as it were, with some of the rhythms and things changed, but if you are familiar with the original hymn, you see where it came from. It’s in contrast with, but also very related to the opening idea, so the transition is quite smooth.
The second theme in the second movement is possibly one of my favorite of the whole piece, one of those passages I can’t get out of my head. Flutes and oboes begin to sing a line based on Where, O Where are the Verdant Freshmen and it is just …. perfectly beautiful. This is one of the most charming, moving passages of music, I feel. It’s just splendid.
In the development of the second movement, other songs/hymns like Hamburg and Naomi make appearances (or so I’m told), and while I can’t really identify how they’re all related, they intertwine with the earlier material before the coda to round out quite a fulfilling second movement. And there’s three more to go.
The third movement is more truly the slow movement. It is marked Adagio cantabile, and we get gorgeous hints at America the Beautiful in this movement. It is more subdued, more fully hymnal and peaceful than its predecessor. It’s a bit more polite. I read that Beulah Land also makes an appearance in this movement. While it is more mannerly, it still swells with emotion and builds to a satisfying climax before becoming endearingly lyrical and beautiful again before fading away quietly.
The fourth movement, rather an interlude, is only a few minutes long, and returns to the general feel (as well as restatement of the content) of the first movement: highly contrapuntal with rich strings, with the addition of some things, like a pizzicato heartbeat.
The fourth movement is over, and again, the change in expression is stark. The fifth movement begins playfully and lightly and is almost a classical arrangement of Camptown Races, but begins to sound more American and/or patriotic with the presence of the brass and flute with side drum in references to Turkey in the Straw and Pig Town Fling again. I would never be able to pick these out myself, as they are not ALL straightforward appearances. As with Columbia earlier, some of them are countermelodies hidden in one section of instruments, as is the case here, even on the offbeats, so had it not been for resources like I mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to pick these out. Doing so, though, in this bit of research, makes you realize what Ives has done in this symphony and how intricate it all is.
This movement is also chock full of musical allusions.
The last bit in this symphony is perhaps the most exciting. After more direct references to Long, Long Ago and yet another appearance of Massa’s in de Cold Ground,  we finally get a 100% direct quote of something. The bugle call Reveille signals the entrance of Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean again, but this time in all its glory, if only for a few bars. It almost makes you want to say “I knew it all along!” and it’s so fulfilling to hear it. It gives me chills every time.
What are the effects that Ives is playing with here? Again, it’s almost like looking through a photo album of things you only vaguely remember, perhaps of your early childhood, looking back at them as if recalling a dream. Ives’s talent at the hide-and-seek of revealing and concealing such familiar passages (even if people don’t know these songs or hymns actually have names!) is impeccable, but it’s just enough to keep the listener interested, at least nowadays when listeners are far less likely to be as familiar with the material as they would have been nearly 100 years ago when Ives wrote this piece.
It makes me think of Hitchcock’s talent for filming horror or suspense films: you must reveal enough to keep the viewer interested, but not so much that it takes the suspense and imagination out of it. Even if we can’t pick out Bach’s sinfonia or Brahms’s symphony, is there still something familiar about it? Do we still feel some preconceived emotion toward it? If so, on the shallowest of levels, perhaps it is a gimmick, using material that people already have some affinity for. On the other hand, it is so tactful and well-placed that most people (again, at least in today’s world) couldn’t say “Hey, that’s from [some hymn or other]!” It’s also not actually stealing or quoting long passages of music. This thematic material is used to form the tapestry of the entire symphony, again, like a warm blanket, comfortable, familiar, relaxing, but at the same time, new and inventive and brilliantly crafted. Themes and ideas come and go so fast in this piece that if you aren’t really paying attention, you’ll miss most of them. I was unfortunately unable to get my hands on the score, but even that wouldn’t have been as useful as this site I mentioned earlier, so check it out. Again, after listening to Ives’s other (later) symphonies, 3 and 4, I feel that this one presents Ives’s tradition of ‘borrowing’ thematic material, but without the challenges of aleatoric elements and polytonality and polyrhythms requiring multiple conductors, etc. so it may be a much more ‘approachable’ symphony for someone looking to see what this man is all about.
All that being said, even if you understand nothing of the piece or its history, it is still a fabulously endearing piece of music, one to cozy up near a fire with and play cards or sip a toasty beverage. Enjoy.
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