performed by the Eastman Rochester Orchestra under Howard Hanson, or below by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the late Sir Neville Marriner, who died exactly a year ago today (15 April 1924 – 2 October 2016)
With the exception of the early and uncharacteristic first symphony, the symphonies of Charles Ives occupy a vital historical place in the establishment of an American symphonic tradition.
Butterworth p. 44
Prizes are for boys and I’m all grown up.
Charles Ives, on giving away the $25,000 cash prize on being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his third symphony
(cover image by Joshua Newton)
Charles Edward Ives was born on October 20, 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut, son of a U.S. Army bandleader in the Civil War. He was exposed to a wide variety of musical influences, from hearing marching bands in Danbury town square, to his father’s musical education, which encouraged him to experiment with bitonality and polytonality.
He became church organist at the age of 14, captained a baseball team at the Hopkins School in New Haven, where he enrolled in 1893, and entered Yale the following year. He initially studied under Horatio Parker (from yesterday), under whose tutelage Wikipedia says “he composed in a choral style similar to his mentor.” He also played on the varsity football team, and was apparently an excellent athlete. Ives’s first symphony was his senior thesis while studying under Parker.
He was famously an insurance salesman after having graduated from Yale, continuing as organist until 1902. I won’t go into detail here about all the things Ives did throughout his career, his innovations, periods of inspiration or difficulty, his own thoughts on hearing his music, his personality, health problems, etc., because I cannot do them justice, but he is a quintessential American figure, and while we discussed a piece of his years ago, I hadn’t given any biographical information on him, so there you are.
I recall first hearing Ives’s second symphony and being stunned at how it was both symphonic and yet colloquial, a patchwork quilt of nostalgic American tunes, in some cases only referred to, like memories that flutter by before you can apprehend them and reminisce for a moment.
His third is similar, but in a softer way. It’s shorter, and in only three movements, and there’s no Bronx cheer anywhere. In fact, these three movements, like the symphony overall, have subtitles, as follows:
- Old Folks Gatherin’
- Children’s Day
It was completed in 1904, but not published until almost half a century later, in 1947, apparently with help from Lou Harrison, who also premiered the work on April 5, 1946.
As with the second, there’s a long list of tunes that appear, or are referenced, in this work, or are said to. I’ll mention them below, but I’ll be honest in saying I’m quoting them from other sources, because not only may I not be familiar with these tunes, if I am, I often don’t know what they’re called.
We’ll get to them with their respective movements, but I want to mention something else with regard to Ives’s penchant for quotes and folk music in connection with what I sort of titled this series, “America’s Next Top Mahler.” In some ways, Charles Ives is America’s Mahler. He didn’t write that many symphonies, nor are they that long, or anything like that, but at least in one respect, he is America’s Mahler. I’m referring to the the composers’ interest in referring to colloquial tunes, bits of history, ‘vulgar’ music, like the klezmer tune found in Mahler’s first symphony, or any of the Ländlers. Of course, these two composers weren’t the only ones in history to do that; we’ll see more, but it was enough that it caught the interest of Mahler himself. Neil Butterworth, in his book The American Symphony, to which I will continue to refer, says:
In 1911 Gustav Mahler expressed an interest in conducting Ives’ third symphony but Mahler’s death later that year prevented a performance and the score was lost.
That’s from page 40.
Someone named Uncle Dave Lewis describes at AllMusic the first movement as “a patchwork of hymn tunes drifting through an unpredictable, constantly changing harmonic orientation.” Something you may notice about this symphony, that I surely did, is that the music doesn’t seem to abide strictly by individual movements. There are passages and beginnings and ends beyond the two delineations of new movements, and listening to it, it sounds like one cohesive whole rather than separate movements.
This overall structure is given credence not just in the overall fluidity of the piece, but by some of its shared material. The second movement, Children’s Day, is the most playful by far, while the third is the darkest, but shares some material with the first movement. Essentially then, we have the central movement bookended by two slightly more serious movements, although in rather different atmospheres.
The opening is all strings, a cozy, familiar sound, like the smell of your grandparents’ living room or something. It’s not difficult to hear the hymnal foundation of this music. It’s made of simple but beautiful harmonies, and brass and other instruments enter almost imperceptibly into the orchestral fabric. As the music builds, it gets more lively and reaches a climax before a slightly lighter passage begins. Even among the contrasts in this first movement, there’s always a sense of warmth, smoothness, connectedness, all the while remaining very folksy and American. “Uncle Dave” lists “the hymn tunes Azmon, Erie (that is, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”), and Woodworth (“Just As I Am”)” as appearing in the first movement.
The second movement, Children’s Day, picks up on the playfulness only hinted at in a very few passages of the first movement. There was a flute solo, an oboe solo, and just a few sparks of something more rhythmic, but here we get it in full. There’s an almost operatic classicalness here, with a quiet pulse behind the melody that opens this livelier middle movement, and Haydn certain comes to mind. For the borrowed material in this movement, Uncle Dave mentions “”There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “Happy Land,” “Naomi,” and “There’s Music in the Air” all are heard, although one could swear “Aloha Oe” is also peeking through the texture. ”
After this very classical, dramatic-sounding passage, there’s yet another pause, and woodwinds enter with a melody of childlike simplicity and charm, to which the strings answer from afar. This movement is by far the most outwardly charming. With its bounce and upbeat spirit, it serves the purpose, maybe, of a scherzo or minuet, although it really isn’t at all; it’s just the livelier central movement of the three, and I love it. It’s quaint, with plenty of humor and charm, but of musical integrity and some weight. The movement quiets down the way a day slowly but surely comes to its peaceful end.
In this symphony of three movements of near-equal length, the finale begins in much the same warm, hymnal way as the first. Uncle Dave says that it “has its roots in a communion piece originally scored for unison chorus, organ, and strings,” hence the title of the third movement. While it isn’t as comforting as the first, darker in nature, there’s clear connection to the first movement, which Uncle Dave mentions by name, “Azmon” and “Woodworth,” giving this short 21-ish minute symphony a cohesiveness that makes the piece feel quite compact.
When I say ‘dark’, I don’t mean ominous or foreboding. The music is certainly more somber, though, with less glimmer of hope and beauty, a little bit somber, and a solo cello appears in the last few bars of the work, closing it out delicately, as if having turned the last page of a photo album, we turn once more and fold the book closed pensively.
It’s a work of wonderful delicacy and charm, certainly very different from most of the other works we’ll be discussing, but also wholly, iconically American in a way, even if it is somewhat different in its symphonic form. It’s just a lovely piece.
Later in the week, we move on to two entirely different but also equally American symphonies, and the three pieces for this week, this one and those two, would make a wonderful little snapshot of the diversity and beauty of American concert music, so please do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.