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Saturday, December 13, 2014

December 13-14, 2014: Andrea Grenadier’s Guest Post on Charles Ives

[Andrea Grenadier is a writer/editor based in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a 1978 graduate of Mary Washington College with a B.A. in American Studies, focusing on music, fine arts, and history. She completed her first (self-published) novel, The Journal of My Plague Year in 2005, and has published several poems in Pennsylvania English. She is currently preparing her first chapbook, What Brings Me Here, and can be reached at]

O, Pioneer!: Charles Ives and the “Concord” Sonata

In a 20th century full of cranky, iconoclastic American composers, the musical pioneer Charles Ives would still hover among the top five, perhaps with a bullet. He was also, most certainly, the only American composer who had a highly successful career in insurance.

There is music, and there is music so far ahead of its time, it will always sound modern. You could pick up Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” — composed from 1909 to 1915 and published in 1920 — drop it into the vast contemporary music ocean, and be unable to guess its age. It’s that strange and that rhythmically complex, with abrupt polyrhythms and general mayhem invoking marching bands, parlor tunes, hymns, and chasing through it all in a variety of guises, the four-note motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which forever obsessed Ives. It’s also wildly entertaining, surprising at every kaleidoscopic turn, wistful, affectionately dreamy of times past, and powerfully evocative. To Ives, it also felt unfinished, perhaps on purpose.  

Why this particular piece has always stayed with me is a mystery, 40 years after hearing it for the first time in a Fine Arts seminar at Mary Washington College. In 1974, the year of Ives’ centenary, a full-scale re-examination of his life and works was well underway. Despite having won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947 for his Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, Ives’ music was largely ignored in his lifetime. I must have heard John Kirkpatrick’s 1968 recording for Columbia in the music library. (Kirkpatrick premiered the work in 1939.) The view from the music library was particularly poetic; you either looked onto some majestic trees toward the amphitheater, or if you were sitting on the other side of the building, you became part of an elegant colonnade in the shape of a horseshoe. If you walked through those columns past all the practice rooms on any given afternoon, you’d hear a perfect mash-up of the history of music. That’s what hearing Ives was like.

Ives, who lived from 1874 to 1954, spanned 80 remarkable years in music. Ives’ father George was a bandleader, and it is said (although this may have been just a charming story to entertain students), that the experience of hearing the marching band — as well as another band at opposite sides of the town square playing simultaneously — must have entered Charles Ives’ work almost the same way: opposing rhythms and harmonics heard as through a window as the sounds rise and fade, the bands having moved on. In his teaching, George Ives’ broad approach to music theory must have encouraged his son to experiment with the polytonal/bitonal harmonies and complex rhythms found in his music, as well as a cultivated-meets-vernacular approach. In the 1890s, he studied composition at Yale University, under Horatio Parker.

The “Concord” Sonata is a devil of a piece to play. Some material dates back as far as 1904, but Ives did not begin substantial work on it until around 1911, and largely completed the work by 1915. When it was first printed in 1920, Ives wrote an elaborate, 30,000-word “program note” in which he explained that the four-movement sonata was an “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago.” It introduces us, in order, to Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. E.B. White had a fine phrase that characterizes the sheer restlessness of the piece: “chronic perplexity.” This unsettled and searching quality defies rootedness, except in its contemplative-rich Alcott movement, with a haunting flute solo.

When the polymathic pianist-librettist-essayist Jeremy Denk recorded Ives’ Sonatas No. 1 and 2 in 2012, I was once again drawn to Ives. In the February 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, Denk describes in “Flight of the Concord” the joys, the hell, and the unending neuroses of recording the sonata, while also discovering that the editing could be the most nerve-wracking part of the process. It’s a fine read, especially if you like the idea of knowing how musical sausage is made, from 
selecting the piano and recording to the editing suite.

To know the first movement “Emerson,” is to dwell in the philosopher’s Transcendentalism. It begins with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 four-note motif, and expresses Emerson’s core beliefs with impressionistic waves of sound. I have always found much restless conflict in this movement, perhaps much like Emerson’s philosophy itself. It dances from sweetness to passionate outbursts, like a philosophical Q&A session with the universe. Emerson’s belief that “all is connected, and God is in all things,” reflected his idea that all of nature’s elements in the universe were   representations of the soul itself.  These may not sound like radical ideas now, but when expressed in 1841, they made 
Emerson an iconoclast — something that Ives must have viscerally understood.

The next movement, “Hawthorne,” is best described as rollicking and playful, with fantastical outbursts. Hawthorne-as-moralist is not to be found in this often-witty movement; in “Essays Before a Sonata,” Ives writes: “The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical —so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they—but a greater artist.”  Listen closely, and in the middle of the movement, you’ll find some syncopated ragtime, some well-placed musical pauses, and some crashing dissonant chords. You’ll also hear one of Ives’ more eccentric technical directions, when a 14-3/4-inch piece of wood (it’s in the score) is evenly deployed over the black keys — decades before John Cage and his “prepared piano” experiments.

“The Alcotts” movement begins with a hymn-like treatment of Beethoven’s four-note motif. You can almost hear them in the parlor as if in conversation: a gentle statement, the crashing motif in response. There’s gentle interplay of themes into the fabric with wholehearted simplicity, a folk tune and a pentatonic melody. Stephen Foster is also here, sentimental and romantic.

The final movement is Thoreau’s, which Henry Cowell called “a kind of mystic reflection on man’s identification of himself with nature.” “Thoreau” is an autumn day of Indian summer at Walden Pond, and memorializes not only Thoreau, but Ives’ father as well, who died before Ives entered Yale in 1894. About Thoreau, Ives wrote: “He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude…” Tellingly, Ives also compares Thoreau to the musical impressionist Claude Debussy. Considering the profound influence the father had upon the son’s own musical experimentation, the movement is restless and meditative, the offstage flute toward the final third weaves the four-note motif, calling in a pentatonic melody against gentle chords. It is a tribute to nature, to beauty, and to loss.

In searching for a suitable recording, you won’t be at a loss — there are 23 versions listed here at A new and notable biography of Ives, Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel by Stephen Budiansky is a recent addition to the growing Ives bookshelf.  On my own shelf is one of the earliest and finest academic assessments, by composer Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music, published in 1955.
[Next series starts Monday,
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