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Charles Ives

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Symphony No. 4 - facsimile edition score
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Charles Ives Symphony No. 4 - facsimile edition score

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The music of Charles Ives is a reflection of nineteenth-century America. That statement sounds like one of those little truisms that fill music histories, but in this case it has a very literal sense. Charles Ives knew the many different kinds of music that were played in New England when he was growing up — the symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms, marches played by the band on the village green, hymn tunes, minstrel show numbers, revival meeting Gospel songs, sentimental parlor ballads, and the songs of the musical theatre. All of this music can be found in his own, not simply quoted and certainly not plagiarized, but transmuted into something peculiarly Ivesian. For to Charles Ives, the various categories of music were not pigeonholes whose purpose was to separate one kind of music from another. Rather, the world itself could be heard as music. Ives recalled his father's attempts to notate the chords he heard in thunderclaps, and he wrote once, "Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute, but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear 'the Symphony'." The composer's goal was to find the authentic and the true in human experience and express it musically. This did not necessarily result in what Ives witheringly called "nice" music, the music composed by and for "old ladies of both sexes."

He sought "substance," which he prized far more than "manner." "Manner," to Ives, was roughly equivalent to "technique," that which can be learned and polished and finished academically, something that can be "right" or "wrong." But "substance" was more mysterious and indescribable; it "suggests the body of a conviction which has its birth in the spiritual consciousness, whose youth is nourished in the moral consciousness, and whose maturity as a result of all this growth is then represented in a mental image."

Ives had formal training as a composer at Yale, with Horatio Parker, then one of the leading composers of the big oratorio style (his best-known work, Hora novissima, was, of all large American choral works, the most widely played here and in Europe) — in short, a master of "manner." But Parker was quite unable to take Ives's most original work seriously. Fugues with each voice entering in a different key only earned an indulgent chuckle from Parker, and a crack about "not hogging all the keys at once."

But long before going to Yale Ives had already received the most fundamental musical training from his father, George E. Ives, whose independent mind and musical curiosity were legendary. George Ives led the town band, but his curiousity ranged far beyond the normal musical experience of one in such a position.
Father had a kind of natural interest in sounds of every kind, everywhere, known or unknown, measured "as such" or not, and this led him into positions or situations…that made some of the townspeople call him a crank whenever he appeared in public with some of his contraptions.
This extraordinary father, who encouraged young Charles to open his ears and his mind, to listen to everything in the world around him, made possible the kind of music that Charles Ives eventually composed, music that came from him like entries in dairy, reactions to everything that happened in his world.

Ives realized early on that there was no market for the kind of music he wanted to write, yet he refused to compromise his artistic goals for financial success. In order to make a living, he decided to be a businessman, keeping the musical side of himself entirely separate from the everyday side. In fact, Ives was one of the great innovators in the felid of life insurance and made his mark in that line surely as he did in music. He began with the Mutual Life Insurance Company and by 1899 had met his business partner and lifelong friend Julian S. Myrick. The firm of Ives & Myrick produced a symbiotic relationship that suited both men ideally — Ives the writer-philosopher, Myrick the administrator of day-to-day office work. At the same time, Ives held down a job as organist-choirmaster at the Central Presbyterian church, went to night school to learn some law, and pitched on his agency's baseball team.

Somehow he found time to compose during those hectic years. Virtually all of his creative work was completed by the time he suffered a crippling heart attack in October 1918. Much of the rest of his long life was spent quietly in West Redding, Connecticut, publishing some of his music at his own expense and giving copies to anymore who expressed an interest in it. He waited decades to hear performances of his larger works, but before he died, he had the satisfaction of knowing that the world had, to some degree, caught up with his original musical mind — only about half-a-century late.

Like so many of Ives's works, the Fourth Symphony was composed over a number of years, and every time Ives went over it, he changed some details here and there. Much of the symphony grew from reworkings of older compositions, some of them going back to his boyhood. The first movement is derived from the First Violin Sonata (ca. 1906), the second from several sources, including the "Hawthorne" movement of the Concord Sonata (1911). The third movement grows largely out of his First String Quartet (1896), and the finale makes use of a lost "Memorial Slow March" that he had composed for the organ in 1901. In fact, all told, the symphony contains parts of some fourteen other Ives compositions, all integrated into a grand synthesis of Ives's artistic and philosophical ideas. He summarized the symphony this way:
The aesthetic program of this work is that of the searching questions of "What?" and "Why?" which the spirit of man asks of life. This is particularly the sense of the Prelude. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies.
Ives cast the first movement in two layers of sound — one near, one distant. The first comprises the main part of the orchestra, plus piano and voices; the distant choir is an ethereal ensemble of strings and harp, playing mostly slow and sustained music. The chorus intones a familiar hymn:
Watchman, tell us of the night,
What the signs of promise are;
Traveler, o'er yon mountain's height,
See that Glory-beaming star!
Watchman, aught of joy or hope?
Traveler, yes; it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.
Dost thou see its beauteous ray?
This sets the "questions" of which Ives wrote; the following three movements are three very different responses.

The first (Allegretto) is completely worldly. The pilgrim's hymns are jostled, crowded, and drowned out by a welter of competing turns, in many tempos and keys. Ives called this movement
a comedy — in which an exciting, easy and worldly progress through life is contrasted with the trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through swamps and rough country. The occasional slow episodes — Pilgrim's hymns — are constantly crowded out and overwhelmed by the former. The dream, or fantasy, ends with an interruption of reality — the Fourth of July in Concord — brass bands, drum corps, etc.
The inspiration for this scenario was Nathaniel Hawthorne's story The Celestial Train, a savagely satirical updating of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress castigating easy Christianity of the wealthy and comfortable. Like Ives's second movement Hawthorne's story ends with the narrator suddenly awaking from his dream.

The music is so complex that no single hearing can begin to sort out all the layers of all the different tunes that appear in this energetic confusion. Among the familiar melodies: Marching Through Georgia, In the Sweet By and By, Turkey in the Straw, Camptown Races, Beulah Land, Yankee Doodle, Jesus, Lover of My Soul, and the tune by Ives more often than perhaps any other, Columbia Gem of the Ocean.

The second "answer" was, according to Ives, "an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism." Here he draws upon the opening of his First String Quartet, itself based on Lowell Mason's hymn From Greenland's Icy Mountains and All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name. The fugal texture evokes the formalism of traditional religious answers. The movement is as straightforward and diatonic as the preceding one was complex and incomprehensible. Just before the end, Ives adds a good-humored touch in the sudden breaking forth of a trombone to sing a phrase from Joy to the World, a tune popularly attributed to Handel.

The final movement moves toward the universally religious. It was, in the composer's mind, "an apotheosis of preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience." Much of it is a meditation on the hymntune Bethany (familiar from the words "Nearer my God to Thee"), sung wordlessly by the chorus. The orchestra is divided into sub-groups, some of them going their own way at tempos unrelated to that of the main body, and in different meters. This finale has some of the rhythmic complexity of the second movement, but an entirely different spirit. As the chorus softly and wordlessly intones the hymn, the instruments begin to fade into silence. The movement began with the lowest instruments, which drop out first, leaving the higher instruments still playing the same material — unchanged — after the end. Ives could not literally have the work continue infinitely, but this conclusion certainly aims to suggest the breadth of infinity within the confines of human experience.

One of the best capsule summaries of Ives's personality came into passing from his wife, Harmony, when Henry and Sidney Cowell began working on a book about him and submitted a questionnaire to get certain kinds of information. Harmony Ives wrote to the Cowells in June 1947: "We are getting answers to Henry's questions. How he is going to get Charlie into a book I don't know — his outward life has been uneventful — so wide ranging inwardly…" That "uneventful: outward life ended in 1954; but the "wide ranging" inner world is what Ives poured into his music, and that remains and will remain with us.

— Steven Ledbetter

Ever since its celebrated premiere in 1965 by Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra, Ives's Fourth has ranked as the ne plus ultra of American symphonies. Its reputation stems partly from the formidable performance problems it poses: although not overly long (about thirty minutes), the work requires extraordinary forces — an augmented orchestra, an elaborate percussion battery, a mixed chorus — and the array of performers must negotiate a host of daunting rhythmic and textual complexities unprecedented in any symphonic composition up to Ives's time.

The compositional techniques themselves represent a stylistic synthesis of Ives's most far-reaching and arresting musical ideas, developed over two decades of experimentation. Densely layered textures are formed by superimposing two, three, and even four separate ensembles, centered on different meters and tempos, constantly shifting in and out of synchronization. This polytonal, polyrhythmic fabric is not made from monolithic blocks of sound, but rather from fantastically intricate webs of contrapuntal lines, moving in different rhythmic patterns and often at different dynamic levels — now prominently in the foreground, then receding to a middle or barely audible background. The individual melodic lines are frequently derived from the familiar Ivesian mix of hymn tunes and popular and patriotic songs (over thirty have been identified to date in the work). The borrowed material is sometimes directly quoted in a manner intended for listeners to recognize. But just as often the tunes are skewered into new shapes or fragmented into small motivic cells. As these melodic elements undergo structural transformations in a variety of ways they skitter, in a dreamlike fashion, back and forth across the threshold of perceptibility — now distinct, now fading into inaudibility.

Difficult to perform and difficult to comprehend, the Fourth Symphony remains the most definitive expression of Ives's musical aesthetic. He was acutely of the problems it posed for both performers and audiences, and took particular pains to explain his intentions. For the 1927 performance of the prelude and the comedy movement — the first public performance of any of his orchestral music since graduating from Yale in 1898 — Ives gave the writer Henry Bellamann a description for use as program-note material:
This symphony...consists of four movements — a prelude, a majestic fugue, a third movement in comedy vein, and a finale of transcendental spiritual content. (Ives later inverted the order of the second and third movements, placing the fugue after the comedy.) The aesthetic program of the work is...the searching questions of What? And Why? which the spirit of man asks of life. This is particularly the sense of the Prelude. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies...The fugue…is an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism. The succeeding not a scherzo...It is a comedy in the sense that Hawthorne's Celestial Railroad is comedy...
In hisMemos from the early 1930s, Ives added a further comment on the finale:
The last movement (which seems to me the best, compared with the other movements, or for that matter with any other thing I've done)...covers a good many years...In a way (it) is an apotheosis of the preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience.
Ives provided his programmatic description of the symphony a decade after he had substantially finished composing it. The program note for the 1927 performance characterized the last three movements as different kinds of "answers" to the question posed by the prelude, but Ives's remark in the Memos implies another order of precedence, with the first of three movements leading up to the last. Was he forgetful or did he change his mind? In all likelihood he was instead merely offering up two alternative ways of perceiving the progression of movements through the work. That he could do so suggests that the "program" was neither a preplanned scheme nor an afterthought, but rather — as it seems to be the case with programs he supplied for other orchestral works — a retrospective insight into what the symphony had come to mean to him after years of work on it. Whether or not we take the description at face value, there can be no doubt but that Ives intended his greatest work to be a function on one level as a set of deeply religious meditations.

The symphony was long in gestation. Portions and even whole torsos of earlier works — some fifteen in all — found their way into the symphony the earliest of them dating back to Ives's years at Yale (1894-98). The convoluted history of the first movement has recently been unraveled by William Brooks, one of the editors into Ives's compositional methods. Over the past decade, growing numbers of detailed manuscript studies like Brooks's have opened up a revisionist view of Ives's working methods. These studies show that large amounts of sketch materials and later copies have, in fact, been lost, leaving otherwise inexplicable gaps in the compositional record for many works. As the missing pieces are slowly and painstakingly fitted back into chronological sequences, it is becoming increasingly clear that Ives, far from dashing off works in a hastily made sketch or two, frequently spent years rethinking, revising, and polishing musical ideas over the course of different versions of the same material. Brooks's reconstruction of the compositional history of the Fourth Symphony prelude provides a good case study.

The Prelude, only 41 measures long, went through at least six states. Ives's first version dating from early 1901, was a setting for violin and piano of Lowell Mason's 1830 hymntune Watchman. This work, apparently intended as all or part of a movement for what later became the First Violin Sonata, was arranged later the same year for soprano, voice and organ, and performed at New York's Central Presbyterian Church, where Ives served as organist. In 1905, with either or both of these settings in hand, the composer began a third version, this time for French horn and strings. All three of these are now lost (our information about them has been gleaned from Ives's marginal comments and other forms of evidence in the manuscript sources of the three later states); however, Ives used them to develop bitonal harmonic scheme for the setting, with the hymntune in D major and the accompanying texture in B minor.

In 1911, Ives revised the violin and piano version of Watchman into its present form as the core of the third movement of his First Violin Sonata. From this revision he also made another vocal arrangement in 1913, eventually published as the song "Watchman!" for medium voice and piano in 114 Songs. And between 1911 and 1913 he began to shape the Watchman setting into its choral/orchestral guise as the prelude to the Fourth Symphony. In its final form, reached by 1917, the movement is scored for a "distant choir" of violins and harp, which moves at its own pace over the main orchestra. An introductory section features a fragment of Lowell Mason's Bethany ("Nearer, my God to Thee") in the distant choir, and the opening phrase of the famous gospel song "In the Sweet By and By" in the main orchestra. The chorus, first in unison and then in parts, enters with the first stanza of John Bowring's hymn, as amended by Ives:
Watchman, tell us of the night,
What the signs of promise are:
Traveler, o'er yon mountain's height,
See that Glory-beaming star!
Watchman, aught of joy or hope?
Traveler, yes, it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.
Do'st thou see its beauteous ray?
Oh see!
The earliest portions of the vast second movement began life around 1910 as part of a work for orchestra and piano entitles Hawthorne in Ives's "Men of Literature" series of overtures (only the Robert Browning Overture survives complete from the projected set of four orchestral works). Whatever Ives composed of this prototype — now lost — ended up in the "Hawthorne" movement of his Second Piano Sonata ("Concord"), dating from 1911, and from there made its way into the Fourth Symphony. The movement, one of the most complex Ives ever composed, unfolds as a series of contrasting episodes. In his remarks to Henry Bellamann prior to the 1927 performances, Ives related the music of this movement to Nathaniel Hawthorne's satirical short story "The Celestial Railroad":
Indeed this work of Hawthorne's may be considered as a sort of incidental program in which an exciting, easy, and worldly progress through life is contrasted with the trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through the swamp. The occasional slow episodes (of the symphony movement)—Pilgrim's hymns—are constantly crowded out and overwhelmed by the former. The dream, or fantasy, ends with an interruption of reality — the Fourth of July in Concord — brass bands, drum corps, etc...
Ives draws the contrast between worldly journey and pilgrims' progress by alternating busy ragtime episodes based on material from "Hawthorne" with quieter sections featuring a variety of hymntune settings, which are enveloped by impressionistic washes of tone color. The concluding "Fourth of July" portion is a grand march derived from the earlier Country Band March of 1903, now enormously amplified and filled in with fragments of "Long, Long Ago," "The Irish Washerwoman," "Marching through Georgia," "Reveille," "Turkey in the Straw," and "Yankee Doodle".

The contrast between the great noise of the second movement and the warm restrained glow of the third is stunning. Ives' depiction of the "reaction of life into formalism" is not at all satirical but almost elegiac. He reached back to one of his earliest instrumental works, a fugue dating from 1896-98 based on two of the most widely sung American hymntunes: Lowell Mason's 1824 Missionary Hymn ("From Greenland's icy mountains"), which provided the fugal subject; and Oliver Holden's 1793 Coronation ("All hail the power of Jesus' Name"), from which was derived the countersubject. A manuscript note on one of the versions of the fugue states that it was written for Horatio Parker, Ives' composition teacher at Yale. The original prototype was probably written for organ and then recomposed as the first movement of the First String Quartet. In 1909 Ives revised the fugue again, scoring it for string orchestra, with solo woodwind and brass instruments, and a dramatic entrance for the organ. By 1911, it was substantially finished in the form we know it today, its last measures featuring a quotation from "Joy to the World."

The finale stands as Ives's most extended and fully developed hymntune fantasy — a form he cultivated throughout his early works such as the fugues on Missionary Hymn and George Root's gospel song "The Shining Shore," extending through a number of chamber works (especially the First String Quartet and all of the violin sonatas), up to the three movements of the Third Symphony and the great finale of Orchestra Set No. 2.

Ives relates the last movement to the prelude by bringing back the opening "distant choir" and using common thematic material. But the finale employs four independent ensembles — a percussion "battery unit," which opens the movement, the hovering distant choir, the main orchestra, and finally the chorus. The core material, like that of the other movements, derives from an earlier work, a Memorial Slow March written for organ about 1901 and no longer extant. This was a setting of Lowell Mason's Bethany ("Nearer, my God, to Thee"), a fragment of which Ives also used for the prelude of the Fourth Symphony. In 1901, he began adapting the organ original for orchestra, expanding it into an enormous contrapuntal tapestry of sound, surrounding Bethany, which other 19th-century American hymntunes — Isaac Baker Woodbury's Dornance, Simeon Butler Marsh's Martyn, and Heinrich Zeuner's Missionary Chant. The chorus enters, wordlessly, at the close singing Bethany, and the movement gradually dies away with the last notes of the hymntune being repeated like a fading echo.

By 1917 Ives was ready to have all four movements copies over professionally. A start was made on the first movement, but problems with his copyists led Ives to put the work aside until 1926, when the Pro Musica Society, an organization concerned with promoting new music, selected it for performance. The Society had premiered two of Ives's Quarter-Tone Pieces for piano the previous year, and for its Town Hall concert of 19 January 1927 paired Ives's symphony with the American premiere of Darius Milhaud's chamber opera, Les malheurs d'Orphee. Ives was able to have parts copied out for only the first three movements, and the Society approached Leopold Stokowski to conduct the work. But Stokowski was unavailable and the young British conductor Eugene Goossens, well-known for his performances of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, was engaged instead. Worry over the length of the concert resulted in paring down the symphony performance, but the premiere succeeded in thrusting Ives into public notice for the first time.

Two years after Goossens's performance, Henry Cowell published a beautifully engraved score of the second movement in January 1929 issue of his New Music Quarterly. The third movement was premiered in a slightly re-orchestrated version (without the organ) on May 17, 1933, under the direction if Bernard Herrmann at The New School in New York City; and in the following year, a professional copy was made of the original scoring for the movement. The finale lay buried among Ives's musical papers until after his death.

Plans were put into motion for a performance of the entire symphony beginning shortly after Ives died in 1954. Although funds were raised in 1956, the project did not get off the ground until the early 1960's when Leopold Stokowski agreed to conduct the premiere with his newly founded American Symphony Orchestra. A complete score and parts were put into shape through the efforts of Theodore Seder, curator of the Fleisher Music Collection of The Free Library of Philadelphia, and Stokowski led the performance at Carnegie Hall on April 26, 1965, in a blaze of publicity.

Ives was, of course, not present to witness the triumphant vindication of his musical ideas, but he carefully left behind many years earlier a clear guide for his future audiences. In an extended footnote to the Conductor's Note printed with the New Music score of his second movement, he talked about listening to his music:
In may be suggested that in any music based to some extend on more than one or two rhythmic, melodic, harmonic schemes, the hearer has a rather active part to play. Conductors, players, and composers, as a rule, do the best they can and for that reason get more out of music and, incidentally, more out of life — though, perhaps, not more in their pockets. Many hearers do the same, but there is a type of auditor who will not meet the performers halfway by projecting himself, as it were, into the premises as best he can and who will furnish nothing more than a ticket and a receptive inertia which may be induced by the predilections or static ear habits...Some hearers of the latter type seem to require...something...which may be called a kind of ear-easing and under a limited prescription; if they get it, they put the music down as beautiful; if they don't get it, they put it down and out — to them it is bad, ugly or "awful from beginning to end." It may or may not be all of this, but whatever it is will not be for all the reason given by the man who doesn't listen to what he hears...What music is and is to be may lie somewhere in the belief of an unknown philosopher of a half century ago, who said:
How can there be bad music? All music is from heaven. If there is anything bad in it, I put it there — by my implications and limitations. Nature builds the mountains and meadows and man puts in the fences and labels.
He may have been nearer right than we think.
— Paul C. Echols
Paul C. Echols was a vice president of The Charles Ives Society, and edited a number of works by Ives.

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