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Since Charles Ives only used the title
"symphony" for five of his nine
large-scale orchestral works (six if you count Holidays Symphony), and
numbered only four of them, the development of his iconoclastic and uniquely
expressive orchestral voice can seem to have appeared from nowhere. Ordering
his orchestral works chronologically allows a view of his development as a
composer that shows coherence, even order. While not quite seamless, what
becomes visible is the development, not only of his distinctive personal
voice and its specific characteristics (layering of distinctly different
musics with attendant polytonality and polyrhythms creating a
three-dimensional soundscape; cumulative form; the "Ives fade-out" ending;
coloristic effects like high bells and celeste, and unaccompanied
double-basses; mystical-sounding suspended harmonies; "shadow lines";
"supermarches"; instrumental groups placed off-stage and in non-traditional
groupings; and evocation of both place and the experience of memory), but
also of his personal approach to large-scale form and the mastery of
coherence in a large-scale orchestral work: a symphony.
(1) Symphony #1 in D Minor. 1894-1898. Ives completed the first movement
his freshman year at Yale under the supervision of Horatio Parker. The rest
of the symphony was finished before he graduated in 1898. His Memos would
later look back with some resentment at the tendency of Parker to encourage
him to emulate European models in both this and his Second Symphony. J.
Peter Burkholder notes that in this symphony, Ives both imitates masters of
the European symphonic tradition -- Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak
-- and seeks to best them on their own turf: homage and competition.
Certainly the work displays sure-footed orchestration and often graceful,
sometimes turgid, occasionally adventurous symphonic writing. The incessant
modulation of the first movement and numerous near-endings of the finale
display some of his high spirits, restlessness and good humor, well-bridled
in European convention. The thick, chromatic accompaniment running in
several instruments as the second movement closes is almost a foreshadowing
of the complex, layered textures he would later develop. In his Essays
Before a Sonata he would respond to critics complaining of Brahms' muddy
textures: "perhaps if his orchestration was clearer it would be less true."
(2) Second Symphony. 1897-1901. In this work Ives has one foot in Europe
and one in America, as its large-scale form emulates the late-Romantic cyclic
multi-movement symphony with a sonata movement, but the musical material
itself varies from Brahms- and Bach-inspired (even quoted) to American
vernacular and church music, including Camptown Races by Stephen Foster, the
hymn Bringing in the Sheaves, and the culminating exuberance of Columbia, Gem
of the Ocean. The result is an oddly quilt-like blend of styles and
traditions. Some later Ives trademarks that appear in early form: use of
American tunes as sources of themes (unexpectedly "...and crown thy good with
brotherhood..." emerges near the end of the Adagio, just before the horn
almost inaudibly quotes Ives' favorite motive of all, the Beethoven's Fifth
ta-ta-ta-tum, the first of hundreds of times Ives would transform the
motive); original use of percussion battery (the military droning of the
battery over the development section in the second movement is an original
and striking effect); and just a hint of the rich layering of themes for a
moment at the end of the second movement. Although Ives would later protest
in his Memos that he preferred his original instrumentation to the
"Brahmsian" scoring he used at Parker's suggestion for the final version, it
is lovely and effective. He would call me a Lily-Boy for saying so.
The instrumentation at the very end of the first movement is worth
mentioning: oboe accompanied by double-basses not, as usual in Romantic
instrumentation, doubled by 'cellos. This brief texture foreshadows the
heavy, bass-oriented first movements of both Orchestral Sets.
I want to call the riotous full statement of Columbia, Gem of the Ocean
at the work's conclusion proto-cumulative form, since it is neither a mere
tossing of an unprepared tune into the mix nor a fully developed example of
the fragmentary-to-full-statement cumulative technique. Rather, the complete
themes that are stated and developed earlier in the work include in
themselves pieces of the Columbia phrases that prepare the ear for the
finale. The Romantic, Brahmsian first movement first theme starts with a
rising fifth, F-sharp to B. Columbia begins with a rising fifth. The
descending melody and rhythmic shape of the second movement's opening theme,
an American-sounding tune, echo the second half of Columbia's opening phrase,
both phrases beginning on beat four (they could be parallel harmonies of each
other). Movements one and four also quote the first eight notes of Columbia
as a transitional phrase. Even after these hints and preparations, it still
comes as quite a surprise to hear as the fifth movement climaxes -- and the
trumpets beckon us to "wake up!" by blasting reveille -- Columbia quoted in
whole cloth, in full orchestra, with wild exuberance. This is a coda that
will put a smile on your face. Incidentally, the final 11-note blast of a
chord is his reference to a New England string band tradition of every
player, at the end of the final dance of the night, playing a different loud
note to signal the dance is concluded.
I love the anecdote that during the radio broadcast of the symphony's
premiere in 1951 by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic from
Carnegie Hall, and elderly relative of Ives got so excited he climbed onto
the kitchen table and began to dance, shouting "I always knew there was music
like this somewhere in America!"
There is a bit of orchestration magic in the fifth movement I want to
point out. The broad, quiet cantabile theme is first sung by the horn, with
the violins playing a counter-melody constructed of bits of fiddle-tunes.
When it returns in the recapitulation, the main melody is now played by a
solo 'cello, the accompanying "fiddle-tune" figures by flute, with clarinet
playing the low notes under the flute's range. This altered instrumentation
is not simply for variety's sake, but greatly increases the sense of
poignancy and melancholy expressed by the passage: I believe Ives is
intentionally evoking the experience of remembering and longing for a
treasured but irretrievable past.
(3) Third Symphony: "The Camp Meeting." 1901-1904 (revised 1911). To our
ears jaded by decades of dissonance, it seems hard to believe how modern and
ahead of its time even this by now tame-sounding work was (Appalachian Spring
was still thirty years away). The use of quotation is elevated to a new
extreme here: virtually all the musical material is formed from American
hymn-tunes; the symphony is a reminiscence of the revival meetings of Ives'
youth, and each of the movements has a programmatic title. Most
significantly in Ives' development, this symphony departs in formal design
from the European four-movement sonata-form framework, and is built
exclusively on cumulative form: the thematic ideas appear first as fragments
and develop into the full thematic statement at the end of each movement.
"Complexity into clarity." In 1939 Lou Harrison conducted the premier from a
photostat of Ives' score with orchestra parts he had hand copied himself for
the occasion. The concert was broadcast on radio; a college student
tape-recorded it and sent the tape to the Pulitzer committee who awarded Ives
the Pulitzer Prize for the work. Ives later sent each of three different
colleagues checks for "half" of the prize money. One was Harrison, "since
you're to blame for all these letters I have to answer." Now his musical
material, his style of development, and his large-scale form are all
American, all Ivesian.
The first hints of what he would call "shadow lines" at the close of the
first and third movements. In the first, a violin plays a line just
slightly off-kilter in key and rhythm from the rest of the orchestra; in the
third, a clarinet. Bernard Hermann reminisced, "he would have a kind of
simple melody and then a little complicated secondary thing that would run
across it like maybe a flute doing something very fast. And he said, 'That's
what I call shadow counterpoint. It's a shadow the main thing throws off.' "
Jan Swafford describes them: "a player or two, sometimes offstage or to the
side, plays as if to himself, like somebody in the next room or down the
street. At times the shadow lines suggest other realities, parallel
memories, the subconscious. They murmur sometimes inaudibly within the
texture, but float up now and then like a phantom presence within the music.
Always they suggest something beneath the surface, beyond the immediate time
And from this work forward, every movement of every large-scale work
relates directly and explicitly to human experience: a place, a time, an
event, a person, a spiritual experience, or all five. Ives described his
distaste for "absolute" music with these remarks about his next work,
Holidays: "They could be played as abstract music (giving no titles or
program), and then they would be just like all of 'abstract' things in art --
one of two things: a covering up, or ignorance of ... the human something at
the source -- or just an emasculated piece of nice embroidery!"
(4) Holidays. 1904-1913. If the Third Symphony marked the culmination of
Ives' apprenticeship, Holidays (also known as Holidays Symphony and New
England Holidays) marks the beginning of his maturity. We hear more comfort
with bold dissonance and abrupt textural changes; we hear fully formed
several Ives trademarks: the layering of different strands of music, giving
a three-dimensional, spatial quality to the music; the "Ives fade-out
ending," poorly named for his effect of a quiet strand of music (background)
playing unheard until a louder strand ends, usually in a loud cadence,
revealing the quiet music which proceeds to its ending; the "supermarch" of
which he would write several, consisting of fragments to full statements of
several different marches in different keys and rhythms at once somehow
piling up together in a jubilant mixture, expressing qualities as disparate
as gleeful nostalgic reminiscence of bands clashing and drunk trumpet players
getting the notes wrong (The Fourth of July, Putnam's Camp) to the insane and
dispiriting complexity of modern materialism (Comedy movement of the Fourth
Symphony) to a bereaved and anxious crowd "singing through their tears" (From
Hanover Square North, Swafford's words).
What I believe we don't hear yet is a masterful sense of large-scale
form. Although Ives sarcastically responded to critics who complained this
set of movements was not a symphony because it didn't follow a cookie-cutter
recipe, the fact is it doesn't display the sense of large-scale cohesion he
would shortly develop. As individual movements, however, these are
remarkable pieces. Stravinsky said Decoration Day defined the word
"masterpiece" and called its ending "the loneliest I know of in music."
Burkholder: "The Fourth of July captures an experience in music --
not, in fact, that of a boy participating in the Independence Day
celebrations in his home town, but rather that of a man approaching middle
age, remembering the Fourth of July celebrations of his boyhood. For his
pieces about life experiences, Ives developed a set of conventions, the most
important being the presence of at least two simultaneous layers of music:
the events themselves in the foreground, and in the background the noises of
the environment. For pieces about recent experiences, these background noise
are usually soft, dissonant ostinatos in complex rhythms, representing the
sounds of nature in Central Park in the Dark, the rustling leaves and
swirling river in The Housatonic at Stockbridge, or the traffic noises of New
York's rush hour in From Hanover Square North. But the background to a
memory is other memories, particularly those which are aroused involuntarily
by their resemblance to the first. Ives signals this through quotation.
When Ives is remembering, one tune will suggest another that it resembles in
some way, and the result is a collage of half-heard and half-remembered tunes
that constitute a wonderfully true musical evocation of the way human memory
(5) Orchestral Set #1: Three Places in New England. 1903-1914. In an
interesting parallel with Beethoven's Fifth, this is Ives' "hit": the most
popular, accessible, concise articulation of his mature style. The sense of
form has advanced from Holidays, and the movements' slow-fast-slow symmetry
of tempo contain a sequence of brooding-jubilant-mystical psychological
progress. The precision of his programmatic technique is well illustrated by
a note in the score of the first movement, about a monument in Boston Commons
by sculptor St. Gaudens honoring the heroic martyrdom of the black Civil War
regiment led by Colonel Shaw: "don't speed up here -- sometimes when men are
marching uphill, the drums follow the feet rather than the other way around."
Ives' poem that prefaces the score is haunting and stirring.
If Putnam's Camp doesn't prove dissonance and multiple simultaneous
rhythms can be fun, you need to up your Prozac. It answers the musical
question, "How many march tunes can you dance to at once?" In an elegant
analysis, Jan Swafford shows how, in addition to being a complex tone-poem
tracing a story that even includes a dream sequence, it also follows, by the
book, all the conventions of march style.
The Housatonic at Stockbridge may well be Ives' single most beautiful,
haunting, moving, human and transcendent utterance. It was inspired by a
morning walk with his wife by the Housatonic River. He was struck by the
complex layering of natural rhythms all about: the swirling currents of the
river, the swaying of the trees, the leaves fluttering in the wind, the
hovering mist, and this is captured in the polyrhythmic layering of the
opening pages; no technical description can capture its evocative power. As
Charles and Harmony walked by the bank, they began to hear from across the
bank the strains of a hymn, Dorrnance, waft across the water. Ives' original
theme combines Dorrnance and the four-note motto of Beethoven's Fifth into a
flowing melody that floats above the swirling rhythms of the accompaniment.
The unexpected brass-band-style climax that rises like an eddy from the
stream of sound can be interpreted as the climax of the river reaching the
ocean, but I prefer Swafford's take, based on a letter Harmony wrote her
husband-to-be. Her explanation for why their mutual love was impossibly
intense and profound was "we perceive the Divine Presence in one another."
She added, in a tone of utter confidence quite different from the initial
public reception of Ives' music, how she was so glad that through his music
their experience could be communicated to others. The brass climax to
Swafford is the Divine Presence coming into view; the "Ives fade-out"
pianissimo string chords that follow the tumult says, "and they are also just
(6) Orchestra Set #2. 1912-1915. Ives returns to the slow-fast-slow,
brooding-jubilant-mystical framework of the first Orchestral Set, and
advances the limits of his technique. The first movement (a re-working of an
Overture to Stephen Foster now titled Elegy for our Forefathers) is even
darker and more mysterious than, but based on the same Stephen Foster songs
as The St. Gaudens at Boston Commons. The unaccompanied basses recur here,
and are closer yet in tone to the finale of the Fourth Symphony's evocation
of chanting Tibetan monks; the slow overlapping ostinati in the bass and
piano is a new effect he would develop in the Fourth and Universe Symphonies;
and the haunting suspended harmonies and high bells ringing over the music
create a vast background canvas of spacious stillness.
The middle movement (The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People's Outdoor
Meeting) uses jazzy ragtime dances rather than marches. It is not the first
rambunctious version of Bringing in the Sheaves he penned. A surreal,
intoxicated Broadway overture.
The finale Ives thought one of his best efforts ever. With the
evocative title From Hanover Square North: At the End of A Tragic Day the
Voice of the People Again Rose, Ives captures an event he witnessed the day
the news broke of the German sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania, an
event tacitly understood to mark American entry into World War I. After a
tense day with people's "faces revealing what their tongues would not" --
concern that war was immanent -- Ives waited at the elevated train station at
Hanover Square North. The train was delayed and a large crowd gathered. An
organ grinder began to play the hymn "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" and gradually
people begun to hum, whistle or sing along. Soon it sounded to Ives "as if
every man in New York city was joining in the refrain," ditch diggers holding
shovels next to Wall Street bankers in spats. Ives was moved by the sense of
dignity and reverence that persisted even after the train arrived and the
song dispersed into the night. "It was like they were coming out of a church
service." This moment was consistent with Ives' deeply help sense of
community and very New England Protestant sense of faith in "common people --
that is to say, fine people" and their ability to intuit political and
spiritual truths. The movement's background texture is established by
several measures of off-stage instruments and chorus before the on-stage
orchestra begins to play, heightening the drama. Particularly striking is
the ending, which is more than a two-dimensional layer fading out after the
climax: almost a minute in length, it is itself a three-dimensional
miniature cityscape. Now even Ives' layers have spatial depth!
(7) Fourth Symphony. 1910-1916. The story goes that Ives was inspired to
write this massive summary of his compositional and philosophical persona
while watching Haley's Comet -- "that glory-beaming star" -- light the New
England sky one summer evening in 1910. "Watchman, tell us of the night,
What the signs of promise are" the hymn goes, and so goes the symphony. And
Ives returns here to the name symphony. In this work he would use everything
he knew of European tradition in forming a large cyclic work and transforming
thematic materials; would use everything he knew about large scale forms he
invented and perfected; would use everything he knew of using musical
quotation as a referent to past experience and a reference to remembering;
would use every fiddle tune, ragtime dance, sacred hymn, and patriotic song
he'd ever quoted as well as a dozen of his own works; would raise every
element of his musical voice to a higher plane of expressiveness, technique,
and seriousness; would show mastery of musical techniques that would not even
be conceived of by other composers for decades; would echo the form and
intent of Beethoven's Ninth in asking the heavens the question of existence
and providing three successive answers; would provide a synthesis of musical
language so diverse and wide-ranging that thirty years later, in 1945,
Bernard Hermann would still describe the finale as "music of a far distant
future. ... An Oriental would describe such music as the 'pure state' which
exists in space, chaotic, all-embracing."
(8) Orchestral Set #3. 1919. One source reports two movements were
finished, another reports all three were begun but unfinished. I know of no
reconstructions or performances. I wonder what new arc of development this
set would have begun. Unfortunately, by this times Ives' self-criticism was
beginning to exceed his creative drive: he ultimately marked each unfinished
movement of the score "N.G." for "No Good."
(9) Universe Symphony. 1915-1951. Never finished, barely begun, superhuman
in conception. Ives left several pages of manuscript, more of graphs and
tables and descriptions, many lost. He described the intention of the work:
The "Universe in tones" or a Universe Symphony. A striving to present -- to
contemplate in tones rather than in music as such, that is -- not exactly in
the general term or meaning as it is so understood -- to paint the creation,
the mysterious beginning of all things, known through God to man, to trace
with tonal imprints the vastness, the evolution of all life, in nature of
humanity from the great roots of life to the spiritual eternities from the
great inknown to the great unknown.
Swafford: "Ives' uncompleted Universe Symphony carried the independence
of musical groups to the point of visionary impossibility in a work that
proposed to set multiple choruses and orchestras playing from valleys and
mountaintops, a kind of transcendent camp meeting."
Ives: "When we were in Keene Valley, on the plateau, staying in the
fall of 1915 ... I started something that I'd had in mind for some time ...
trying out a parallel way of listening to music, suggested by looking at a
view (1) with the eyes toward the sky or tops of the trees, taking in the
earth or foreground subjectively ... (2) then looking at the earth and land,
and seeing the sky and the top of the foreground subjectively. In other
words, giving a musical piece in two parts, but played at the same time --the
lower parts representing the earth, and listening to that primarily -- and
then the upper ... reflecting the skies and the Heavens ... This was
suggested by a few pages of a sketch or general plan for a Universe Symphony
or 'The Universe, Past, Present, and Future' in tones ..."
Cowell: "This is the last work that Charles Ives has worked on. It is
unfinished and intentionally so, as it is the culminating expression of his
'music of the Idea,' so gigantic, so inclusive, and so exalted that he feels
no one man could ever complete it; anyone else may add to it if he cares to
do so, and the collaboration of more than one composer friend, the writer
among them, has been invited. That such collaboration has not yet seemed
possible is not a disappointment, for the full expression of the universe in
sound is something sure to come about when growth and freedom have created
men able to encompass it."
Composer Larry Austin, after composing several fantasies based on
sketches Ives left toward the work, has actually "completed" the work and a
recording exists. "More Austin than Ives," quips Swafford.
A family friend remembered, "Once when Ives played for me, I told him it
reminded me of mountains. He looked quite pleased but said nothing. I've
never heard that music played since. Therefore, I believe it may have been
from his Universe Symphony. He was always working on this, but the theme was
so gigantic it was not intended to be finished."
The attempt to literally represent nature, evolution, and the universe
would mean giving up references to the act of remembering, to specific
cultural icons, to other music, to the specifically local and personal
experiences that had been Ives' means of expressing universal experience.
Indeed, the language Ives uses in his Memos describing his intention to
literally represent trees, valleys, plateaus, distant mountain vistas and the
sky sounds uncharacteristically systematic -- more about intervals and ideas
than evoked human response.
It appears, then, that in an attempt to forge a musical language capable
of unprecedented programmatic expanse Ives may have been groping toward,
paradoxically, "absolute" music. Could this account for his irritated
abandonment of his Third Orchestral Set? If this is true, then the Universe
Symphony, rather than representing the culmination of his life's work (which
the Fourth Symphony already is), actually represents a new beginning: a
doorway to a new aesthetic of "tones, rather than music as such." In fact,
much of Austin's "completion" of the work sounds strikingly similar to Tone
Roads and other Ives experiments he wrote to explore and master musical
techniques outside traditional and academic musical experience and
instruction. This makes the Universe Symphony a great laboratory of the
undiscovered. Given Ives' prodigious and subtle ear, it is hard to imagine
the full development of this aesthetic being anything less than
extraordinary. But it was a laboratory in which Ives would only dabble.
With his typical generosity, though, Ives' final gesture as a composer is to
invite us all in.
Geoffrey Block, J. Peter Burkholder, eds., Charles Ives and the Classical
Tradition. Yale Press, 1996.
Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life With Music. W.W. Norton, 1996.
Vivian Perlis, Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History. Yale University
J. Peter Burkholder, Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music. Yale
University Press, 1985.
J. Peter Burkholder, ed., Charles Ives and His World. Princeton University
J. Peter Burkholder, All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical
Borrowing. Yale, 1995.
Ives, Charles, Essays Before a Sonata. In Three Classics in the Aesthetics
of Music. Dover, 1962.
Ives, Charles (John Kirkpatrick, ed.), Memos. Norton, 1972.
Henry and Sidney Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music. Oxford University
Michael Tilson Thomas, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Symphonies 1 and 4. Sony
Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic. Symphony #2, assorted short
orchestral works. Deutsche Grammophon.
Michael Tilson Thomas, Concertgebouw Orchestra. Symphony #3, Orchestra Set
#2. Sony Classical.
Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Three Places in New England,
also Third Symphony, The Unanswered Question (original version). RCA Red
Seal. [note: the original version is less effective than the revised version,
largely due to Ives' changing the last note of the trumpet theme to great
effect in the revision, making the line more plaintive and less resolved.]
Michael Tilson Thomas, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Holidays Symphony. Sony
David Zinman, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Three Places in New England, New
England Holidays, They Are There! Decca.
Copyright © 2002 Chuck Holton All rights reserved.