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American Radicals

New England & Chicago

  • Charles Ives:
  • Orchestral Set #1 "Three Places in New England"
  • Orchestral Set #2
  • Carl Ruggles:
  • Sun-treader
  • Men and Mountains
  • Ruth Crawford Seeger:
  • Andante for Strings
Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus/Christoph von Dohnányi
London 443776-2 62:15
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Brave new worlds, fabulously realized.

I'm currently re-reading Wilfrid Mellers's classic treatise on American music (not currently in print, naturally) Music in a New Found Land – simultaneously brilliant and infuriating. For Mellers, music belongs to the general culture and thus links up with other arts. Indeed, to Mellers, great music must illuminate that culture, and at this last point he and I part company. For Mellers's assumption essentially forces him to undervalue certain composers, notably Chadwick, Piston, Schuman, Beach, MacDowell, and Barber, and overrate others, like Horatio Parker. Nevertheless, Mellers has managed to build an American musical taxonomy, related very strongly to American literary trends and themes. Whether you believe in the bedrock reality of Mellers's analysis or the justness of his individual judgments matters less than his provocation to new thoughts and views of familiar artists and their works.

Mellers detects two characteristic – and to some extent contradictory – strains in American art: the democratic and Whitmanesque embracing of multitudes and the hieratic pursuit of the individual's lonely truth. Ives – like Whitman himself – expresses both simultaneously, in works like the Universe Symphony and the Concord Sonata. He at once tries to give back the complexity of American life and the sternness of the individual pilgrimage, the latter all the more necessary because Americans have the obligation to make things new, according to Mellers. We haven't the luxury (or the deadening influence) of a stable, traditional culture. Instead, we derive from the jostling of our various and varied origins – not only Europe, but Africa and, so far to a lesser extent, Asia as well. We come from these places and yet don't remain of these places. A German-American differs from the family branch in Hamburg. An African-American probably shares more in common with that German-American than with the current members of the tribe from which his ancestors sprang. Consequently, the art we can point to as particularly American may resemble that of other countries, but it also expresses or embodies something not found elsewhere – a way of singing, a state (or states) of mind, the way the body moves. The hermit in the European forest may indeed be alone (although really never more than a few miles away from some village), but the American pioneer is alone in an ocean of grass and tree and desert. The hermit stays put; the pioneer, like the sailor, explores. For the European, loneliness is emptiness, alienation from society and tradition. For the mythical American, physical loneliness means spiritual pilgrimage. What's around the corner might very well be closer to heaven itself. "Starting from scratch, from zero," more often than not, strikes the American as a virtue.

The American artistic radicals, therefore, tend to differ from their European opposite numbers. Schoenberg, for example, took great care to construct a vision of Austro-German musical tradition and to show how his experiments conformed to and extended that vision. Ives didn't bother. To him, the tradition meant mainly Europeanized gentility – totally inadequate to express the U.S. – although of course no one starts completely from scratch.

Most American radicals emphasize the hieratic. They practice mainly a negative art, kicking over what has gone before and then erecting their bit of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. It reminds me a bit of the wholesale razing of Victorian mansions in favor of the large, Fifties-style ranch house or Le Corbusier's nightmare vision of Paris as a series of what's always struck me as gargantuan parking structures. These radicals reject the multitude in favor of the few hardy souls with the courage to join them in the wilderness. Ives and Henry Cowell stand as major exceptions. Although both have their priestly moments, they want to express everything – as far as Ives is concerned, frequently in the same piece.

Ives shows us something new in the very genre he has created – the "set," as opposed to the "suite." These aren't conceived as whole compositions, based on dance forms, or excerpts from something larger. The "set" implies that, although the composer has conceived each member independently, they all bond together spiritually. In the case of the first orchestral set, the three works show different mystical aspects of New England. The opening piece, "The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common," refers to the great sculptor's monument to the Civil War Massachusetts 54th Volunteer, the first black infantry regiment, decimated in the heaviest fighting. Ives gives us a slow march – beginning so slowly indeed that one can't tell it's a march – which bit by bit becomes less slow. Fragments of Civil War marches – "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Marching through Georgia" among them – weave in an out to create an elegy to the black troops, most of whom would perish and then suffer the posthumous indignity of a mass grave. The second movement, a compendium of quick marches, has the energy and shares much of the idiom of late 19th-century pOp. Ives fans will recognize fragments from the second symphony and from his "Circus March" as well. "The Housatonic at Stockbridge" – the final movement – depicts a walk Ives and his wife, Harmony (great name for a composer's wife!), took one Sunday along the Housatonic River. They heard the distant sounds of churchgoers singing hymns. The contentment of the walk and the gentle intrusion of the hymns find their way into the music, and so does something else – a mounting urgency that, surprisingly, bursts like a soap bubble to reveal the serene, inexorable progress of the stream. I always wondered why Ives put it there. It's not necessarily a useful question to ask of most composers, but Ives, despite his technical innovations, seldom interested himself in purely technical matters. Music for him was largely a philosophic exercise, and listening to it becomes a moral discipline. Thus, the violence of the contrast between the first half of the piece and the latter half provokes a philosophic question, rather than a formal one. Does it represent the intrusion of the world? Has he thrown a tantrum? A fight with his wife? I finally got my answer when I heard Ives' later song of the same title, to his own words. For Ives, "even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea," and the sea for Ives represents the oceanic mysteries of the universe. Ives wishes to be the river's companion. In that passage, we hear the strain and earnestness in the American soul's journey.

The second orchestral set begins with "An Elegy to Our Forefathers," originally conceived (according to the liner notes by Calum MacDonald) as "An Elegy to Stephen Foster." I confess I don't hear much Foster, but I do hear "Jesus Loves Me" over and over, taken at a slow, sentimental tempo. Ives took, naturally, a view of the sentimentalism of the 19th century different even from most of his contemporaries. For him, it represented not the cheap way out, but the divine seen through a glass darkly. As with its corresponding number in the first orchestral set, the second movement – depicting a camp meeting – is a fantasia based mainly on ragtime dances Ives wrote for the piano in the early 1900s. "Bringing in the Sheaves" pushes its jolly way in, and a good time is had by all, as the hymn takes on more and more of the rag rhythm. The final movement, "From Hanover Square North…" again paints an incident from Ives' life. He and a bunch of other commuters were standing at an el train stop when they heard the news of the sinking of the Lusitania. A barrel organ was in the street below playing "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," and one by one, the passengers took up the hymn. The movement opens with a distant choir intoning the Te Deum chant against the ambient sounds of the night. Gradually, fragments of those sounds coalesce into "The Sweet Bye and Bye," which grows stronger and stronger into a Salvation Army brass-band rendition and then fades back into the night.

Carl Ruggles, only two years younger than Ives and one of the few composers in whose work Ives took an active interest, hails from New England as well, but the music really differs from Ives' by quite a bit. Ives, for the most part, draws music from his own experience. The mundane gives his music its energy. Ruggles ruthlessly eliminates "real life" from his work, and his energy comes from his single-mindedness. Where Ives' abundance tends to sprawl in late Romantic luxuriance, Ruggles's music moves along the straight and narrow, shortest path. There are no superfluous notes in Ruggles – a Puritan pioneer in his music, at any rate, if not in life. Ruggles also exhibits a horror of repeating himself, something Ives apparently didn't mind. For example, the strategies, techniques, and sounds of Ives' first orchestral set carry over into the second. Ruggles seems one of those composers who must reinvent his music each time out. The soul must progress, not linger or even return. As a result, Ruggles wrote very few things. A professor of mine once told the story of the Yale composer Richard Donovan paying a visit to Ruggles. As he got to the door, he heard Ruggles sounding a chord on the piano and letting it vibrate to decay. About twenty minutes of this went by – Ruggles striking the same chord and letting it decay. Donovan finally knocked on the door, and Ruggles let him in.

"What were you doing?" asked Donovan.

"Giving it the test of time," Ruggles replied.

Sun-treader (from Browning's lines on Shelley), fourteen minutes' worth of music, cost Ruggles five years of work in its initial form. However, Ruggles also revised it, cutting it down, mainly. This also took years. In the Sixties and Seventies, as American composers began to comb through their past, Ruggles's music enjoyed a slight boost. Michael Tilson Thomas made a classic recording of Sun-treader. Ruggles, in his nineties, toured college campuses, presenting himself as a salty New Englander who liked to tell off-color jokes, especially to pretty women students. Like Robert Frost (if anything, a neurotic classics scholar rather than the earth-rooted New England farmer he liked to play), he created the adorable fiction of himself. This was a Harvard intellectual, after all. The music shows it. Highly dissonant, yet it's pretty easy to follow since, unlike Ives who likes to throw several different ideas against each other, Ruggles's polyphony consists primarily of canonic variations on the main idea: a stark statement of single notes accompanied by strong beats on the tympani, similar in "feel" to the opening to the Brahms Symphony #1.

Men and Mountains, an orchestral suite, Ruggles began in 1920 and finished in 1936. The title comes from William Blake: "Great things are done when Men and Mountains meet; / This is not done by Jostling in the Street." If nothing else, you glimpse the artistic priest-recluse presiding over his private mysteries. The work consists of three movements. "Men" slowly makes its way up the spiritual mountain. It's apparently a difficult climb. "Lilacs," for strings alone, is about as delicate as Ruggles gets, which is to say not very. One feels the intensity of the pilgrim trying to break through (perhaps not succeeding) to the divine as he contemplates the field of flowers. Again, the work gives off intellectual and spiritual effort, above all. "Marching Mountains," the final movement, seems to have begun as a study for Sun-treader. One gets roughly the same image from its opening as the later piece – the purposeful, majestic march. The liner notes use the absolutely appropriate adjective "granitic." However, unlike Sun-treader it has extended contrasting meditative moods, from which it builds to a final climax.

If you read most works on American musical modernism, you tend to get the impression that everything happens in New York or Boston. Much certainly happens there, if only because Koussevitzky's in Boston and Aaron Copland's in New York. Yet, one finds other centers of considerable activity, including Rochester, New York (home of the Eastman School), and Chicago, which continues to boast a broad-based, lively contemporary music scene. When I think of Chicago composers, I think of people as diverse as Leo Sowerby, Ned Rorem, Easley Blackwood, Charles Seeger, and his second wife, Ruth Crawford Seeger, in many ways the most remarkable of them all. I suppose I must thank the women's movement for bringing her to general attention. After all, Wilfrid Mellers makes absolutely no mention of her, and the omission has little to do with the quality or the importance of her music.

Ruth Crawford began as a student of Charles Seeger, a composer and theorist interested in "free dissonance." Seeger, in my opinion, never rose above middling as a composer. Ruth Crawford Seeger, on the other hand, remains an astonishing artist, despite a small output. There are several reasons for the scarcity of her work. She underwent a considerable period of creative silence which corresponds to the raising of her two children, Mike and Peggy. Second, as the youngest child left the house, she was diagnosed with cancer, and she died shortly thereafter. However, I doubt that she would have written much in any case. Like Ruggles, she had a holy horror of repeating herself, and like Varèse, she seemed to re-imagine music each time out. With Seeger, you get the feeling of going back to the beginning and finding a new path. It's not easy to come up with the radically new. Her Three Chants for chorus gives you sounds never heard before from a chorus. Her String Quartet shows new ways of playing groups of homogenous instruments off one another. I can't think of an earlier quartet that sounds like it. The Andante is an arrangement for string orchestra of one of the movements of the quartet. I must say I prefer its quartet incarnation: the individual lines sing out more clearly. The string orchestra tends to smooth everything over. At any rate, a wonderful work.

The performances of these pieces better every other account I know. Dohnányi infuses every item with electricity, a sense of forward motion, and yet manages to keep the architecture clear. The textures – even the loud sounds – are transparent. Even the textures of Ives, which often end up sounding like aural soup, come across as delicate, without losing their complexity. The playing throughout is intelligent and superbly musical. Above all, Dohnányi and his orchestra manage to distinguish the quite different personalities behind all of this quite dissonant music. One composer doesn't sound like "more of the same." Ives, Ruggles, and Crawford retain their individuality.

The sound is superb, especially when one considers the written thickness of the textures. This music won't please everybody, and for the most part, it's not meant to. For my money, however, one of the outstanding releases of the past five years.

Copyright © 2000, Steve Schwartz