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CD Review

Charles Ives


  • Symphony #1
  • Symphony #2
  • Symphony #3 "The Camp Meeting" *
  • Symphony #4 **
  • Orchestral Set #1 "Three Places in New England" **
  • Orchestral Set #2 **
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
* Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields/Neville Marriner
** Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus/Christoph von Dohnányi
Decca 466745-2 158:17 2CDs
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Some classic re-issues, all in one place at a budget price.

From relatively unknown Crazy Man for much of his composing life, Ives has moved to a place in American music similar to Robert Frost's status in American poetry. American classical music-lovers (admittedly fewer than Lady Gaga fans) have at least heard his name, if not his music. The rise of a real American school in the generations of Copland and Bernstein led to a search for roots. The so-called New England School – Chadwick, Paine, MacDowell, Beach, Parker – out of which Ives came and which he broke with – relied too heavily on German models. The highest praise Edward MacDowell, for example, ever received was when critics compared his second piano concerto with Robert Schumann's.

Ives artistically had more in common with New England Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau than with his teacher, Horatio Parker. I would say, on the evidence of Ives's Symphony #1, that Dvořák's "New World" played a part as well in pushing Ives to create a recognizably American idiom. I can't say whether Ives succeeded in the latter, since I still think of musical "Americanism" as Copland, Gershwin, Harris, Schuman, Cowell, and Bernstein. However, he did indeed create music the likes of which hadn't been heard before. Actually, he created several American musical dialects with an invention and profligacy that rivaled Walt Whitman in poetry. He left a tremendous legacy that American composers will have to take into account, even if they ultimately reject it.

Ives wrote his Symphony #1 (1895-98) as a graduation exercise for his studies with the American Wagnerian Horatio Parker at Yale. It astonishes me how professional it is. This isn't merely a good American symphony, but a good symphony for the time, even compared to the European product. Dvořák provides the model. Remember that the Czech composer's symphonies were regarded as leading-edge in his own day. The "New World" Ninth Symphony had premièred in Carnegie Hall. We hear Dvořák's influence throughout the first movement, especially in the big symphonic waltz that provides most of the musical matter. Yet, one senses something of Ives, too, in the restless modulations of the first movement (he may actually get through all the keys) and the resultant tendency of the work to fall into sections. Apparently, Ives's mind can't stay still for long.

The second movement begins with a pentatonic theme similar in orchestration and mood to Dvořák's "Going Home" slow movement from the Symphony #9. The second subject, a bit of Wagnerian maestoso (think "Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla"), Ives undoubtedly got from Parker. The third movement, a "Czech" scherzo, again swings back to Dvořák, as a kind of Slavonic dance. One reason it reminds me of Dvořák is because it's as good as some Dvořák, with especially piquant orchestration. However, Ives's characteristic restless harmony, his unwillingness to "settle" in one spot, insists throughout. Indeed, the second strain of the first subject flies so far off its harmonic base, it approaches having no tonal center at all.

The finale will interest Ives fans, since the composer recycled some of the ideas in the very different Symphony #2 to, of course, very different effect. Ives temporarily abandons Dvořák for Wagnerian tropes like the "Wagnerian appoggiatura." However, he treats these in an abstract way, and you feel as if you're looking at curios in a glass-fronted cabinet. It seems like a farewell to the late Nineteenth Century. Again, I note Ives's "sectional" tendency, rather than sustained and concentrated argument. It reminds me a bit of Mahler – in obvious fragments and at the same time securely tied together. Once more, this arises from Ives's desire to reach distant harmonic shores in the shortest amount of time, often without modulations per se, à la Berlioz. I also hear Ives's "Americanizing" trying to come through, particularly in a passage that in later works would surely have been a blatant fiddle tune. A superior work, and, for a student, extraordinary. Ives doesn't let his models push him around. He puts his own ideas into practically every measure.

Ives carries his harmonic and his sectionalizing habits over to the Second Symphony (1899-1902). To these he adds the device of quotation, as if determined to cram everything he hears in the parlor, church, and concert hall, and on the streets into the symphony. Ives uses quotation throughout the rest of his career, but never so much as in this work. I find this a "reportorial" symphony, akin to Walt Whitman's great catalogues. Formally, the work shows an individual mind at work. Ives designates five movements, but to the listener, it's three: a prelude and allegro, a slow movement, and another prelude and allegro. Despite Ives's natural expression in terms of sectionalism and fantasia, there really is a figure running through what seems like a carpet of tatters and rags – that figure is the jingo-patriotic song "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," and at least fragments of it appear in every movement.

The opening begins solemnly, with Brahmsian counterpoint – evoking Ives the church organist improvising – where the motives hint at things to come, including a phrase from "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." The second movement breaks in with a startling "homespun" tune, "There is a happy land," and puts us down immediately in the American rural Nineteenth Century. "Bringing in the Sheaves" and the Yale song "Where, Oh, Where are the Pea-green Freshmen," provide most of the rest of the material. Ives never quotes them in full or even straightforwardly, but treats his fragments in a classically symphonic way. "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" lurks about rhythmically, in the shapes of subsidiary themes. Even "Dixie" occasionally peeps through. The movement tends to reach its high points at a Protestant hymn (one I don't know). This kind of mix of high and low (and even certain specific phrases) Virgil Thomson exploited years later. Ives's movement in its broad outline more or less resembles a sonata: exposition, development, and recap, with a brief coda. The movement ends in a contrapuntal riot of the themes so far, ending with the Protestant hymn in a blaze of brass.

The second movement begins with unusual modulations, reminiscent of the opening of Dvořák's "New World." A tune, with shape and feel of Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe" as well as "America" and certain tender moments in Wagner. However, unlike the slow movement of the Symphony #1, Ives doesn't tie his music to song structure, even though the material consists largely of song fragments. The movement is a fantasia, to which Ives's quotes bring sudden, sharp, momentary focus.

After a condensed version of the opening prelude, Ives launches a vigorous rondo, announced by a lively fiddle tune with raggy overtones. The other major ideas include a "Revolutionary" fife and drum, "Camptown Races," "Reveille," and subsidiary material strongly colored by "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," which in the last minute and after another blast from "Reveille" finally bursts forth in full splendor from the massed trombones. This leads to a final "Reveille," ending on one of the most memorable moments in all of Ives – a chord containing 11 notes of the 12-note scale. "Reveille" builds up to a splat, a raspberry. I call it "the Razz." Some commentators, even today, sniff at this as an immature stunt. I admit Ives made a risky move. However, I regard this as the key to the vision of the entire symphony – highbrow and lowbrow bumping up against each other, above all a rejection of European-based genteel propriety toward art. The Razz is an American's declaration of artistic independence, Whitman's "barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Dvořák had kicked American critics into a longing for native art. What did they think it sounded like?

Ives composed the Third Symphony from 1908 to 1911. He won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1947. Hearing of his award, Ives (with only seven years left to live and too old to care) remarked, "Prizes are for boys." Besides, a prize honors (or shames) the donor more than the beneficiary. Ives still works with something akin to traditional consonance and dissonance here, with the "home tonality" almost always in flux, a little like Schoenberg's early tonal music. Nevertheless, he has moved on from the procedures and harmonies of the Second Symphony. Indeed, each of the Ives symphonies differs markedly from its sibs. The main feature is a new approach to form. The outer movements begin with thematic "wisps" which vary and recombine until, at the end, they coalesce in relatively full form. Ives scholars have dubbed this "cumulative form," although you can easily find its prototypes in the classical repertoire. You might even consider the opening to Beethoven's Ninth a version of this, although it occurs over a much briefer span. I think of Ives's "cumulative movement" as a "fantasia with a goal." Subtitled "The Camp Meeting," the symphony falls into three movements, slow-fast-slow: "Old Folks Gathering," "Children's Day," and "Communion." This for me is Ives's best symphony – thoroughly modern, beautifully clear, and full of feeling.

The symphony celebrates American revivalism (although Ives was no revivalist) and works with Protestant (mainly Presbyterian) hymns. It opens with an ear-bending modulating passage, which always makes me think of the questing spirit and "the peace of the blest," as the old folks enter the service. The main matter comes from "O for a thousand tongues" and "What a friend we have in Jesus." The fast movement evokes the children's "sings," often a major feature of the gathering. It uses the hymns "There is a fountain filled with blood" and "There is a happy land" (also in the Symphony #2). One also gets fragments of "Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb," which Ives would use with stunning effect in his setting of Lindsay's "General William Booth Enters into Heaven." The finale, "Communion," works with "Just as I am" and, again, "O for a thousand tongues." To me, it evokes the New Englander's spiritual pilgrimage.

The Symphony #4 (1912-1925) gathers many strains of Ives's work, including the radical experimentalism. With the exception of the third movement, the music typifies most people's notions of Ives. I heard Stokowski's mid-Sixties recording in 1969. It caused quite a stir in the composition circles of my little college and among the high-profile American music critics of the time, caught up in the Ives revival. It was so "advanced," even forty years after it was written, that an old modern-music hand like Stokowski felt he needed two assistant conductors to get through it. Nowadays, over thirty years on, Dohnányi manages with one (the very capable Jahja Ling). In effect, Ives requires two orchestras, two off-stage "vox celesta" ensembles, and an off-stage choir (SATBB), so the extra conductors should surprise nobody.

As you might guess, Ives calls for a huge orchestra including a large percussion battery, two organs, a solo piano, two more pianos (one tuned a quarter-tone flat and the other a quarter-tone sharp. Quarter-tones lie halfway between two semitones - eg, the pitch between C and C#). In the symphony's four movements - slow-fast-slow-slow - Ives depicts a spiritual quest, which he describes in terms almost identical to those he uses in The Unanswered Question. The earlier work asks Why, What, and Wither? The symphony does as well, but unlike its counterpart which ends with the indifferent, isolated "music of the spheres," here the composer strives to answer these questions, to the extent that they can be answered in music. Suffice to say, he still ends with questions or at any rate his answers probably won't satisfy most of you. For me, this and the "Concord" Piano Sonata #2 put Ives most firmly in the line of New England Transcendentalists. The two outer movements are in the by-now familiar cumulative form, which seems to signal spiritual meditation in Ives.

The symphony opens majestically, the only Ives symphony to do so, but it quickly quiets down. Wisps of music gather like ghosts until a solo violin introduces the hymn "Watchman, tell us of the night," which provides the movement's spine. The choir then sings the hymn in unison, substantially straight but with Ives's typical stretches and stumbles of rhythm and phrase. Figuring out Ives's intent in works like this comes down largely to a matter of identifying tunes. I guessed at Ives's extra-musical meaning long before I knew the melodies, but I must admit that the ability to pick them out enriches Ives for me. As we have seen, the composer uses these quotations in many ways – all of which can be found in this symphony: straightforward, "classical" symphonic argument; symbolically, stuck in as icons along the narrative highway, like suddenly coming upon the McDonald's arches; wry comment, a momentary joke; a combination of all three. At any rate, this section sets up the question to which the subsequent movements provide different answers.

Ives described the second movement as a "comedy," rather than a "scherzo in the conventional sense." You can hear what he means. For one thing, the usual characters of main section and of trio are reversed. The movement opens quietly and is interrupted throughout by more energetic music. Ives based it on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story, "The Celestial Railroad," which satirizes both 19th-century "happy-talk" religion and the belief in technological salvation. The modern-day pilgrims make their progress to heaven, so they think, in the comfort of a luxury train, while they make fun of the poor saps who trudge along the traditional route. We hear the traditional pilgrims following the hard, grim, "straight-and-narrow" path (the hymns "In the sweet by and by," "Beulah Land," and "Jesus, lover of my soul" provide their music). The Celestial Railroad whooshes up on them and passes, its music overwhelming the hymns. "Camptown Races," "Marching through Georgia," "Reveille," "Yankee Doodle," and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" (the familiar hits on the Ivesian jukebox) bubble and boil, pop and disappear – again, icons, the sudden Coca-Cola billboard in the middle of a desert interstate. We don't get the traditional scherzo-trio-scherzo, but waves of interruptions. It's a movement bifurcated into its two simultaneous strains, and in Ives, bifurcation is often literally realized – here, in two orchestras playing their own stuff. If ever music needed two conductors, it's here. A quiet violin solo, accompanied by what sounds like an anachronistic theremin (replacing Ives's smaller "aether organ"). This leads to something quite different from anything previously encountered: the march in the "Putnam's Camp" movement of the first orchestral set. I have no idea what it means, but it certainly feels different from the railroad music. For one thing, you don't hear the train.

The third movement, a fugue, orchestrates the opening movement of Ives's String Quartet #1, written in 1895 at Yale. What's it doing here among the wild howls and mutters? It amazes me that it really does fit – a psychic re-gathering after chaos. Because of its context, somebody once called this simplest movement the most radical. Apparently, Schoenberg and Lowell Mason can co-exist. "From Greenland's icy mountains" provides the fugue subject, with occasional shards of "All hail the power of Jesus' name." At one point, they move against one another in fairly traditional counterpoint. The tonality resembles a milder version of what we get in the Symphony #3, showing that Ives's individual harmonic sense was with him early on. Stokowski's recording of this in the LP première remains my favorite interpretation. It's as if the musicians are so grateful to get something they recognize, that they play their hearts out. For me, this movement depicts the "answer" of nature, as part of God's Creation, particularly at the end when "Joy to the world" ("and heaven and nature sing") comes through.

The finale begins with a remarkable all-percussion passage, probably ahead of its time. I can compare it only with sections of Milhaud's Choéphores (1916) and Varèse's Ionisation (1931). From there we get an Ivesian fantasia on "Nearer, my God, to Thee." Parts of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth peer through the curtain as well – another of the composer's symbols for spiritual striving. Toward the end, fragments of "Watchmen, tell us of the night" creep back in, leading to the chorus intoning the melody of "Nearer, my God." So the question gets an answer, sort of. I don't believe it's quite as simple as "trust in the Lord," but that whatever answer comes out of struggle.

I've reviewed Dohnányi's performances of the two orchestral sets elsewhere, if you want details. Here, I'll just call them stunning.

Some of these performances are classic, never-bettered. None of the conductors here are native-born Americans, and I'm always curious as to how "furriners" hear Ives. Mehta's the relatively weak link with his Symphonies #1 and #2, although he is quite fine. He does better in the Symphony #1, where the Dvořák connection lets him in. However, Michael Tilson Thomas and Eugene Ormandy both provide a zippier Ives's First, and Leonard Bernstein's account of the Second (the first, live recording on Sony as part of the "Bernstein Century" series) stands at the front of the line, a very long distance away from its nearest rival. Mehta's virtues here include textural clarity and a solid grasp of the long-range symphonic narrative. I can pay him no greater compliment than to say, under his baton, one hears the last movement in the first. Above all, he reveals that the symphony is no hodge-podge, but a series of echoes that roll from movement to movement. Marriner's Third ranks with Bernstein's (also a favorite account), although the readings differ. Marriner is more "inner-directed" and intimate. I almost always find a "public face" to Bernstein's accounts of just about everything. I'm not finding fault, merely observing. Marriner, on the other hand, relates the Third Symphony to British Pastoralism, which I think perfectly legitimate. There's a huge vein of nostalgia running through Ives, as there is in composers like Howells and Butterworth (though paradoxically not so much in Vaughan Williams or Holst).

The Fourth has been extremely lucky in its recorded history. I retain an affectionate loyalty to Stokowski's pioneering account, and as I've said, I've not heard his third movement bettered. But he is indeed a pioneer. We get a lot of approximations in the other movements, simply because so few had heard this kind of music before, even the musicians playing the gig. Nevertheless, Stokowski championed this music so well, that he drew distinguished successors. Before I heard Dohnányi, my favorite recording was Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Chicago – very precise textures and a clear-eyed vision of Ives's narrative. I think Dohnányi even better. The playing, of course, will make your jaw drop, it's that good. There are subtleties of dynamics that Thomas can't get, and the orchestra plays so clearly you'd swear you could see the score. Beyond that, Dohnányi obviously finds mystery in this music; the more revealed, the more mysterious the work becomes. Thomas brings a more American vibe, one that steps back a little from the edge, as if Ives's vision embarrasses him a little. Dohnányi goes right to the brink without jumping off. He commits. Stokowski does as well, but his players come nowhere close to the Cleveland.

This is a "two-fer," a "Double Decca." Considering you've got top-of-the-line Ives from Dohnányi and Marriner and very good accounts from Mehta, the price (I've seen it for under ten bucks on the Internet) is almost like stealing.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.