As his Essays Before a Sonata makes clear, Ives regarded music as, to paraphrase Clauswitz, philosophy carried on by other means - not just any philosophy either, but the discursive style practiced by Emerson, Thoreau, and Carlyle. Ives apparently inherited many notions from Transcendentalism, chief among them, the imminence of God in Nature. In his late writings especially, Thoreau felt that the more accurately you could describe natural phenomena, the closer you came to writing theology because you would then reveal celestial design. To me, this impels Ives the composer as well. Most of his technical innovations (simultaneous clashes of different meters and keys, odd rhythms and syncopations, "synthetic chords," and microtones) stem from the desire to reproduce more directly natural sonic events (and thus arouse the listener to the thoughts of the composer) than from an interest in gadgets for their own sake. Even Ives' use of quotation serves extra-musical ends. In some cases, it helps describe the scene or milieu Ives wants to evoke. In many cases, however, the quote becomes symbolic, iconographic, as when the song "Down East" slips in and out of "Nearer, My God, to Thee." He both describes the immediate scene and evokes the strength of faith, the nobility of his region's character.
In the Essays, the musician most often referred to is Beethoven. In the sonata, the opening motive of the Fifth Symphony is the musical icon given the most prominence. It carries from movement to movement and, according to the composer, calls to mind nothing less than "the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened - and the human become the Divine!" In Ives' mind, Beethoven and the Transcendentalists join company as spiritual pilgrims. Ives himself wonders whether music can supply everything he wants from it, but significantly "purely musical" considerations rank rather low. A composer who writes a "Universe" Symphony or a tone poem on the "Perennial Question of Existence" probably has little interest (unlike Haydn and Dvořák) in neatening sonata form. Most composers sing or dance. Ives and his sonata talk. The rhythm is characteristically the rhythm of prose, and Emerson's prose at that. The performer gets very few structural "lighthouses" to mark the overall shape of the piece. Ives' music, like transcendentalist prose, typically works for the revelation in the moment rather than for the cumulative power of argument over the long span. Consequently, more than for most composers, the player and the listener both must constantly be "with" Ives. The danger for the music is that it will go by as just so many notes.
Several noteworthy recordings of the sonata have appeared from such artists as John Kirkpatrick, Easley Blackwood, Gilbert Kalish, and Alan Mandel. Leo Smit I know has recorded at least "The Alcotts" movement. However, I consider Vandewalle's account at the front of the line. I admit to reading the Essays Before a Sonata while listening to Ives' "Concord," and Vandewalle reconciles notes and words like no other. In the first movement, "Emerson," he hurls out lightning bolts of prophecy. The Fifth Symphony quote sounds out here more often than in any other movement, and Vandewalle manages to give each occurrence a different character: stormy, dreamy, frenzied, and hymn-like, by turns. To some extent, the score itself implies these differences, but Vandewalle realizes them better than anyone else I've heard. He even manages to bring out the motive in inner, subsidiary voices. He also manages to delineate a fragmented version of Old Hundredth in the quieter passages, a new revelation for me with this piece.
"Hawthorne," the second-movement scherzo, is a phantasmogoria intended by Ives to depict the relentless of guilt, the elves in the forest, the Puritan past, and Hawthorne as the great national recorder of 19th-century American life. For Ives, the last is the most important, and out of the whirlwind of ragtime and bustle comes the Fifth Symphony motive. A beautiful hymn passage follows, which leads to a version of Ives' "Circus Band" march, more ragtime, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," and "The Battle Cry of Freedom." In some ways, the movement shows a kinship with the finale to Ives' Second Symphony, as "one damn thing follows another." That Vandewalle manages to give the movement shape amazes me. It's not a shape in the sense of a static structure – you'd have a tough road trying to find one in Ives - but he helps you find the turns in Ives' musical thought, so that you turn with him. Furthermore, he plays the "sound-mass" as clearly as I believe it can be played. In his hands, the movement comes across not as a ferocious haze (unfortunately, the norm), but almost as competing strands, all jostling for attention.
"The Alcotts" (Bronson and Louisa May) - the shortest, the easiest technically and interpretively, and the most-often excerpted - has its own dangers nevertheless. The Victorian sentimental streak in Ives is uppermost here. Of course, Ives has his own view of the matter: modern America could use some of it. Sentiment is also tenderness, the guardian and shaper of our national sturdiness and the parlor-mirror reflection of divine immensities. In the "Epilogue" to the Essays, Ives speaks of" Aunt Sarah,' who scrubbed her life away for her brother's ten orphans, the fervency with which this woman, after a fourteen-hour work day on the farm, would hitch up and drive five miles, through the mud and rain to prayer meetin' - her one articulate outlet for the fullness of her unselfish soul." For Ives (and not only for him), this approaches the divine as closely as anything human. Significantly, it is in "The Alcotts" that Beethoven's quote begins as a parlor song and ends with a grand, full statement in ringing C Major. The trick for the interpreter is, of course, to get from one to the other convincingly. I don't believe Vandewalle quite escapes a tone of condescension, but he does better than everyone else except Kirkpatrick. It's a New England thing, I suppose.
Vandewalle's "Thoreau" satisfies the most of the four movements, and I believe it the hardest movement to bring off. There are fewer eccentricities here, as well as fewer interpretive discoveries. A notable one is the striking similarity between the music roughly 2-6 minutes in and Aaron Copland's Americana "simplicity" of the 1930s and 1940s. Throughout, Ives hints at the Beethoven quote, and Vandewalle is sharp enough to catch the hints each time. The flute passage is very well done, with the Beethoven quote sounding in full form for the only time in the movement. Why the flute in a piano sonata? Why not? As Ives said, "Is it the composer's fault that man has only ten fingers?" Beyond that, however, the flute represents Thoreau himself (who played the instrument). It's a touching, beautiful section and a great close to what I consider a particularly American musical monument. There's no excess here. Indeed, "plain speaking" is what the movement is about. Vandewalle plays absolutely in service of the composer, eloquently and without affectation, coming as close to Ives' ideal of a music of "pure substance" as it may be possible to get.
The Studies, whether they are or not, seem preparations for the sonata. I particularly love #23, with Ives' hyper-ragtime go at "Hello, Ma Baby!" Vandewalle - a Belgian, by the way - has the idiom down cold. In fact, he puts many American classical musicians to shame.
The sound is quite fine, with the acoustics emulating a room rather than a hall. If you've never made your way into the "Concord" Sonata, this disc provides undoubtedly the best introduction.
Copyright © 1996, Steve Schwartz