IVES: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Blair Quartet/ Larry Combs) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559178)
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Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Charles Ives, a New Englander by birth and character, was greatly influenced by his father, a bandleader during the Civil War and a teacher and performer of music afterwards. Years after an outdoor religious camp meeting, Ives recalled his father leading 'thousands of "let out" souls' in hymns, noting that the elder Ives would always 'encourage the people to sing their own way'. 'Don't pay too much attention to the sounds', his father once commented, 'for if you do, you may miss the music'. Charles Ives never missed the music, and the exuberantly sung hymns that he heard at those camp meetings remained forever influential to his compositions.
George Ives trained his son, who early exhibited exceptional musical talent, in harmony, counterpoint and music history, as well as in American hymns, marches, and popular patriotic music. He also encouraged young Charlie, who began composing at age eleven and was a paid church organist at fourteen, to experiment in unconventional techniques such as polytonality (playing simultaneously in more than one key), microtones (exploring intervals less than a semitone apart), and spatial performance (placing musicians in physical settings other than those expected in common practice). Apart from this eccentric musical training, young Ives was remarkable mostly for his extreme shyness and his passion for baseball, football, and tennis. Although an unexceptional student, he managed to attend Yale, where he studied composition with Horatio Parker. Perhaps because his musical interests ran contrary to conventional practice, Ives decided that he would never make a living with his music, and, not long after moving to New York City with some classmates, he began a highly successful career in insurance, composing whenever he could and however he wanted. After a heart attack in 1918, Ives's output slowed markedly, and he spent most of his remaining creative energy revising and organizing earlier work. After enjoying increasing popular success, beginning in the late 1920s, and a long and happy marriage, Ives suffered a stroke and died quietly at the age of eighty.
The two string quartets are as unalike in origin as they are in content. The First Quartet, composed in 1896, was a product of Ives's sophomore year at Yale when he was studying with Horatio Parker. The work's original subtitle was 'From the Salvation Army' and Ives used his beloved revival and gospel hymns as musical sources. This could not have gone down well with Parker, who had earlier remarked to Ives that such hymns 'should have no place' in music. 'Imagine, in a symphony', Parker later lectured, ' hearing suggestions of … a Moody and Sankey hymn'! And yet the form and development of the work show the influence of the teacher, even if the programme and content eschew it.
The Second String Quartet occupied Ives from 1911 until 1913, and it was born of a typical Ives rage against what he perceived as the effeminacy of standard string quartet performances. 'After one of those Kneisel Quartet concerts', Ives later recalled, 'I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practice, and have some fun with making those men fiddlers get up and do something like men'. The completed score reflects this combination of anger and fun as well as Ives's lifelong spiritual quests. In a sketch for the work, he summarises the work's programme as 'four men – who converse, discuss, argue … fight, shake hands, shut up – then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament'. That the initial creative impetus of anger gives way to a final gesture of revelation is typical of Ives.
The first movement of the First Quartet originally was an organ fugue composed at Yale, its subject and countersubject coming from the hymns that Parker so disliked; but Ives dropped the movement and later used it as the basis for the third movement of his fourth symphony. The remaining movements also were based on hymn tunes, among them 'Beulah Land and Webb' (better known as "Stand up, stand up for Jesus"). Since hymns tend to be in regular phrases, however, with a clear-cut cadence at the end of every four measures, Ives paraphrased the tunes instead of directly quoting them, retaining the character of the hymns if not their melodic symmetry. This character is recalled in Ives's title for the work, 'A Revival Service', and his designation of 'Prelude, Offertory, and Postlude' for the three movements. The work also exploits cyclic form, which provides thematic and / or motivic unity to the work by using the same, if somewhat altered, material throughout the movements. (A famous example of this practice is the short-short-short-long motive of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that appears in all the movements of that work.) The energy and originality of this quartet provide an early example of Ives's highly original creative powers.
Those powers are apparent in the highly complex Second Quartet. Much of this piece uses original material, and when familiar hymns and patriotic tunes appear in the first two movements, they appear in such quick, polyphonic, and densely chromatic snatches as to be virtually unrecognizable. This is reflective of the work's conversational and sometimes confrontational programme, indicated by the titles of the three movements: 'Discussions', 'Arguments', and 'The Call of the Mountains'. 'Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean', one of Ives's favourite patriotic tunes, appears in the first two movements; in the second movement, it appears as part of a four-part canon. This canon suggests that part of the argument inferred by the movement's title might be about American versus European art: Ives gingerly contrasts popular American tunes with fleeting moments from Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and Brahms's Second Symphony. The last movement begins with a dissonant, almost atonal passage that slowly yields to a whole-tone scale surrounded by snippets of hymn tunes; as the whole-tone scale in turn brings forth a tonal centre of D, the score exudes a tranquility that suggests the arguing foursome have forgotten their differences as they contemplate the eternal from a spot in the mountains. The final moments of this quartet are surely among Ives's most transcendent utterances.
Ives's brief Scherzo for string quartet (ca. 1907-14), here programmed between the two larger works, leans more towards the composer's whimsical side. The main melodic content of the scherzo section again quotes from sources such as the hymn 'Bringing in the Sheaves', Stephen Foster's 'Massa's in de Cold Ground' and 'My Old Kentucky Home', and a canon on James Thornton's 'hoochy-koochy' dance. The trio incorporates an earlier musical joke titled 'Practice for String Q[uartet] In Holding Your Own' in which, anticipating later practices of Elliott Carter's, each instrument moves to a different pulse. J. Peter Burkholder has referred to the movement's final canon as 'raucous', as its memorable final chord attests.