Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Emerson Concerto Symphony No. 1
The First Symphony and Emerson Concerto represent CharlesIves in his precocious youth and in his white-hot maturity, at the extremes ofhis stylistic poles, yet still in the same situation: at a fascinatingway-station en route to somewhere else. That said, one must add a caveat: inhis life and his art, Charles Ives was generally on the way somewhere -usually, somewhere beyond the horizon. In the First Symphony Ives is a collegestudent learning to be a symphonist; in his maturity he would be a masterfulshaper of large forms. In the Emerson Concerto, he is working toward a morefamiliar work, the first movement of the epic Concord Sonata.
That said, another caveat. It was specifically the nature ofIves's several Emerson pieces, even more so than other of his works, to be ajourney of discovery, a journey unfinished but no less heroic. In all theirincarnations, the pieces marked with the name of Ives's beloved philosopher lieclose to the heart of his conception of music and life. And a final caveat:Ives's philosophy of music and life were the same. 'Music', he said, 'is life'.
Very little Emersonian applied to the study of music at Yalein the 1890s. Under the German-trained head of the new Musical Department,Professor Horatio Parker, courses were rigorous and conservative. The aestheticParker imposed on his students was late-Romantic, Germanic, archetypallypedantic. Young Charlie Ives was not a happy student. But he did his homework.
There are ironies here. In his teens, under the inspirationof his visionary bandmaster father George, Charles Ives had already exploredunheard-of musical devices - polytonality, free harmony, spatial music. Newsounds, new rhythms, an exploratory attitude were as much a part of youngIves's musical consciousness as Brahms symphonies and Bach fugues. (He had beenan organ prodigy, a professional from the age of fourteen.) When as a Freshmanin 1894 Ives innocently showed Horatio Parker a Fugue in Four [simultaneous]Keys, his experimental side was abruptly and embarrassingly dismissed. Yet ifParker was incapable of understanding this student's unprecedented imagination,Ives could not have become what he did without Parker. It was through thisteacher that Ives became a true symphonist, and when all is said and done, thelate-Romantic ideals that Parker represented would remain Ives's ideals throughall his revolutionary discoveries. Music is there to ennoble the spirit, tochange our lives, to change the world.
On the face of it, then, the First Symphony is a homeworkassignment, surely one of the most remarkable ones in music history. It wasIves's Yale graduation piece, though it probably was not finished when hegraduated. Literally and figuratively, Ives composed the symphony with HoratioParker looking over his shoulder. From its opening, the wistful and a littlefateful clarinet theme over murmuring strings, the work is a high-Romanticsymphony in the tradition of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and above all Dvor˘ak.
Technically speaking, this symphony is not fully mature. Itrambles, it lurches, it is over-stuffed with ideas. But for a composer barelyover twenty it is an astonishing piece, a revelation of a young genius firstflexing his muscles with the orchestra. As it demonstrates, Ives did not haveto be \Ivesian" to write powerful and distinctive music. So in proper form theclarinet begins the first movement with the main theme, and it happens to beparticularly attractive one that Dvor˘ak might have admired. Soon the Ivessearchingness turns up, in the form of restless changes of key that alarmedHoratio Parker but would not have been news to Wagner. In the middle comes amagical section of chord changes drifting upward, for all its quietness themost striking part of the movement. Ives returned to those harmonies in hisvaledictory work, Psalm 90.
The second movement is a stretch of lyrical Romanticsentimentality. Maybe Ives groaned over this music in later years, but he hadnothing against sentimentality if it was honest and earnest. The third movementis a traditional symphonic scherzo yet remarkably fresh, the beginning animble, witty, brilliantly scored canon, the middle section beautifully andeven coyly lyrical. (It is often missed that as a sheer melodist, Ives wasfirst-rate.)
The finale is a romp, at once reasonably correct in Parker'sterms but Ivesian in its rhythmic vitality and general high spirits - thoughwith a dash of Romantic-trombonic fatalism. It ends with a gesture prophetic ofmuch Ives, a grand convocation of themes from the whole piece, in the traditionof nineteenth-century cyclic symphonies, but more frantic and fun than theRomantics.
From there we go to another world, the Emerson Concerto, oras Ives called it, Emerson Overture for Piano and Orchestra. It exists as adeveloped draft, one or two stages from a completed score. This performingversion has been reconstructed by the Ives scholar David G. Porter. Theconcerto had been intended for a series of orchestral portraits called "Men ofLiterature", the only more or less finished one being the Robert BrowningOverture. Another was a Hawthorne piece that began as a concerto and ended upin the Concord Sonata. Before the Emerson concerto was quite done in 1911, thismusic also had begun to evolve toward the latter; Ives laid aside the concertoversion and never returned to it, though there are signs he intended to. Afterthe Concord Sonata this stream of ideas would become the Four Transcriptionsfrom Emerson.
In the Emerson section of his book, Essays Before a Sonata,accompanying the Concord Sonata, Ives wrote about his conception of thephilosopher: "Emerson is... America's deepest explorer of the spiritualimmensities... perceiving from this inward source alone that 'every ultimatefact is only the first of a new series'...We see him - a mountain-guide sointensely on the lookout for the trail of his star that he has no time to stop andretrace his footprints".
Here Ives hints at the meaning, atmosphere, and method ofthe Emerson pieces. All of them are craggy, dissonant, searching. ImagineEmerson on the mountain-top, challenging the immensities. He "has no time tostop and retrace his footprints". "Every ultimate fact is only the first of anew series": themes are not traditionally stated and developed; nothingrepeats, and the themes are nothing but development, endlessly evolving.Meanwhile the dramatic layout of the piece recalls "heroic" nineteenth-centuryconcertos; the soloist represents Emerson, the orchestra the world confrontinghim.
The Emerson Concerto and its later avatars are perhaps themost radical works Ives ever created. The dissonant language and the refusal torepeat anything literally are only the surface part of its innovations. Thedeeper part concerns the themes and the boundaries of the work. There are twothematic areas in Emerson, the craggy and heroic (often involving the four-notetattoo from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony), and the quiet and lyrical (one elementof which Ives called the 'human-faith melody'.) But neither of thesecontrasting themes have any definitive form; they are qualities in motion. Mostradically of all, Ives said that he never felt the Emerson music was finished,and he never wanted it to be. So he broke open the concept of a 'work', making'Emerson' an image of an endless, unfinishable quest carried from avatar toavatar. The truth is in the journey. To stop searching, Ives believed, was tostop living.