IVES: Symphony No. 3 / Washington's Birthday (Andrew Walton/ James Sinclair/ Northern Sinfonia) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559087)
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Charles Ives (1874-1954): Orchestral Music
We tend to think of composers as always themselves, at least after the juvenilia: Mozart always Mozart, Brahms always Brahms, Ives always Ives. In reality, every significant artist begins with a distinctive temperament, but has to grow into whoever he or she is. For Charles Ives that process was bound to be lengthy, because he began in a singular place and was headed in a singular direction, a direction he himself only slowly came to understand. The works on this recording are fascinating way-stations on that journey.
A good means of understanding the singularity of Charles Ives is to recall how he began in music, in the small town of Danbury, Connecticut. His bandmaster father George Ives came home one day to find four-year-old Charlie pounding out drum rhythms on the piano with his fists. Rather than saying, as would most parents, "Thats not how to play the piano!" George said, "Thats all right, Charles. But if youre going to play drums, learn to do it right." And he sent his son out for drum lessons. Later there were lots of other lessons; by his teens Ives was one of the finest young church organists in the country. But he never did stop playing the piano, now and then, with his fists.
Besides training from his father in the conventional ways, Ives had the benefit of George Ivess remarkable musical imagination. George would have his son sing in one key while accompanying in another; he would march two bands around the Danbury town-green playing different tunes, to hear what it sounded like as they passed; he tinkered with quarter-tones. In the 1880s he told his son that any harmonic combination of notes at all was acceptable, as long as you knew what you were doing with them.
So Charles Ives grew up composing with harmonies and rhythms and conceptions that were unprecedented in the history of music, though prophetic of much to come. At Yale he submitted to four years of training in Germanic musical craft, and wrote distinctive pieces in late-Romantic style, but at fraternity parties and New Haven theatres he indulged his wild side, tone-painting tumultuous events like fraternity initiations and football games, and playing that scintillating new pop style called ragtime.
By the first years of the century Ives had at his command much of the later modernist musical vocabulary: polytonality, free dissonance, complex rhythms and shifts of metre, collage-like juxtapositions of ideas that might have been called Cubist, if Cubism had been invented yet, and if the public had ever heard the pieces. Ives was a private composer by 1902, when he resigned his last church-organist job, and for a long time after. His living came from the insurance business, a job that, unlike his compositions, paid the rent.
In that period Ives was writing remarkable music, but he had not yet reached his maturity. In essence he was composing in two streams, the experimental works, often with an American flavour, that had begun in his teens, and more traditional and European-related works including the first three symphonies. His maturity would come when he found ways of uniting those two streams.
The folksy and intimate Third Symphony, the last of his symphonies to be laid out in more or less traditional form and tonal language, was assembled around 1904 from three hymn-based organ pieces (now lost) that he had written for his church jobs. A common thread uniting most of Ivess instrumental music, whatever its style, is story-telling: he was at heart a late-Romantic composer of programme music. The Third Symphony is subtitled The Camp Meeting and its movements follow the progress of an old-time gospel meeting. First is Old Folks Gatherin, featuring a lilting fugue on the gospel hymn O, for a Thousand Tongues; the second movement is the playful Childrens Day; the finale is an intense and meditative movement called Communion that ends, like so many Ives works, with a simple and heartfelt presentation of a hymn tune - here Just As I Am, which still concludes many church services.
In 1906, according to Ives, he sketched two visionary works, The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark later grouped as Two Contemplations. Both use a collage technique, piling one piece of music in its style on top of another piece of music in a different style, the combinations loosely coordinated, each element gaining its point and meaning from contrast with the other elements. It would take future composers some fifty years to catch up conceptually with these two small but revolutionary pieces, and to date, few if any of those composers have written works as warm, wise, or funny as Ivess.
For Ives, innovation was less the goal than evocation and storytelling. He called The Unanswered Question a "cosmic drama." It begins with a quiet and mystical string chorale, which cycles undisturbed throughout and represents, said Ives, "the silence of the Druids." Over this background a solo trumpet repeatedly declaims an enigmatic theme, "the perennial question of existence." Each time, the question is addressed by the "fighting answerers," a quartet of wind instruments who run around in search of an answer with increasing frenzy and frustration, until they reach a scream of rage. After that, the trumpet intones the Question once more, but is answered by silence. For Ives, then and later, a question was better, stronger, more dynamic than an answer. Part of his genius was to make such philosophical conceptions audible in his music.
Central Park in the Dark evokes night-time Manhattan in the 1890s, when Ives was a young bachelor and an enthusiastic observer of the cityscape around him. Here the park at night is painted in quietly intense string music, drifting in rhythm and harmony. Juxtaposed, as if from a distance, is life going its myriad ways outside the park: a burst of music from a bar, (the pop tune Hello, Ma Baby!) the elevated train, pianolas playing ragtime, a runaway horse, until "again the darkness is heardan echo over the pondand we walk home." Indeed, we hear the darkness, the trees, the thick and humid summer air. Ives was, in his way, the supreme American Impressionist.
"Country Band" March is a wry, rowdy evocation of the amateur bands of Ivess Danbury youth. As he wrote to one of his long-suffering copyists, town bands "didnt always play right & together and it was as good either way." For Ives the mistakes of amateurs, the wrong notes and falling off the beat, were signs of enthusiasm, marvellous found objects, a symbol of underlying human spirit and aspiration, but no less funny for all that. As man and composer, Ives was at once supremely serious and killingly witty, and could be both at the same time. Here Ives is not poking fun at bad musicians; he is joining the fun, and using quasi-"mistakes" to discover fresh harmonies and exhilarating polyrhythms. The slow march 1776 is an overture for a projected Revolutionary-era opera. Later he would join both marches in one of his mature masterpieces, Putnams Camp, second of the Three Places in New England.
As would be the case with Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples in Europe during the next decade, for some time Ives had considerable trouble turning his new ideas of harmony, rhythm, and form into larger works. He had to find not just new harmonies, for example, but ways of organizing and controlling them over long stretches of time. The expansive Washingtons Birthday from 1909 is a work from his maturity. It would later serve as the first movement of a loosely-assemble