About this Recording
8.559076 - IVES: Symphony No. 2 / Robert Browning Overture
English 

Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954)

Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954)

Symphony No.2 / Robert Browning Overture

 

‘I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes, of tunes of long ago…’

The Things Our Fathers Loved, Charles Edward Ives

 

The Composer

There has been a great deal of discussion regarding Ives as an experimental composer. The truth is that - despite his bewilderingly dense texture and shocking dissonance - Ives was neither a musical primitive nor a cultural iconoclast. A child of his time and place, Ives shared much in common with the New England school of composers (Paine, Chadwick, Parker, and others), and shared also the musical challenges that absorbed his European contemporaries. Indeed, Ives saw himself as a 'continuing spirit' in the tradition of Beethoven.

 

Charles Edward Ives was born on October 20, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut. His ancestors were numbered among the town's most successful businessmen. The Iveses also had reputations for being both a very civic-minded family and somewhat eccentric. George Edward Ives, Charles's father, departed from the family's business activities and entered music. Enlisting in the Union Army during the Civil War, George was the youngest bandmaster to have served. Following the war he returned to Danbury, where he oversaw virtually all of the town's public musical activities.

 

Young Charlie was a musical prodigy. Under the tutelage of his father, he received a thorough grounding in the rudiments of music theory and composition. Charlie eagerly absorbed his father's democratic approach to music appreciation, complemented with a reverence for the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Ives attended Yale, where he followed a general course of study and audited classes taught by the composer Horatio Parker. Parker was regarded as a superior craftsman and his works were internationally esteemed - though much later Ives would recall his experiences with Parker in negative tones, identifying him with hidebound German musical academicism. The truth of Ives's relationship with Parker was more complex, for during Ives's freshman year George Ives died suddenly from a stroke. Decades later in a letter to an old friend, Ives confessed that he had hoped to find in Parker a musical replacement for his father, a role for which the busy composer and teacher was unprepared.

Parker, however, was essential to Ives's development as a composer, teaching him advanced procedures through the modeling of actual masterworks. Concurrent with those studies, Ives composed much collegiate and other vernacular music - including a political campaign song for William McKinley, William Will, and the March Intercollegiate, played at McKinley's inaugural ball.

 

Following his commencement in 1898, Ives moved to New York to begin a dual career as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company and as a church organist and choirmaster. Despite his ability as a church composer, Ives was determined not to let his future family suffer the uncertain fortunes of a musician's life: leaving his church job in 1902, Ives continued to compose in two styles - one tailored for popular consumption, the other radically experimental. Following a tumultuous Federal investigation of the insurance industry many companies were closed. Stepping into the power vacuum in 1906 Ives and a New York Mutual friend, Julian Myrick, formed Ives and Company, which within five years became one of the country's most successful agencies. In 1908 Ives married Harmony Twichell who, for the remainder of his life, would be his muse and helpmate. Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century Ives composed at a phenomenal rate, completing five symphonies and numerous suites (or 'sets' as Ives called them) for orchestra, a second string quartet, a trio for piano, violin, and cello, two piano sonatas, four violin sonatas, and well over a hundred songs. Ives would occasionally attempt to organize private readings of his works, but the negative reactions of other musicians discouraged him from public performances.

 

In addition to his double life as businessman and composer, Ives continued his family's tradition for civic-mindedness. He expressed his humanitarian and radically democratic views on many occasions, even drafting a proposed Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, which would place all matters of national importance before a popular vote. Following the outbreak of World War I, Ives campaigned successfully for the introduction of Liberty Bonds in smaller denominations to permit support from the public at large. The resulting stress caused a breakdown from which he never fully recovered. During the 1920s, Ives began to assemble his scattered manuscripts for publication. Through his self-funded printings of the Concord Sonata, Essays Before a Sonata, and the 114 Songs, as well as various scores that appeared in Henry Cowell's New Music Quarterly, Ives's work gradually came to the attention of the new generation of musicians that included Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Bernard Herrmann, E. Robert Schmitz, Nicholas Slonimsky, and John Kirkpatrick. When the New York Herald Tribune review of Kirkpatrick's 1939 performance of the Concord Sonata declared it 'the greatest music by an American,' Ives's position as the patron saint of American composers was vouchsafed. In 1947, he received the Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony (which had been completed around 1911). Following surgery in 1954, Ives suffered a stroke and on May 19 died peacefully in the presence of his wife and daughter.

 

The Works

Ives's Second Symphony (assembled from some earlier church preludes and secular overtures around 1900-02, with its symphonic substance and orchestrations 1907-10 and final touches through 1950) is undoubtedly the most 'American' of symphonies. Drawing on patriotic marches, Stephen Foster tunes, gospel hymns, and a college song for most of its thematic material, it anticipates by three decades the homespun-flavored works of Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Copland. The Symphony opens with a flowing fugato that within seven measures introduces Foster's Massa's in de Cold Ground. A second quote from the fiddle tune Pig Town Fling lightens the mood. The remainder of this introductory movement combines these elements with the main motif from Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. A gentle oboe recitative segues into Henry Clay Work's jubilant song Wake Nicodemus, the main thematic material of the second movement. Shifting freely from key to key, Ives fragments Work's song to use as symphonic development. The minor-key version of Bringing in the Sheaves is set in relief against Work's melody. A sweetly harmonized quote of the college hazing song Where O Where Are the Verdant Freshmen? - sounding a lot like the song Dixie - provides contrast The coda, a dizzying collage of tunes - Where O Where, Wake Nicodemus, and the hymn

Hamburg - brings the movement to its breathless conclusion. The third movement, Adagio cantabile, first saw light of day as the slow movement to Ives's First

Symphony but was withdrawn at Parker's request. Beginning solemnly, quotes from Beulah Land and Materna (now known as ‘America the Beautiful’) are joined to extend the theme. This is followed by an Andante episode based on the hymns Missionary Chant and Nettleton. A final statement of the Beulah/Materna group and a quiet horn call bring the movement to a close. Following the model of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, Ives introduces a cyclic return of his first movement to serve as his fourth movement - really an extended introduction to the finale. Beginning this with a lively passage reminiscent of folk fiddling, the Stephen Foster song Camptown Races is introduced in the horns, becoming the main theme of the movement. A trumpet blast of Reveille announces the coda, where Wake Nicodemus, Pig Town Fling, and Columbia are sounded simultaneously, climaxing in one of the greatest symphonic pies-in-the-face ever hurled by a composer at his audience.

 

Ives had originally planned a cycle of overtures called Men of Literature. Only the Robert Browning Overture was completed, sketches for others finding their way into the Concord Sonata and much else. If the Second Symphony is one of Ives's most accessible works, the Robert Browning Overture is one of his most challenging. Ives was never satisfied with his attempt to evoke what he described as Browning's 'surge into the baffling unknown' and later repudiated the work. Its mysterious introduction is interrupted by a seething passage in the strings and an angular, atonal march whose theme is played in a series of canons between brass, woodwinds, and strings. Following a highly dissonant climax, an Adagio provides some repose. The return to the opening material and an extended recapitulation of the densely scored, canonic march, climaxes with a long-held pedal G-sharp and a ferociously dissonant chord, resolving into one of Ives's 'shadow chords.' Brief overlapping solos for the brass take us into the densely polyrhythmic coda. The work shrieks to a stop, revealing the opening chords of the Adagio, played almost imperceptibly in the strings.

 

Joshua Cheek

 

 

Editor's Note

When the Charles Ives Society engaged me to prepare their critical edition of the Second Symphony, I had long been a student of Ives's life and work and knew that within every major task lay its unique web of error and enigma. Too, I had grown up with Leonard Bernstein's vinyl recording that for a half century has been the molding icon for every performance since his premiere of the Second in Carnegie Hall toward the end of Ives's life. Ives's physical vitality and attention span were by that time too limited for him to be of much help to Henry Cowell, whom Ives had asked to prepare for Bernstein - and for publication - a score based on his 1907-10 pencil holograph. Though that 1951 score includes some touches known to be at least initiated by Ives (like the three-measure Columbia/Reveille tag and - assumedly – the organist's 'crash' that conclude the finale), the responsibility for other additions and omissions is unknown because no working material survives. But most damagingly - through adverse circumstance and much to Ives's disappointment when he finally heard Bernstein's performance ten days later on the radio - the 1951 score omits crucial tempo markings within the second movement and garbles them in the fifth, surely misleading Bernstein to his easygoing pacing of these and to his languorous interpretations of their lyric interior sections. The sum and substance is that the Ives Society’s edition fixes nearly a thousand errors great and small from that hastily prepared and ill-proofread 1951 edition, and revives the option of repeating the second movement’s exposition. For the record, Bernstein’s habitual, extensive, and inexplicable cut in the finale is not replicated in the 1951 score, nor is his trademark prolongation of the final ‘crash’, which in fact Bernstein seems not to have introduced until his first commercial recording made four years after Ives’s death.

 

My Ives Society edition of the Robert Browning Overture likewise fixes myriad errors from its first publication in 1959, clarifies dynamic terraces, establishes rhythmic proportions, and includes a more accurate realization of the coda based on holograph sketch pages that have come to light since.

 

Jonathan Elkus

University of California, Davis


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