About this Recording
8.559194 - IVES: Three Quarter-Tone Pieces / Five Take-Offs / Hallowe'en / Sunrise
English  German 

Charles Ives (1874-1954): Piano, Chamber and Vocal Works

Charles Ives was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut, a small New England town dominated by the Ives clan. His father, however, rejected the conventional life to become a musician. After leading reputedly the finest band in the Northern army during the American Civil War, George Ives provided musical nourishment for his townspeople while simultaneously undertaking musical experiments that sowed the seeds of his son’s development. Charles was twenty, enjoying college life, when his fiercely selfdisciplined, adventurous father died. He lost the only person who heard his music sympathetically and perceptively.

Charles had been sent to Yale to learn the basics of composition from the mainstream composer Horatio Parker, who found the young man’s music insufferable. A few years after graduation, Charles understood that earning a living in music required compromising his musical vision. He therefore entered the insurance business, becoming a legend in the business and achieving enormous financial success, which his employees attributed to an unfailing understanding of human nature.

For some fifteen years he spent gruelling days in business and nights composing, but in 1918 suffered a massive heart attack. With his health deteriorating he wrote his last work in 1926 and retired from business. He lived until eighty, however, revising his scores and quietly using his affluence in the cause of American composition. Apart from his indefatigable wife Harmony, and close friends such as composers Henry Cowell and Carl Ruggles and their wives, Ives was almost completely isolated musically. Cowell published some of his music; scattered performances attracted some attention. Performances of his music begin in earnest in the late 1930s, when the pianist John Kirkpatrick unveiled the monumental ‘Concord’ Sonata. Then a 1946 performance of his Third Symphony, conducted by Lou Harrison, led to a Pulitzer Prize. The musical world was beginning to appreciate Ives’ significance just as he died in 1954.

These bare facts tell but little of an extraordinarily visionary mind. An heir to New England Transcendentalism, Ives shared its reverence for the beauty and power of the individual, and its mystical faith in the one-ness of humanity and nature. He detested the stale traditions that dominated musical life: ‘rules’ were acceptable only if they facilitated creativity. In this spirit he constantly sought new and appropriate means of ordering his impulses, arriving at compositional methods that anticipated the thinking of generations yet to come. ‘Playability’ was never an acceptable limitation: ‘Is it the composer’s fault that man has only ten fingers?’

To Ives, ordinary mortals at worship, singing roughly and out of tune, but from the soul, knew more about music than those with flawless vocal techniques. His love of spontaneous, untrained creativity led him to unprecedented feats of compositional virtuosity. For if one loved the spirit of a revival meeting, where everyone sang from the heart, in his and her own tempo and key, why should a musical impression of such an occasion be tyrannized by the conventions of having one key, one tempo, or one conductor at a time? He loved to quote popular music, not to make the public feel comfortable, but because he was at one with the music of everyday life. Unfortunately, his uncompromising search for an honest expression of a nation’s soul produced music that most people refused to perform. This visionary Ives is the subject of the present recording.

The pieces for instrumental ensemble are Ives at his wildest. The Gong on the Hook and Ladder, later set for small orchestra, is heard here in its original version, dating from about 1912. Ives wrote:

“The Annual Parade of the neighborhood Volunteer Fire Company was a slow marching affair - for the Hook and Ladder was heavy, and the Gong on the hind wheel ‘must ring steadylike’ - and coming downhill and holding backward fast, and going uphill out of step, fast and slow, the Gong seemed sometimes out of step with the Band, and sometimes the Band out of step with the Gong - but the Gong usually got the best of it. Nobody always seemed to ‘keep step,’ but they got there just the same.”

In Re Con Moto et al (about 1915-16), subtitled ‘Studies in space, time, duration, accent, and pulse’, is a ferociously complex example of Ives determination to stretch the ‘ear muscles’. Hallowe’en (about 1914) ‘is but a take-off of a Halloween party and bonfire - the elfishness of the little boys throwing wood on the fire, etc. etc...’ To illustrate the growing bonfire, the strings enter progressively, in different keys, with oddly-placed accents. The ending is a take-off of ‘a regular coda from a proper opera, heard down the street from the bandstand’. From the technical point of view, Ives considered Hallowe’en one of his best compositions.

The vocal selections convey something of the wealth of his 175-odd songs, for which Ives wrote many of the texts. Soliloquy, or a Study in 7ths and Other Things (about 1916- 17) was one of a few ‘experiments’ that Ives decided to publish. The piano part moves through gradually shrinking intervals to a crashing tone-cluster, and then reverses itself. The violent vocal line can politely be described as atonal. In On the Antipodes (1922-23) contrasting aspects of nature are embodied in a series of phrases, each based upon a single interval, a procedure anticipating compositional ideas of decades later. Sunrise, apparently Ives’ last work, is startlingly simple. Although the manuscript does not specify the additional instrument, the editor John Kirkpatrick makes an excellent case for using a violin. Remembrance, a eulogy to his father, was arranged in 1921 from a small orchestra piece, The Pond (about 1906). The Housatonic at Stockbridge (1921) is also a re-fashioning of an earlier composition, the third piece of the orchestral set Three Places in New England (1912-17, revised 1921). It describes the Housatonic River, one of the mightiest in the northeastern United States, as it progresses from a stream to a torrent. In Aeschylus and Sophocles (1922-c.1924) a futuristic harmonic vocabulary underlines the drama of the poets’ dialogue.

Five Take-offs - the title probably signified “improvisations” to Ives - was completed around 1909, first performed in 1968, and only published in 1991. Although Ives was a virtuoso improviser, these pieces are hardly impromptu inspirations. In fact, each movement manifests one compositional challenge. The title Seen and Unseen? (Sweet and Tough) is illustrated by the superimposition of a loudly-declaimed melody, reeking of middle-brow parlour music, upon an irregular and dissonant accompaniment that growls quietly in its own world. The brash exterior of The Jumping Frog belies an elaborate rhythmic and intervallic organizational scheme. In Song Without (good) Words - the title alludes to Mendelssohn - the melody is supported by harmonies that float in and out of tonality. Scene Episode, a sort of prelude and aria, has a texture in layers that seem to coexist as if in different levels of space. Bad Resolutions and Good WAN, a New Year’s piece for 1907, illustrates ‘good’ and ‘bad’ resolutions harmonically: an innocent, impeccable ‘hymn’ bolts to a grindingly dissonant coda. We can imagine which resolution Ives preferred.

Ives’ work with microtones, fulfilling the artistic potential of his father’s experiments, began early in the century, but Three Quarter-Tone Pieces was completed only in 1924, for a performance in New York at the French pianist E. Robert Schmitz’s Franco-American Music Society. The outer movements were originally conceived for a double keyboard microtonal piano, played by a single performer. As a practical measure, the piece was scored for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart to create a composite scale of twenty-four tones. Each movement used microtonality differently, often reflecting the theory of microtonal harmony that Ives later articulated. In the first movement, quarter-tones are used primarily for harmonic rather than melodic purposes: in an impressionistic atmosphere, whole-tone melodies and harmonies are disoriented by microtonal chords between the two pianos. In the high-energy, ragtime second movement, tunes and rhythms bolt back and forth between the two pianos to produce continuous quarter-tone melodic motion. The finale is an eloquent fantasy on the patriotic song America, the sense of which only gradually emerges. In a majestic finale, the tune strikingly moves from quarter-tones to halfsteps and then to whole-tones. The last-minute appearance of La Marseillaise saluted Schmitz’s group and Franco- American friendship.

© 2005 Continuum


Close the window