About this Recording
8.559175 - IVES: Symphony No. 1 / Emerson Concerto
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Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Emerson Concerto • Symphony No. 1


The First Symphony and Emerson Concerto represent Charles Ives in his precocious youth and in his white-hot maturity, at the extremes of his stylistic poles, yet still in the same situation: at a fascinating way-station en route to somewhere else. That said, one must add a caveat: in his life and his art, Charles Ives was generally on the way somewhere – usually, somewhere beyond the horizon. In the First Symphony Ives is a college student learning to be a symphonist; in his maturity he would be a masterful shaper of large forms. In the Emerson Concerto, he is working toward a more familiar work, the first movement of the epic Concord Sonata.

That said, another caveat. It was specifically the nature of Ives’s several Emerson pieces, even more so than other of his works, to be a journey of discovery, a journey unfinished but no less heroic. In all their incarnations, the pieces marked with the name of Ives’s beloved philosopher lie close 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 Yale in the 1890s. Under the German-trained head of the new Musical Department, Professor Horatio Parker, courses were rigorous and conservative. The aesthetic Parker imposed on his students was late-Romantic, Germanic, archetypally pedantic. Young Charlie Ives was not a happy student. But he did his homework.

There are ironies here. In his teens, under the inspiration of his visionary bandmaster father George, Charles Ives had already explored unheard-of musical devices – polytonality, free harmony, spatial music. New sounds, new rhythms, an exploratory attitude were as much a part of young Ives’s musical consciousness as Brahms symphonies and Bach fugues. (He had been an organ prodigy, a professional from the age of fourteen.) When as a Freshman in 1894 Ives innocently showed Horatio Parker a Fugue in Four [simultaneous] Keys, his experimental side was abruptly and embarrassingly dismissed. Yet if Parker was incapable of understanding this student’s unprecedented imagination, Ives could not have become what he did without Parker. It was through this teacher that Ives became a true symphonist, and when all is said and done, the late-Romantic ideals that Parker represented would remain Ives’s ideals through all his revolutionary discoveries. Music is there to ennoble the spirit, to change our lives, to change the world.

On the face of it, then, the First Symphony is a homework assignment, surely one of the most remarkable ones in music history. It was Ives’s Yale graduation piece, though it probably was not finished when he graduated. Literally and figuratively, Ives composed the symphony with Horatio Parker looking over his shoulder. From its opening, the wistful and a little fateful clarinet theme over murmuring strings, the work is a high-Romantic symphony in the tradition of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and above all Dvořak.

Technically speaking, this symphony is not fully mature. It rambles, it lurches, it is over-stuffed with ideas. But for a composer barely over twenty it is an astonishing piece, a revelation of a young genius first flexing his muscles with the orchestra. As it demonstrates, Ives did not have to be “Ivesian” to write powerful and distinctive music. So in proper form the clarinet begins the first movement with the main theme, and it happens to be particularly attractive one that Dvořak might have admired. Soon the Ives searchingness turns up, in the form of restless changes of key that alarmed Horatio Parker but would not have been news to Wagner. In the middle comes a magical section of chord changes drifting upward, for all its quietness the most striking part of the movement. Ives returned to those harmonies in his valedictory work, Psalm 90.

The second movement is a stretch of lyrical Romantic sentimentality. Maybe Ives groaned over this music in later years, but he had nothing against sentimentality if it was honest and earnest. The third movement is a traditional symphonic scherzo yet remarkably fresh, the beginning a nimble, witty, brilliantly scored canon, the middle section beautifully and even coyly lyrical. (It is often missed that as a sheer melodist, Ives was first-rate.)

The finale is a romp, at once reasonably correct in Parker’s terms but Ivesian in its rhythmic vitality and general high spirits – though with a dash of Romantic-trombonic fatalism. It ends with a gesture prophetic of much Ives, a grand convocation of themes from the whole piece, in the tradition of nineteenth-century cyclic symphonies, but more frantic and fun than the Romantics.

From there we go to another world, the Emerson Concerto, or as Ives called it, Emerson Overture for Piano and Orchestra. It exists as a developed draft, one or two stages from a completed score. This performing version has been reconstructed by the Ives scholar David G. Porter. The concerto had been intended for a series of orchestral portraits called “Men of Literature”, the only more or less finished one being the Robert Browning Overture. Another was a Hawthorne piece that began as a concerto and ended up in the Concord Sonata. Before the Emerson concerto was quite done in 1911, this music also had begun to evolve toward the latter; Ives laid aside the concerto version and never returned to it, though there are signs he intended to. After the Concord Sonata this stream of ideas would become the Four Transcriptions from Emerson.

In the Emerson section of his book, Essays Before a Sonata, accompanying the Concord Sonata, Ives wrote about his conception of the philosopher: “Emerson is... America’s deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities... perceiving from this inward source alone that ‘every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series’...We see him – a mountain-guide so intensely on the lookout for the trail of his star that he has no time to stop and retrace his footprints”.

Here Ives hints at the meaning, atmosphere, and method of the Emerson pieces. All of them are craggy, dissonant, searching. Imagine Emerson on the mountain-top, challenging the immensities. He “has no time to stop and retrace his footprints”. “Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series”: themes are not traditionally stated and developed; nothing repeats, and the themes are nothing but development, endlessly evolving. Meanwhile the dramatic layout of the piece recalls “heroic” nineteenth-century concertos; the soloist represents Emerson, the orchestra the world confronting him.

The Emerson Concerto and its later avatars are perhaps the most radical works Ives ever created. The dissonant language and the refusal to repeat anything literally are only the surface part of its innovations. The deeper part concerns the themes and the boundaries of the work. There are two thematic areas in Emerson, the craggy and heroic (often involving the four-note tattoo from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony), and the quiet and lyrical (one element of which Ives called the ‘human-faith melody’.) But neither of these contrasting themes have any definitive form; they are qualities in motion. Most radically 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 to avatar. The truth is in the journey. To stop searching, Ives believed, was to stop living.

Jan Swafford

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