About this Recording
8.559353 - IVES: Orchestral Sets Nos. 1-3 (Sinclair)

Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Orchestral Sets


The works on this recording focus on a singular genre created by a singular composer. The kind of piece Charles Ives called a Set is usually a larger work made by putting together independently-written smaller pieces, with an ear for unity of theme, program, and the like, and at the same time an ear for contrast in tempo, texture, mood, and the like. The reasons Ives created the personal genre of the Set and worked so happily within it are embedded in his creative history.

An organ prodigy and professional church musician from age fourteen, Charles Ives grew up in music inspired by a remarkable teacher, his father, and the vital musical life of his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut. Father George Ives had once been a Civil War bandmaster; in Danbury he was a musical jack-of-all- trades, teaching, playing, directing bands and church choirs.

From his father Charlie inherited a love of music from popular through churchly to the European classics. The boy also soaked up his father’s open-minded, exploratory streak. George Ives would march two bands around the Danbury town green in opposite directions playing different marches, to hear what happened when they passed. He would play his trumpet from across a pond, so Charlie could hear the effect of space on sound. Early on, while training his son in traditional musical theory, George told Charlie that ultimately any combination of notes was acceptable, if you knew what you were doing with them.

So Charles Ives grew up the first composer in history to be liberated from traditional harmonies, and for whom experimentation with sounds, rhythms, textures, space, and effects of chance were woven into his creative consciousness. No less did his father teach Ives that a humble hymn sung in church, a band playing on the march, a ragtime tune in a tavern could be as exalted as any symphony, if you perceived the human spirit behind them.

Four years of conservative German-oriented training at Yale failed to taint Ives’s musical consciousness. From those studies came his First String Quartet and first three Symphonies, all successful works, all within hailing distance of traditional forms and techniques. Then Ives decided to stop writing sonatas, quartets, and symphonies until he had learned how to make those genres his own, to unify them with his determination to explore new musical techniques and fill the old forms with the musical voices of Americans.

So to create large instrumental works Ives made an end-run around tradition to create a new, flexible, personal genre of which he would be sole proprietor: the Set. This recording is the first assemblage of Ives’s three full-orchestra sets, including the newly-resurrected Third.

The First Orchestral Set, variously titled Three Places in New England and A New England Symphony, is one of Ives’s great tributes to his roots. Put together around 1913-14 from material going back years, it is typically Ivesian in that each movement has an underlying program. Movement 1, Impression of the ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Robert Gould Shaw and His Colored Regiment) captures that sculptor’s celebrated bas-relief commemorating the Civil War’s first black regiment and their Boston-Brahmin commander. The movement is a slow march, portraying soldiers weary in body but indomitable in spirit. Ives had never heard what came to be called the blues, but here it is as if he created blues from its constituents, mainly spirituals. The music is filled with his usual quotations, here including Old Black Joe and The Battle Cry of Freedom.

The Children’s Holiday at Putnam’s Camp unfolds in a uniquely Ivesian mode, at once comic and spiritual. The program is of a boy who falls asleep at that Revolutionary-era memorial and has a dream of the soldiers, with the goddess of Liberty at their head. It assembles material from earlier works, mainly Country Band March, an affectionate portrayal of small-town bands. The players are missing notes and losing the beat, or rather creating their own interpretations of the notes and rhythms, which to Ives was not merely funny but a case of people of whatever skill putting their hearts and souls into music. “Bandstuff!” Ives once noted. “They didn’t always play right & together and it was as good either way.”

The inspiration for The Housatonic at Stockbridge came from the second honeymoon of Charles and Harmony Ives, when they walked along that river in the rapture of their first weeks together and heard a hymn floating over the water from a distant church. In his music Ives paints the flowing river and the hymn, the ecstatic climax reflecting the small stream growing into a powerful river “out to the adventurous sea.”

The score of Three Places used by James Sinclair here is the First Version, in which Ives trimmed back some of the complexities of his sketches (restored in the more familiar Second Version) in hopes of making a more practical piece for the ears and orchestral abilities of 1914. Among the differences: the first movement does not have the opening chord of the later version; and most strikingly, the difficult rhythms of the lines that create the misty texture of the later Housatonic are omitted. The above titles of the first two movements are from this 1912-13 version. This is the first recording of the First Version, revealing a work less complex, but with its own distinctive sound world and integrity.

Like the other Sets, the Second has a slow-fast-slow pattern and, like the other Sets and Third and Fourth Symphonies, a visionary hymn-based finale. It was assembled around 1919. The opening movement of the Second Set was first called An Elegy to Stephen Foster, later An Elegy to Our Forefathers. It is an Ivesian stream-of-consciousness, rising from silence in a sustained swell to a climax, then fading back to silence, like a moment in the passing parade of the universe. To that pattern is brought the element of space: the piece begins with an offstage group of zither, harp, and percussion featuring chimes and bells, which throughout give an extraordinary three-dimensional quality to the texture. The sustained melody of the middle, over a bluesy bass ostinato, is like a memory of Stephen Foster tunes.

The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting (alternate title Ragtime) is another high-spirited Ives reminiscence of the camp-revival meetings of his youth. The substance of the music is a kind of cut-andpaste ragtime collage based on Ives pieces going back to the early years of the century, the Ragtime era, when Ives sometimes sat in for the house pianist in taverns and theaters.

Like The Housatonic, the finale of the Second Set came from a powerful personal experience, reflected in its title: From Hanover Square North, At the End of a Tragic Day, The Voice of the People Again Arose. That day was May 7, 1915, when America learned of the sinking of the Lusitaniaby a German submarine, which made war imminent. At the end of that day Ives was waiting on the platform of the Hanover Square train station when the crowd suddenly broke into one of his beloved gospel hymns, The Sweet By and By. The music recreates that experience, more in its feelings than literally. It begins with a low chorus of the Latin Te Deum. From there the piece transforms that traditional, formal act of worship into the climax, which paints the spontaneous musical effusion of a grieving crowd of strangers in all its raw grandeur and shared fervor. Here was a moment in Ives’s life that reaffirmed his lifelong faith in the universal human spirit beneath all music, which his father had called “the music of the ages.” Hanover Square is one of his greatest and last revelations of that spirit.

The Orchestral Set No. 3, conceived around 1919, was the only Set Ives planned as a whole from the beginning. It was one of the pieces he was working on in 1927, when one day he came downstairs in tears and told his wife he felt he couldn’t compose anymore. As he later wrote, “I couldn’t seem to keep them up and sailing.” The extensive drafts and sketches for the Third Set show that Ives’s ideas were still running true and strong, but, sapped by a heart attack and diabetes, he had lost the energy and sustained concentration to pull them together. His mature music had always involved a heroic effort to contain wildly disparate material. Now the centrifugal elements of Ives’s art were escaping his grasp. Yet he continued to add notes to the last movement until as late as 1951.

The first movement is the most complete in draft, the material of the other two progressively sketchier. Nearly all the notes in this realization are by Ives, the first two movements edited and filled out by editor David Gray Porter, the uncanny third movement beautifully realized by Nors Josephson from a loose collection of sketches.

What is adumbrated here is a visionary work we can only wish Ives had found the energy to complete himself. But the Third Set is powerful as it is, like one of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures. The serene, ethereal atmosphere of the outer movements, similar to that of his last song Sunrise, can be called an example of the late-Ives Sublime Style, the most finished of which is the finale of the Fourth Symphony. The ebullient second movement — An Afternoon or During Camp Meetin’ Week—One Secular Afternoon (In Bethel) — amounts to a parade of people and memories from his Danbury youth, captured in a blizzard of quoted tunes. The Third Orchestral Set may stand as the most profound discovery of the many and ongoing efforts to reconstruct uncompleted Ives works. This is its first complete performance and recording.

Jan Swafford

Close the window