About this Recording
8.559370 - IVES, C.: Holidays Symphony (excerpts) / The General Slocum / Overture in G Minor (Malmo Symphony, Sinclair)

Charles Ives (1874–1954)
Holidays Symphony: II, III and IV • The General Slocum • Overture in G minor • Postlude in F


With most artists one expects a certain divide between the juvenilia and the mature work. This is especially true of the generation of creators who grew up in the nineteenth century and became pioneering Modernists in the twentieth. It is typical of the Yankee maverick Charles Ives, of that generation but whose person and whose music eludes most categories, that he would bypass the apprentice/maturity dichotomy too. The works on this recording stretch from his teens to his full maturity, and indeed they show a kaleidoscopic stylistic range, from high-Romantic to pieces prophetic of the 21st century and perhaps beyond. At the same time it is not a question of what Ives left behind as he matured, because really he left nothing behind. He had a long and complex evolution to reach his final masterpieces, represented here by three movements from his symphonic set Holidays, but those pieces are deeply interwoven with music he heard and wrote in his youth. In his career Ives grew exponentially in depth and breadth, but the creative spirit that made Yale-Princeton Football Game is the same spirit that later made Decoration Day.

Once when Stravinsky was asked to define a masterpiece in music, he defined it with Decoration Day. This singular tone poem, drafted ca. 1912–13 (but going back to a piece Ives sketched in childhood), is in fact one of the works at the summit of his achievement, showing off everything he had learned in portraying memories of holidays and ceremonies and the human feelings behind them. Its program is based on the Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) ceremonies of his youth in Danbury, Connecticut, when the graves of the Civil War dead were decorated. Ives’s father’s band, playing a dirge, would lead the march to the cemetery. There George Ives would play “Taps” over the graves while old men in uniform stood at attention and wept. Then came the joyous part, the band marching back to town with a lively tune.

As in many of his programmatic pieces, Ives formed this portrait of a day into a logical unfolding: story and emotion are fashioned into musical form. It begins with a depiction of early morning and awakening. Here is Ives’s own kind of stream of consciousness, expressed in a hazy texture of strings. As in many of his works the first part forms a slow accumulation toward a climax and revelation. After some mournful string sighs the solemn slow march to the cemetery begins with Adeste Fideles. Then we hear George Ives playing “Taps”, the trumpet seeming at a distance not so much in space as in time and memory, surrounded by strings whispering Nearer, my God, to Thee. The music begins to surge, and suddenly as with a cinematic cut we are in the middle of the march back to town, the band playing Reeves’s exhilarating Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March. But here Ives does not just quote a beloved tune; he composes the whole parade, in all its joyous hubbub. We seem to hear the band through the cheers and bustle of the crowd and the children skipping alongside. As coda there is a gentle benediction and Amen, with church bells in the distance sounding an echo of “Taps”.

Decoration Day, like much of Ives, is a texture of quoted and derived tunes, because for him the music of his childhood was inextricably tied to the experience of communal events that are not bound to time and place but evoke the universal human feelings of joy, exaltation, worship, and awe. Which is to say: Ives’s means were personal and local, but his intentions were universal.

In 1904, in the wake of an explosion on an excursion boat that killed over a thousand people, Ives first sketched The General Slocum, he said, as a way of coping with his feelings: “This awful catastrophe got on everybody’s nerves. I can give no other reason for attempting to put it to music”. This, like Yale-Princeton Football Game, is in the Ivesian genre of “Cartoons or Take-Offs”, meaning literal-as-possible portraits of an event—here to entirely tragic effect. It begins with an ominous murmur of ostinatos like ripples on the river, over which are superimposed gay popular tunes of the time: holidayers on a sunny day, just before the catastrophe. The explosion is spine-chillingly literal. Afterward there is only a brief, stunned benediction.

The Overture in G Minor is one of the pieces that began essentially as homework assignments for Ives’s music studies at Yale, exercises in conventional style and orchestration that he still managed to infuse with a good deal of charm and personality, even passion. This is in standard overture form: introduction (here in a fatalistic high-Romantic vein) and an Allegro Moderato in sonata form, with bold first theme, lyrical second, and a proper development and recapitulation (a highly varied recapitulation with some key excursions that must have, once more, shocked his stolid German-trained professor, Horatio Parker). The scoring has echoes of Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Brahms, which quite suits the music. Still, the scoring is deft, the rhythms vigorous, and there are hints of what would later be called “Ivesian” polyrhythm.

If The Fourth of July, a prophetic work from ca. 1911–12, is aptly described as another of Ives’s masterpieces, it reminds us that a “masterpiece” can be a whole lot of fun. Here he marshaled his self-taught techniques that a later time would call polyrhythm, polytonality, collage, and so on, to fashion an uproarious impression of a holiday parade that ends in transcendent pandemonium with the final skyrocket.

“I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this,” Ives wrote, “that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it.” This “boy’s Fourth,” as he also described it, begins like Decoration Day with a slow unfolding. Here it feels not so much like an awakening of day as a sense of mounting anticipation. The stream-of-consciousness haze is increasingly punctuated by scraps of marches, including trumpets and a fife-and-drum corps that seem to be warming up in the distance. There is a sudden firecracker, apparently not an official one. Once again Ives transforms an event and its emotions into musical terms, into developing motives and colors, his form a process of gathering and intensification toward the climax.

As the climactic parade approaches, with its train of bands audible from close to distant, Ives once again turns to a film-like montage, as if we are jumping from place to place in the hullabaloo. Suddenly the fife-and-drum corps is marching by, its piping drowned by the first skyrocket explosion (which Ives depicts in intricate polyrhythms). From there the music builds to the final brass-band peroration on Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, the effect extravagantly rowdy what with the crowds whooping it up, and with some not very sober bandsmen who are playing in the wrong key(s). “They didn’t always play right & together,” Ives wrote of the amateur bands of his childhood, “and it was as good either way.” Then the big boom, the Aaaahs of the crowd, the dying fall of sparks, and the music evaporates like the memory it actually is.

The Postlude in F began life as an organ piece that Ives wrote for services when he was a fifteen-year-old professional church organist in Danbury. He orchestrated it for an exercise at Yale. As a teenager (not in later years) he was a Wagner fan, and the music shows the influence of Wagner in general and the Siegfried Idyll in particular. Given that this is one of Ives’s first known works for orchestra it is surprisingly beautiful, and accomplished in its lush late-Romantic instrumentation. The piece reveals his enormous gift for imitating a style dead-on and making it his own, a skill he would mobilize in a great deal of his music both light and serious.

Another of the “Cartoons and Take-Offs”, this one not serious in the least, Yale-Princeton Football Game, subtitled Two Halves in Two Minutes, depicts not just any old game but the legendary 1897 contest featuring quarterback Charlie DeSaulles’s 55-yard runback of a blocked Princeton kick. It began as one of “Dasher” Ives’s piano improvisations, legendary in their own right, depicting various campus events and people. He orchestrated it somewhere around 1910. The attentive listener can hear the kick-off, the cheers, the referee’s whistle, and the excitement rising play by flying-wedge play until the climactic zigzag dash to the goal line.

Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day developed from two organ pieces, a Prelude and Postlude, that Ives wrote when he was organist at Center Church, New Haven. Around 1914, in the heart of his creative maturity, he put together and re-imagined those pieces to make one of his warmest and most inspired orchestral works. One has to wonder what the congregation in the 1890s thought of the first sonority of Ives’s Postlude: a superimposition of the chords of C major and D minor, what a later age would call a polychord. Already in 1897, Ives was anticipating a later age in his exploration of musical materials.

After a stern, dark-toned, autumnal opening, the first section unfolds as a slow-cresting wave, gradually intensifying in rhythm and harmony. It builds to a powerful climax on what Ives called the “scything” theme, and the music ebbs to a magical shimmer. The gentle middle section is based on the hymn Shining Shore but sounds folk-like, to our ears prophetic of the “Americana” style of thirty years later. The tune erupts into a joyous rhythmical section like a gospel shout, though the shifting accents will trip up anyone trying to dance to it.

Again the music ebbs, then another wave rises on variations of the opening material, the motifs evolving ever more clearly toward the finish: the great choral peroration on the Thanksgiving hymn O God beneath Thy guiding hand (Duke Street) accompanied by pealing bells, one of those Ivesian endings in which the stars and the mountains seem to join in the jubilation. The music resolves into a receding march, proclaiming over and over Amen, Amen, Amen. In all his music, from exalted to comic to chaotic, Charles Ives was essentially a religious composer, his intentions not earthly or sectarian but transcendent.

Ives assembled the large works on this recording into the last three movements of his Holidays Symphony. Its first movement, Washington’s Birthday for small orchestra, appears on Naxos 8.559087, with James Sinclair conducting the Northern Sinfonia (U.K.).

Jan Swafford

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