Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954), composer, modernist, iconoclast, experimenter and insurance salesman? It’s all true. The trailblazing Ives made his living as a very successful insurance salesman. Actually, some of his work in the financial field laid the foundation for modern practices in estate planning, and many of his business colleagues were surprised to find out he was also a composer.
With his financial success earned in the world of insurance, Ives could, and did, write whatever he liked. He had inherited a spirit of experimentation from his father, the bandmaster George Ives. He freely quoted sounds and tunes from all around him, and layered them on top of one another with sometimes clashing results. For Ives, dissonance was associated with masculinity, at a period when music, poetry, and such were considered effeminate “long-haired” arts. He was generations ahead of his time, with his use of polytonality and other techniques, and had such financial independence that he didn’t care if anyone listened to his music. In fact, not many people did listen during his lifetime.
For the fourth of July, I present Charles Ives’ Variations on America. As this series of July posts was advertised to be about orchestra music, I trust you will forgive me the fact that the Variations started out as an organ work. It was later orchestrated by another American, William Schuman, which is how I came to know the piece.
Another work by Ives with clear American references is his Three Places in New England.
The three movements are arranged in a slow-fast-slow order, and are named:
I. The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment)
II. Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut
III. The Housatonic at Stockbridge
In the score, Ives wrote a program of sorts for the second movement. In his words:
“Once upon a ‘4 July,’ some time ago, so the story goes, a child went here on a picnic, held under the auspices of the First Church and the village cornet band. Wandering away from the rest of the children past the camp ground into the woods, he hopes to catch a glimpse of some of the old soldiers. As he rests on the hillside of laurels and hickories the tunes of the band and the songs of the children grow fainter and fainter; — when-“mirabile dictu”– over the trees on the crest of the hill he sees a tall woman standing. She reminds him of a picture he has of the Goddess Liberty — but the face is sorrowful — she is pleading with the soldiers not to forget their “cause” and the great sacrifices they have made for it. But they march out of camp with fife and drum to a popular tune of the day. Suddenly, a new national note is heard. Putnam is coming over the hills from the center, — the soldiers turn back and cheer. — The little boy awakes, he hears the children’s songs and runs down past the monument to “listen to the band” and join in the games and dances.”
Charles Ives was fiercely independent and self-reliant. When he finally won a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1947, he gave away the money saying, “prizes are for boys, I’m all grown up”.
His Symphony No.2 reached a completed form in 1901, but waited a full fifty years before it was performed. The 1951 premiere was given by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. If you listen to the full forty or so minutes of the piece, you will hear it end with a harsh musical “Bronx cheer”. Charles wanted no mistaking the manliness of his work, and would have suggested you take the dissonance “like a man”.
Not much to be said after that note. Have a safe and happy fourth of July holiday!