Essay After a Sonata

July 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm (By Theo Boehm) (, , , , , , )

I‘ve been listening to and thinking about the music of Charles Ives (1878-1954), one of the most original composers of this or any other country.

His father had been a bandmaster in the Civil War and later Danbury, Connecticut, and he gave young Ives an odd but thorough musical education. Ives took a degree in Music from Yale in 1898, where he was captain of the baseball team,  and where, the story goes, he was said to have muttered, “Goddam Brahms…Goddam Brahms…” under his breath as a kind of mantra during warm-ups.

Having thus studied the best European masters and their weak American imitators, he determined never to compromise his own startling, American, and original vision of music. He saw that making a living in music in the Gilded Age would entail nothing but compromise.  So, he went into business and became the co-founder of Ives & Co., later Ives & Myrick, a successful New York insurance agency.  He was an original thinker in business as well as music, and in fact pioneered the entire modern concept of estate planning.  Composers do not commonly write books titled, Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax, but Ives did in 1918.

Ives, while becoming wealthy in business, wrote an astonishing amount of music in such spare time as he created for himself. His music is beyond unusual for its day or any other, and, in fact, to say it was “ahead of its time” is the worst limp-wristed cant. Stravinsky put it best, I believe, in 1966:

C: Have you heard Ives’ Fourth Symphony yet, Mr. Stravinsky, and if so, have you any comments to register concerning it?

I.S.: I have found it to be rather less of a ‘gas’ than opinion led me to expect. Ives was not primarily a symphonist; the Three Places in New England are more of an entity than any one of the symphonies (besides which they contain much better music than the third and more consistently good music than the fourth). But the second movement of the fourth is an astonishing achievement. The inclusiveness, which is at the root of Ives’ genius (‘all things in their variety,’ as he quoted Emerson) reaches saturation point in these seemingly free-for-all pages; ‘seemingly’ because while this or that tune may suddenly burst out for no other apparent reason than joie de vivre, it is inextricable in the skein of the composition. But I will say no more. I know too little of this fascinating composer who was exploring the 1960s during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Polytonality; atonality; tone clusters; perspectivistic effects; chance; statistical composition; permutation; add-a-part, practical-joke, and improvisatory music: these were Ives’ discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table. But to me personally these innovatory achievements are of less moment (artistic inventions not being patented, in any case) than my discovery in him, only very recently, of a new awareness of America.

–Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, p. 66.

The original book is online here.

The second movement of another Ives symphony, the unnumbered “New England Holidays,” has always been close to my heart.  It paints a picture of Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) in a New England village when Ives was a boy, about 20 years before the turn of the last century. It’s filled, like most of Ives’ music, with quotes and snippets of popular songs, hymns, and Civil War tunes, which is what Stravinsky meant by “inclusiveness,” in reference to the second movement of the 4th Symphony.  Much of Ives’ commonplace music is unfamiliar to people today, but see what you can pick out.  Knowing some of Ives’ musical landscape adds considerably to the appreciation of the portrait he has painted with it as a background. Ives wrote of this piece:

In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial.** During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity–a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness–reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of “Nature’s kinship with the lower order-man.”

After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear-the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and “Adestes Fideles” answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg.

After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and “we all march to town” to a Yankee stimulant-Reeves inspiring Second Regiment Quickstep-though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops-and in the silence of the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day .

I can never listen to that, especially as I live near a cemetery filled with Grand Army of the Republic badges next to weathered marble headstones, without a lump in my throat.

Ives was a careful reader of the New England Transcendentalists, especially Emerson.  Ives’ one extended piece of writing, his Essays Before a Sonata, (another online version here) originally published in 1920, is filled with Emersonian ideas, filtered as they are through Ives’ atmospheric and sloppy prose. The lack of editing, both in his music and his writings, is perhaps Ives’ weakest point.  Considering he was a preoccupied businessman who managed to accomplish at least three lifetime’s work in his relatively short productive span, I think it’s worth plowing through a little hazy writing to get at the gems of Emersonian thought as applied to music, a subject on which Emerson wrote very little.

There’s also no little humor in Ives, both in his music and writing. In his “Introductory Footnote” he says, “These prefatory essays were written by the composer for those who can’t stand his music–and the music for those who can’t stand his essays; to those who can’t stand either, the whole is respectfully dedicated.” I’m afraid this particular blog post is focused on his more serious side, although there is no lack of subtle mockery of Bronson, for example, in the “Alcott” movement of the Sonata mentioned next.

The occasion of these Essays was the publication of his large, complex Second Piano Sonata, titled, “Concord, Mass. 1840-60.” It has four movements, each a portrait of a Concord author, plural in the Alcott instance:

1. Emerson (Part 1) (Part 2)
2. Hawthorn.
3. The Alcotts.
4. Thoreau.

The Sonata is an enormous work, and I won’t try to analyze it, except to quote Bernard Herrmann, the composer probably best-known for his music for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and who was a longtime friend of Ives:

The first movement, “Emerson,” is prefaced by the following comment:

There is an “oracle” at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony–in those four notes lies one of Beethoven’s greatest messages. We would place its translation above the relentlessness of fate knocking at the door, above the greater human-message of destiny, and strive to bring it towards the spiritual message of Emerson’s revelations–even to the “common heart” of Concord–the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened–and that the human will become the Divine!

This movement is divided into three sections, prose and verse and coda, the coda being one of the most superb pages in music. In its twilight mood, it is only comparable to the coda of the last movement of Brahm’s Symphony in F major. The scherzo tries to suggest Hawthorne’s fantastical adventures into the half- childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms–about the ghost of a man who never lived, or about something that will never happen, or something that is not. The third movement is a sketch in form of a free improvisation–of Beth Alcott at the old spinnet-piano, playing and improvising on old Scotch airs, hymn tunes, and on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This movement is constructed on simple, diatonic harmonies. The finale follows Thoreau’s thoughts on a day in Indian summer, at Walden. It is twilight, and the poet’s flute is heard out over the pond. “‘Tis an evening when the whole body is one sense.”

The links on the titles of the movements are to excellent performances of this Sonata by John Kirkpatrick, Ives’ first real piano champion, who played its public premier in 1938. The recordings are a transfer from a 1968 vinyl, I believe, so they’re a bit scratchy. But they really are the best readings I’ve ever heard of this piece, and I recommend spending some time with them.  You also might want to explore some of the CD’s available of this piece.

Here, also, is the YouTube file of the “Alcotts” movement, which is probably my favorite, as the character of Bronson Alcott and Louisa May (“Necessity’s Daughter”) have always affected me greatly. I drive by Orchard House almost every day on my way to work, and sometimes think I see the Shade of Jo and her sisters scampering behind the big tree, or Bronson sitting in the “Hillside Chapel” of his Concord School of Philosophy and Literature, ready to expound profoundly on any subject by the hour.

While this my be my usual effort at Music Appreciation, it also has something to do with the current situation of the American psyche, if I may use the term.  Ives is interesting to me, aside from his purely musical merit and the quality of his thought, because he was a genuine American of a sort I don’t know can exist any longer.

It seems our political and social thought and dialog, such as they are, have become crude travesties, in thrall to one or another rigid system, with too much of the country lapping up foreign and discredited ideas, the conflicts of which in the 20th century have wrecked a noticeable part of the ancient physical fabric of Europe and killed millions and the European soul in the bargain, while the Chinese, practical people as they are, finally withdrew from the brink before it ruined them utterly.

The other part of the country seems to be taken with such absolutes of private property and public economy as would have warmed the heart of an old Whig mill owner in Manchester in 1801.  Both sides, but particularly the first, seem intent on cutting off the nose of the country to spite the face of the other.  Where, now, is our American practicality and common sense?

Where in all this do we find thinkers and writers of the character of an Emerson? Where do we find artists with the independent, Yankee spirit of an Ives? Maybe they exist. I see very good political and social writing all the time, and know that there’s quite a bit of good, new music being composed. But everything I read or hear, despite my efforts at engagement, fills me, in some deep place, with dread. It’s as if I have stumbled into a terrible Dark Age, in which there are still clever people, ignorant as they may have become, but nowhere do I find essential spiritual comfort, wholesome-minded and renewing, as I do in Emerson or in Ives.

Ives was mainly a programmatic composer who evoked ordinary American life. He wrote music about small-town events, places he knew in New England, scenes in New York City, and pieces inspired by well-known American political and literary figures. In a sense, he had the outlook of a Norman Rockwell, but wedded to an astonishing avant-garde musical technique. More to the point, he had the outlook of the New England Transcendentalists, who found spiritual meaning in everyday life and in ordinary Nature.  Ives always had, behind his depictions of life and quotes from other music, a deeper, spiritual and cosmic purpose.

The thing that leads me to despair when I consider Ives, is the nearly complete absence of this today. Our artistic sensibilities, particularly in “serious” art or music, seem to be foreign and imported along with our left-wing politics, leaving little space for the genuinely American. Ives does not mock or condescend to small-town life, as journalists, writers and artists of all stripes do today. He does not sneer at the village band playing the Second Regiment Quick-Step, missing a beat or two, but instead surrounds them with a another story, deeper and more spiritual, that in itself springs from those ordinary people.

The condescension and self-loathing in American intellectual, political, and artistic life today is an acid that eats at my soul. I hope you don’t think it too self-indulgent to say this, while pointing to an example from the past that is so much different.

Perhaps it’s always been this way to those who must live through the anxieties of any particular time. I have found in Emerson a few words of ultimate comfort, as he inevitably has, to those of us Americans who despair at the present and think things are uniquely bad. I suppose we ought to be reminded there never was a Golden Age, but that this country may indeed represent the last, best hope for mankind and the renewal of the human spirit. Emerson gives us the full brunt of what always seems to have been wrong with America, and then his reasons why it should turn out well. I pray he was right:

I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit, to get knowledge by raps on midnight tables. to learn the economy of the mind by phrenology, or skill without study, or mastery without apprenticeship, or the sale of goods through pretending that they sell, or power through making believe you are powerful, or through a packed jury or caucus, bribery and “repeating” votes, or wealth by fraud, They think they have got it, but they have got something else,-a crime which calls for another crime, and another devil behind that: these are steps to suicide, infamy and the harming of mankind. We countenance each other in this life of show, puffing, advertisement and manufacture of public opinion; and excellence is lost sight of in the hunger for sudden performance and praise.–Society and Solitude, Chapter 1.

Gentlemen, the development of our American internal resources, the extension to the utmost of the commercial system, and the appearance of new moral causes which are to modify the state, are giving an aspect of greatness to the Future, which the imagination fears to open. One thing is plain for all men of common sense and common conscience, that here, here in America, is the home of man. After all the deductions which are to be made for our pitiful politics, which stake every gravest national question on the silly die, whether James or whether Jonathan shall sit in the chair and hold the purse; after all the deduction is made for our frivolities and insanities, there still remains an organic simplicity and liberty, which, when it loses its balance, redresses itself presently, which offers opportunity to the human mind not known in any other region.–”The Young American.”


I can’t leave this without a few more words.

First, to my conservative friends, you should know that Ives was not one of you. As he was progressive in his music, so was he Progressive in his politics. My point about him in relation to modern politics is that he was an American and a New England Yankee, with everything those implied. He was as unlikely to follow the dictates of the Comintern in his day as to lap up ideas from the Daily Kos, were he alive now, and even less likely to listen to Rush Limbaugh for more than a few minutes.

There is a strain of American “progressive” thought, implicit in the New England Transcendentalists, that sought more perfect democracy, the Abolition of slavery, free and equal public education, governmental efficiency and elimination of corruption and favoritism, regulation of the influence of the “moneyed interest,”  Temperance, the protection of Nature for the common good, etc. These things were historically associated with the Republican Party in New England, who were heirs, ultimately, to the old Federalists.

These were not wild-eyed radicals in their love of some collectivist ideal. Neither were they Jeffersonian small-government Democrats, with their hypocritical cant of “each man under his own vine” and “States’ Rights” covering for the enslavement of millions.  New England Republicans, mocked in the past as “Goo-Goo’s” for their commitment to Good Government, trace their roots to the intensely communal Puritans and their version of a proper Christian life.

Puritans never passed up a chance to Do Good, individually or collectively, as they were impelled to as an external sign of their Christianity as part of  the Body of Christ. Yet, each of them had his or her own intensely personal relationship with God, and to a Salvation not meted out to Merit, but to Faith, and that by God’s unknowable Will alone.

Thus were the tensions between the individual and collective expressed in the very mothers’s milk of our own first, distinctively American, tradition of communal responsibility.  In modern New England, politicians such as Frank Sargent, William Weld, Olympia Snowe, and Joe Lieberman have been the uncomfortable heirs to this ambiguous and tense legacy, long since stripped of external signs of its Christian roots.

Charles Ives would have been, I think, more comfortable with these, and his own turn-of-the-century Republican Progressives, than any of the pro-crypto Marxist modern “progressives” or doctrinaire “conservatives” that otherwise pester us today.  From what I’ve read, Ives was a supporter of FDR and the New Deal, like many Yankee former Republicans, who found their liberal and reformist social ideas squeezed out of the 1920’s Republican Party, and taken up, however strangely and hypocritically, by the party of the Solid South and Jim Crow.

Such is another example our “pitiful politics.”

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