Lecture on Charles Ives (St. Petersburg, 2010)

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Lecture on Charles Ives for “The Contemporary Past” Festival  St Petersburg 2010

The United States is a young country in terms of its concert music tradition. While early European colonists brought their music with them and established composition and performance traditions in America, it is generally agreed that the first manifestations of a uniquely American concert music, by which I mean instrumental or vocal pieces not intended for dancing , religious or entertainment purposes, do not emerge until the end of the 19th C, about 50 years later than in Russia and its first generation of distinctly Russian concert music composers, notably Glinka. It is true that America  had a rich folk and popular music tradition before the emergence of a concert music tradition, but this is not my subject today. The first composers who achieved some general recognition as belonging to a profession in America were born between 1860 and 1870 and were all educated in Germany. The best known of these is Edward Macdowell, whose short piano pieces exemplify a personal ‘salon music’ genre. His contemporary, Horatio Parker was the first professor of composition at Yale University and the teacher of Charles Ives (1874-1954).

From our present perspective, Ives now is considered not only America’s first great composer but also its first composer to achieve an international standing, though that reputation did not take hold until after his death. I am devoting my lecture today to his music because I believe he remains to this day America’s greatest composer and for reasons which continue to influence the musical life of all composers in the United States. Having said this, it must be acknowledged that Ives is a composer who inspires a wide contrast of opinion. To some, he is an amateur, at best one who clumsily anticipated some developments in European music of the first part of the century. The reasons for this opinion is that Ives’ music, written down in haste, often has problematic instrumental projection and notation issues and is eclectic in its materials.

While I’ll acknowledge that Ives did not have a Stravinsky like understanding of the orchestra, I don’t agree with this point of view at all. I also don’t subscribe to the notion that whatever values Ives’ music has resides in its often striking realization of an individualistic  turn of the century modernism. Rather, I think Ives’ greatness lies in the sequencing of his musical ideas and that this sequential thinking which is similar to James Joyce’s “stream of consciousness” writing technique is at work no matter what the musical materials are, whether they be traditional or non-traditional. The piece I would like to illustrate this point of view with is the third and final movement of Ives’ Violin Sonata #3, composed between 1911 and 1914, though probably including music written twenty years earlier.

This piece has an interesting history which tells a great deal about Ives and his relationship to “official” music. Ives’ wife was a childhood friend of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who amongst other works, commissioned Stravinsky’s Apollo and Bartok’s Fifth String Quartet. While visiting with Ives’ wife one day, Coolidge asked Ives, who had stumbled into the room, if he was “still keeping up his music”, a remark which I’m sure annoyed Ives no end. Ives responded that he was and Coolidge asked him if he had anything for violin. Ives responded that he had written two sonatas to which the lady inquired if he would like to have the concertmaster of the NY Philharmonic, a friend of hers, try them out with him. Ives consented to this and indeed the day arrived that said violinist came to Ives’ house to read them.  It should be said that Ives was a first class pianist-there are recordings of him playing and improvising well into his sixties. At any rate, after about a page of the First Sonata, the violinist started to complain about the music, to which Ives suggested they try the Second Sonata. This infuriated the violinist even more and he packed up his instrument and left. Ives’ response to this was to ask himself if perhaps there was something “wrong” about the music and began a new sonata, the Third, as a kind of self-criticism. This piece, which Ives eventually described as “weak”,is triadic, strongly tonal and for mature Ives, fairly straightforward rhythmically. However the sequence of the musical ideas is remarkable-a perfect example of the “stream of consciousness”, one idea after another continuity which Joyce employs in the concluding chapter of Ulysess, in which Molly Bloom, lying in bed, recalls her lovers and her courtship to her husband, Leopold.

This streaming of musical prose is accomplished by Ives’ transformation of a 19th C.hymn, “I need Thee every hour”. It is common for Ives to quote or reference pre-existent music but this is one of the longest and most consistent pieces in his paraphrase technique. What Ives does in his piece is to completely rearrange the hymn tune’s phrases and to present them simultaneously in a kind of heterophonic polyphony. Thus the tune, so deeply interiorized by Ives, becomes like Molly Bloom’s memories, the conduit through which the resultant music emerges. The form of the piece is roughly in three large sections of approximately equal length, though it must be said that Ives was no “counter”, no proportionally obsessed composer, as was say Stravinsky. The hymn tune is in the first two sections never presented in anything like its original form, rather it supplies motives which Ives fashions into a continuous stream of music in which cadences spill over one another in a rambling outpouring. In the third section, however, after an extended piano solo, the violin enters, con sordine, with a motif adopted from what I’ve marked “B” on the hymn tune. This leads eventually to two complete statements of the hymn tune’s refrain “I need Thee, O I need Thee”, the first fortissimo and the second, pianissimo.

This movement is a kind of American music Rorshach test for me. I’m aware that the references of the piece are extremely local and not for everyone, but when I encounter people who love this piece as much as I do, I have a sense of immediate kinship. I value the piece not only for its sounds but also for the absence of self-consciousness which allows Ives to express himself so directly.