Saturday, November 01, 2008

"Sounds My Father Taught Me"
Listening to the Songs of Charles Ives

Iconoclastic American musician, Charles Ives (1874-1954), was raised in Danbury, CT, son of renowned Civil War bandleader, George Ives. By the age of five, Charles was able to play popular tunes on the piano, but unlike most musical prodigies who used their fingertips to pluck out the melodies, he used his fists. "It's all right to do that, Charles,” his father told him, “if you know what you're doing." For the rest of his life, Ives never quite could keep his fists off the keyboard.

He did develop a standard keyboard technique, and by the age of 14 became the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut. His father, however, always encouraged the innately idiosyncratic elements of his son's musical mind. Famously, Ives’ father once assembled two municipal marching bands and sent each marching around the town square in opposite directions, playing different marches! The clangorous effect of alternating rhythmic phasing, chance clashes, and surprising counterpoint, left all but the most maverick New England listeners (in other words, everyone but George and Charles Ives) a bit stunned. But, in fact, such commingled music accompanies each of us throughout our daily lives. Songs stuck in our heads mix with elevator music and the mindless, off-key singing of a (mindless?) co-worker lost in his iPod. We hardly are aware of the cacophony; Ives had the audacity and curiosity to try to recreate it.

Charles Ives studied musical composition at Yale with Horatio Parker, but found himself and the conservative music faculty at constant cross-purposes. Upon leaving Yale in 1898, Ives did not follow the usual career path of young aspiring American composers by continuing his studies in Germany. Instead, he took a $15-a-week job as a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company in New York City. He stayed in insurance for the rest of his life, producing his large body of music in the evenings and weekends. Working in almost complete isolation from the musical mainstream, Ives composed without either the experience or even the prospect of hearing his works performed. It brings to mind the self-cloistered Emily Dickenson, who produced over 1700 extraordinary poems while tucked away in her Amherst, Massachusetts redoubt, or, especially, poet Wallace Stevens, who became vice-president of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company while producing the most important body of American poetry since Walt Whitman.

Eventually, influential American musicians—including Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland—championed Ives’ music, even so, many of his works had to wait decades for a performance. Toward the end of his life, Ives reputation burgeoned. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1945, and the Symphony no. 3 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. In 1951, Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premier of his Second Symphony, some 40 years after its completion. (Ives and his wife listened to the broadcast of that concert on a neighbor’s radio. When the Carnegie Hall audience exploded in a thunderous ovation, Charles’ wife turned to her husband and remarked, "Why, they actually like it!”) His Symphony No. 1 was given its first performance in 1953, half a century after it was finished. He died a year later. Posthumously, Ives is recognized as America’s greatest musical innovator.

Music historian, Jan Swafford, movingly points out that Ives’ father “taught his son to respect the power of vernacular music. As a Civil War bandleader, he understood how sentimental tunes such as Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground, Aura Lee, Stephen Foster songs, and marches and bugle calls were woven into the experience of war and the memories of soldiers. Much as did Gustav Mahler a continent away, Charles Ives came to associate everyday music with profound emotions and spiritual aspirations. One of his father's most resonant pieces of wisdom came when he said of a stonemason's off-key hymn singing: ‘Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds—for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.’” For both father and son, high and low art were distinctions that hobbled, rather than refined, musical experience. I want to “kick out the softy ears,” Charles would shout, “Stand up and use your ears like a man!” At its most successful, Ives' music achieves a kind of musical imitation of actual thought. In this way his work is similar to his contemporary, James Joyce. By following multi-layered ideas and references in and out of memories, both distant and familiar, Ives gives us a glimpse of the mind’s inner workings.

The seven songs we’ll hear tonight display Ives in a mischievously touching mood. Hymns, popular melodies, Civil War Songs, spirituals, and parlor ditties, all weave in and out of the proceedings. A passing piccolo whistles “Dixie” in He is There! Even the pianist has a few words to say along the way. The results are familiar and quirky, sentimental and outright funny, commonplace and breathtakingly original. They paint an intimate portrait of a true American visionary, as he paints his own portrait of the nation at the dawn of the “American Century.”

Helicon Symposium 87
2 November 2008

Seven songs by Charles Ives
Performed by Nicholas Phan, tenor
Pedja Muzijevic, piano
Alex Sopp, fife

Memories: A - Very Pleasant, B - Rather Sad (1897)
My Native Land (1897)
Mists (1910)
Luck and Work (1920)
He is There! (1917)
At the River (1916)
The Circus Band (1894)

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