Composition blog #6: Charles Ives' Symphonies (esp. #4)

I went to see the Detroit Symphony play all four of Charles Ives symphonies om May 10 at Carnegie Hall. I was deeply inspired, and not just from what I enjoyed, also from what I didn’t particularly enjoy.

Ives first two symphonies are essentially student pieces, very derivative of 19th century practice, and not particularly interesting. In the second  I found myself muttering under my breath, “If I hear ‘Columbia the Gem of the Ocean’ quoted once more I am going to hit someone!” Many other folk tunes were on display as source material and motifs, as was Ives custom, largely undisguised, somewhat charming, occasionally cloying.

By the third symphony, one can hear some of Ives mystery creeping in. The harmonies start to surprise, and dissonsance begins to show up, though not at all as powerfully and mysteriously as in Central Park in the Dark or The Unanswered Question. One of the interesting things about this piece is its accretion of “soundbites” that begin to get longer, often in the form of folk tunes, and end up defining the form to a certain extent. This is, of course, a very modern concept, small motifs (samples?), slung together with abrupt key changes, as opposed  to more traditional forms of development like the sonata form.

Still- nothing that transpired could prepare you for the 4th symphony. This a monumental work of explosive genius that is so rich in concept, feeling, intellect, and modern language that one can scarcely believe one’s ears after hearing #’s 1, 2, and 3. As I walked away I marveled at the fact that in every era, there are only a handful of masterpieces. These works, like The Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s 3rd, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, always sound contemporary- they elevate, delight, move, and instruct us every time we hear them. They make life worth living!

A number things struck me about hearing Ives 4th again:

1) the beginning is incredibly gripping- immediately you know the stakes are high. The harp is playing a D/G# tonality and a Bsus triad in quintuplets over 6/4 time! The piano plays D major arpeggios in the right hand with G#’s and A#’s, also in quintuplets, while the strings  play more conventional, slow-moving parts in D major. Two violins, separately notated, are notated “scarcely heard- faintly in the distance.” D naturals and C naturals start to show up. Besides Stravinsky, not too many people were writing bitonal harmony at this point.

2) A chorus comes in singing a hymn while these striations of time and harmony are occurring. An INCREDIBLE sound! It’s as if heaven and hell were dining together.

3) In the second movement, evoking the Hawthorne story “Celestial Railroad,” there are two conductors, and perhaps for the first time in modern history we experience a simultaneity of events (mostly) unconnected by meter or anything resembling known rules of western harmony. Multiple folk tunes play at once, in similar and dissimilar keys and tempos, perhaps the first musical “collage”. As the conductor put it, pretend you are standing in Central Park, hearing a boom box to the left, a baby crying to the right, a concert in the bandshell from the distance, and someone practicing saxophone a way’s down. Miraculously this density of sound wallops your ears in a pleasing way especially in its climactic moments. Perhaps Ives is speaking about the simultaneity of time, that life appears linear, but in actuality our experience is not. Many states of mind occur all at once inside us, and everywhere we go we feel  a barrage of stimuli. Truly he predicted the future on some level.

4) The 2nd movement has moments of dark, almost carnivalesque humor. I find it similar in that respect to the 3nd movement of Mahler’s 9th, the Rondo-Burlesque. The feeling is of the gods laughing at us as we flail away trying to figure our lives out. I love the sections where huge sforzandos jump-cut to pianissimos. The sound of the quarter-tone piano is amazing too, as if someone was playing a honky-tonk upright in the corner of a bar.

5) From all that dissonance and complexity emerges a largely tonal fugue for strings in the 3rd movement. To me this is a huge statement. One of the things I miss in much music is the openess to a mixture of gorgeous, simple tonality AND biting dissonance within the same piece or cd. For instance, many “free jazz players” refuse to play in a key or meter. If that is so, how could it be free? The 3rd movement is truly beautiful and moving, evoking the Bach-based Protestant hymns that Ives (and I) grew up with.

6) The 4th movement begins with 4 percussionists off stage playing a long cycle that repeats throughout the piece.  It sounds like something jazz drummer Dan Weiss would come up with. The score says “1st 8 bars ad lib,” which is kind of amazing for 1916. A wordless choir gently enters…Ives called this movement “an apotheosis of the preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience.” It feels that way. The tempo is very slow, quarter tone violins emerge, an organ plays simple figures, bars of 7/2 and 6/ 2 float in and out, the two pianos seem almost uncconnected to everything else. Time stands still. It’s one of the most mysterious and mesmerizing episodes of music ever written, ending as it began, with the percussion offstage, gently fading out on the rhythmic cycle.

Questions for jazz composers and improvisers:

– Can you write or play in a way that creates a simultaneity of times cycles in one piece?

– Can you play beautiful tonal sounds and crushing dissonances in one piece?

– Do you strive to express the “reality of existence”?

– Have you used quarter tones, two pianos, offstage percussion, or a choir in your work?

One thought on “Composition blog #6: Charles Ives' Symphonies (esp. #4)”

  1. Hi Joel,

    I just stumbled upon this recent blog post of yours, and man, it’s really well written, concise, and super informative. I’ve been an off and on Ives fan, but will now most definitely check out that last symphony about which you write.

    Keep up the great work!


    Vinson Valega
    Consilience Productions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *