[Ed. Note: One of the highlights of the 2013 Spring for Music—this week’s series of performances at Carnegie Hall by orchestras from all over North America—is the Detroit Symphony’s traversal of all four of Charles Ives’s numbered symphonies under the direction of Leonard Slatkin on Friday, May 10, 2013. It is not out of the ordinary at this point for American orchestras to perform a complete cycle of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, and similar immersions have been programmed featuring the symphonic works of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But to the best of anyone’s knowledge who is involved with Spring for Music, the DSO’s Ives cycle–which has also been presented on successive days in the orchestra’s hometown of Detroit between April 26 and May 5–is unprecedented. Can anyone think of any complete symphonic cycle of an American composer presented by an American orchestra?
Yet admittedly the DSO are not performing every composition that Ives considered a symphony. They will not be playing the “Holidays” Symphony, a modular series of tone poems inspired by important American holidays that usually appear on concert programs as individual stand-alone works. Nor will they perform Ives’s “Universe” Symphony, arguably his most revolutionary composition, which exists in Ives’s own manuscript only as a collection of sketches but which has subsequently been assembled into various viable performance editions after his death: a version by Larry Austin was performed by the Nashville Symphony during the 2012 Spring for Music; Johnny Reinhard, who created an even more extensive version of the piece, wrote an extensive essay about it for us. Also not included on the program is the “Concord” Symphony which Henry Brant orchestrated from Ives’s massive Piano Sonata No. 2 Concord, Mass., 1840–60 with the encouragement of Henry Cowell, Ives’s first biographer. However, the four symphonies to which Ives assigned a number form a fascinating cycle that traces the evolution of an indigenous American symphonic tradition. Slatkin, a long-time champion of American composers whom we have previously featured on these pages, describes that journey here.—FJO]
Let me say this right off the bat: I hated Charles Ives.
In 1965, I attended the world premiere of his Fourth Symphony. It was a star-studded audience that heard Leopold Stokowski lead the American Symphony Orchestra. My roommate played viola in the orchestra and said that this was an important event and that I had to go. At this point in my young life I really did not know much about Ives and had only heard The Unanswered Question.
There I sat in Carnegie Hall, totally confused by what was transpiring—three conductors, three pianos, a huge percussion section, and all manner of cacophony. If it had been longer than 35 minutes I am not sure that I would have stayed. It all seemed to be disorganized rioting. Even the relatively conventional third movement seemed out of place.
I left the hall angry. What was the big deal? How tacky were all those quotes? Did the orchestra actually play what was written or were they just faking it?
Over the years I have had similar early reactions to music by Mahler, Foss, and Berio, to name a few. And in each case I have been so upset that I needed to look at the scores to see what had gotten me so riled up. After closer examination, I found that it was precisely those elements of style and chaos that made the works interesting, and, ultimately, I embraced those composers and their music.
In presenting the four numbered symphonies by Ives during the course of one concert, the Detroit Symphony is taking listeners on a journey unlike any other in music. I can think of no composer who literally changes before our very ears in this way. Whether Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Bruckner, or Mahler, the path from the first symphony to the last always leaves breadcrumbs along the way. But from his first to his fourth, Ives completely veers off that path and along the way creates a wholly new way of compositional thinking.
This presentation is not a stunt, something that may strike some as a circus-like event. It is a serious examination of how American music evolved and how one composer brought that about.
The First Symphony is a naïve exercise, a work from Ives’s student days under Horatio Parker. The music is mostly derivative, sounding sometimes like Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms, with a bit of Wagner thrown in for good measure. There is little to identify that we would call “Ivesian.” The opening of the slow movement, with a plaintive English horn solo over the strings, is clearly a crib of the “New World” Symphony. In addition, the orchestration is often clumsy, and to that end, I have tried to help out a bit. Since Ives did not revisit this score, it seems more than appropriate to alter some of the phrasings and articulations. The piece emerges as that of a talented fledgling who has not yet found his voice.
With the Second Symphony we move toward a true American symphonic language. I use the word language in the same way that, say, Mozart, Schubert, or Mahler would. There are elements of borrowing, some of the vernacular and some of the music of its time. The appearance of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” as well as other patriotic tunes seems wholly American and, when combined with hymns and popular ditties, makes this piece the first truly native symphony from the new world. Hard to believe it waited 50 years for its first performance. That premiere is well documented and the performance by Leonard Bernstein was a hallmark at the time. The fact that he also chose to include it in his Young People’s Concerts showed that this was a work to be proud of. Of the famous “raspberry” at the end, Bernstein extended the length of the chord, and it had an instant effect on the audience. With the passage of the years, it is now more shocking to hear it the way Ives originally put it on the page.
By comparison, the Third Symphony had a somewhat easier birth: it was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize following its premiere thirty years after Ives wrote it. The harmonic language is more complex than in the previous symphonies, especially in the last movement. The shadow lines, those single instrument passages where wrong notes are evident, are more pronounced now. The shortest of the symphonies showed Ives’s ability to compress his thoughts into a more concise form. The work is also for the smallest forces of the four, and is best heard with reduced string section.
And then we come to the last symphony. What did not make any sense to me almost 50 years ago now seems perfectly constructed. The introductory first movement sets up the rest of the piece. We get the kernel motive in the piano and low strings at the outset. The idea of the distant ensemble of violins and harp is presented. The choir intones, “Watchman, tell us of the night,” preparing us for what is to come at the end of the work.
And that riot of sound and texture that is the “Comedy”? Quarter-tone piano and strings, six trumpets, eleven percussionists, and, of course, the two or three conductors. The Rite of Spring was only three years old when Ives wrote this movement. What was going through his mind and how did he find a way to notate all this? More importantly, what is the listener supposed to hear?
Perhaps it is this last question that perplexed me the most back in ’65. Today, at least when I conduct the piece, I am overwhelmed with the vision and almost disregard for Ives’s contemporaries. His world was without parallel. When we come to the final “collapse,” it is as if the composer has said that he is out of ideas. But that is hardly the case.
In a brilliant stroke, he brings us to his earlier style of writing—simple, pretty much straightforward, and pretending to be a fugue. What better way to set up the most moving of all Ives? The finale, with its questions of “why” and “what,” are the perfect summation for the symphony. All the elements of the first three movements are here, plus the off-stage funereal percussion. As the music moves to a solemn D major and the chorus and orchestra fade away, we can only be left in wonderment at the achievement.
I guess I have come a long way, from utter disdain to reverence. Sometimes we decide that a journey is not worth taking, but once in a while we go against our initial response and find that the road has many sights and sounds. Perhaps some of you will take this trip with us.