A Pre-Concert Talk for the Concord Sonata

Delivered at the Kansas City Central Library and then at Western Missouri State University, 2015

By Kyle Gann

In January of 1921, a prominent insurance executive in New York City sent copies of a piano sonata he had written to hundreds of total strangers. I almost wish I could say that that was the first sentence of a novel I've written, because it sounds like such an imaginative plot, but it's something that actually happened. Charles Ives, who lived from 1874 to 1954, was the CEO of the insurance company Ives and Myrick on Wall Street, and he spent his weekends, evenings, and vacations composing music. His was such an unusual life by the standards of regular classical music iconography that music historians have fallen all over themselves in more than six dozen books trying to explain him, but from a composer's standpoint, his life actually seems like a simple solution to a peculiar situation. A lot of early 20th-century composers wrote avant-garde music using ferocious dissonances and rhythmic complexities that had never been heard before. Ives was born earlier than the rest of them; and rather than being born in Paris or Berlin, where there would have been outlets for the musically adventurous, he was born into a Danbury, Connecticut, society that was musically extremely conservative. And so Ives did what he had to do, which was live his life outside music until the music world caught up.

I am therefore going to skip over his much-discussed life and talk about the Concord Sonata itself. Ives got the idea for it, he said, in 1911 while vacationing at Elk Lake in the Adirondacks. He had been working on a piano concerto that was supposed to represent the oratorical style of the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He had also worked on a piece with several pianos representing the stories of the American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, famous for The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Many years earlier Ives had made some sketches for an overture called Orchard House, about the home where novelist Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, grew up with her sisters. (I am being very specific because my teaching has shown me that many college students today are now unaware of these people.) And Ives may have started a piece for string quartet and other instruments, although none of it survives, about Henry David Thoreau. Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, Thoreau - all of these writers lived in Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-19th-century, and in fact some of you will know that they are all buried near each other at the Concord cemetery in a section called "Author's Row." Thus: the Concord Sonata.

In any case, sitting at Elk Lake in 1911, Ives got the idea to combine all four authors into one work, and to make it a piano sonata. The first movement would be called Emerson, the second Hawthorne, the third The Alcotts - meaning the entire family, but especially Louisa May and her philosopher father Bronson Alcott - and the fourth Thoreau. By 1915 he was apparently playing the work for friends, and in 1919, after a health scare caused by a diabetes episode, he decided to self-publish the work and introduce his incredibly innovative music to the world for the first time. He was so concerned about being misunderstood that he also wrote and published a book to accompany the piece, titled Essays Before a Sonata.

Ives was aware that this piece was unusual on many levels. For one thing, while programmatic symphonies and especially tone poems were common, piano sonatas based on an extramusical program were extremely rare; the only well-known example before the Concord was Franz Liszt's brief Dante Sonata. (One could also mention Alkan's Quatre Ages Sonata, Sterndale Bennett's Maid of Orleans Sonata, and MacDowell's sonata based on King Aruthur, none of them well-known.) Also, previous classical pieces had been based on myths, legends, historical incidents, poems, Shakespearean characters, but it was unheard of to write a piece of music about local authors who were still alive when you were a boy, as Emerson and Alcott were for Ives. It was even stranger to write not about the authors' fictional characters, but about the authors themselves. As Ives would later write, "Some nice people object to putting attempted pictures of American authors and their literature in a thing called a sonata, but I don't apologize for it or explain it. I tried it because I felt like trying [it], and so, Good night shirt!" You can't argue with that. You really can't.

Oddly enough, though, if you read Essays Before a Sonata, it says almost nothing about the Concord Sonata. There are no musical examples, no references to any specific passages. Ives never uses the phrase "my music," and the word sonata only appears five times, two of those in the opening sentence. Instead Ives gives his views on the authors he was representing, on program music in general, and on what it is that he thinks makes music great.

One of the earliest scraps of manuscript for the Concord Sonata is a page with a repeating flute melody over a repeating chord progression. The flute melody is the one that ended up becoming the main theme of the sonata, and Ives, who was sitting at beautiful Elk Lake, seems to have been thinking of Henry David Thoreau playing the flute at Walden Pond. And this is why, in the last two pages of the piano sonata, a flute suddenly enters playing the main theme. Ives marked the flute as optional in the score, and John Kirkpatrick, who premiered the piece in 1939 and made its first two recordings, refused to use it; one of his students told me that he said, "If you have a flute player, then the audience sits there the whole time, wondering, 'when will the flutist play?'" But given the origin of this main theme in a sketch for flute and piano, I find it central to the work's meaning. Of the 42 recordings of the work I've collected - and it may well be the most frequently recorded modern piano piece - the flute is included in two thirds of them. Ives also seems to have perhaps called for a brief viola line near the end of the Emerson movement, although it is ambiguous whether he really wanted it played on a viola, or whether he was simply indicating that it was a line that had been played by the violas in the original Emerson Concerto. Nevertheless, the viola appears on about a third of the available recordings.

I want to stumble through the main theme of the sonata for you, which is more than usually necessary because, unlike any previous composer, Ives does not play the main theme at the beginning of the piece. In fact, the entire theme never occurs as such in the Emerson movement, although each half of it appears separately, and at one point the two halves are played at the same time in two different keys. In Hawthorne, the first half of the theme is played in one key, and then the second half in another - twice. Not until The Alcotts do we finally hear the entire theme - tentatively at first, and then in a noble and poignant climax. It goes like this:

Everyone refers to this as the Human Faith theme because when Ives writes about it in his essay on the Alcotts, he says:

All around you, under the Concord sky, there still floats the influence of that human-faith-melody - transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic respectively - reflecting an innate hope - a common interest in common things and common men - a tune the Concord bards are ever playing, while they pound away at the immensities with a Beethoven-like sublimity....[p. 47]

Now you may have noticed, if you were awake and listening at all, that the theme does indeed include a very obvious, even startlingly brazen, quotation of the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Interestingly, those four notes were omitted from the early sketch written when he was apparently thinking about Thoreau. Most of the time, however, Ives uses those notes as Mi to Do in major, not the way Beethoven uses them, which is as Sol to Mi in minor. But generally, when people hear the Concord Sonata for the first time - as I did at the age of 13 - their main impression afterward is that of a great mass of notes with Beethoven's Fifth ringing out from time to time.

If you are indeed new to the Concord Sonata, I want you to surrender yourself to the first minute of the piece without trying to understand it, because Ives is trying to scare you away by playing all the themes of that movement at once. He's trying to create the impression that Emerson's writing had on him, with its piling up of ideas, its attempt to express a jumble of related truths all out of order in one paragraph. Just let it go by. Emerson is, in some ways, the most complex movement, but I think it helps if you remember that it originated as a piano concerto. In fact, Kirkpatrick tells us that Ives conceived of the piano part as Emerson lecturing and the orchestra as the masses reacting to him. Imagine, then, that the loud parts are the orchestra, and the softer parts in between are the piano solos, and you will hear the movement divide up into a series of distinct episodes, each one unified by its own tune or motive. Each episode becomes more agitated and grows to a climax, at which point our imaginary orchestra interrupts with either a Beethoven's Fifth motive, the so-called Emerson theme (which goes like this - E D D A C)

or both. Some of the material at the beginning of Emerson comes back at the end of the movement, recapitulated as it would be in a traditional sonata. And in the very middle is a song with a repetitive refrain that sings out over a repeating figure rising up from the bass in a pattern resembling a harmonic series. For me, this middle section (which repeats its theme over and over with increasing intensity somewhat in the manner of Ravel's Bolero), must have something to do with "Nature," which was the title of one of Emerson's most famous essays and the theme of much of his writing - partly because the harmonic series which it mimics is a phenomenon of nature, as Ives knew very well.

The second movement, Hawthorne, is just about as complex as Emerson, but it is written very differently. Where Emerson is all chords and counterpoint and themes, Hawthorne is a series of textures, many of them with little figures repeated over and over, inspired by scenes from Hawthorne's stories. There is no logical order to these textures, so there's no throughline to follow, but if you are familiar with Hawthorne's short stories you might imagine a correspondence here and there. Ives tells us, for instance, that the opening rippling arpeggios represent frost on the window when the children wake up after a snowfall at the beginning of A Wonder Book - and then there is a long scale running downward which is the children running out into the snow. There is a famous passage in which the pianist must use a stick to play large, quiet tone clusters on the black keys; I have become convinced that this passage depicts Pheobe's garden in The House of Seven Gables, the only place in that gloomy, accursed dwelling where anything blooms, and where the artist Holgrave courts the innocent heroine Phoebe. Ives mentions that part of that novel in his essay, and I think it's the only Hawthorne reference he names that could fit with this section.

The overall inspiration for the movement, though, was a Hawthorne satire called "The Celestial Rail-Road," which was a parody of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a religious allegory which, decades ago, was almost as widely read as the Bible. In Pilgrim's Progress, a man named Christian, carrying his sins on his back in a great sack, journeys from the City of Destruction through the Slough of Despond, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Vanity Fair, and other symbolic locations, to the Celestial City. In Hawthorne's satire, the journey no longer needs to be made by a long, laborious walk under a heavy burden, but can be accomplished in a comfortable train that whisks travelers through the difficult parts; thus Hawthorne made fun of the 19th-century hypocrisy which allowed people to consider themselves good Christians without the inconvenience, humility, and hard work of following Christ's example. Keep in mind, therefore, that in some of these repetitive textures Ives is thinking of a railroad, and that the quiet pilgrim's hymn, the marching band, and the occasional ragtime are all part of the story.

We abandon "The Celestial Rail-road" about halfway through the movement, and ease our way into a fantasia based on the 19th-century patriotic song "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." Toward the very end of the movement comes a whirlwind of notes in triple time that I have finally just started calling "the blizzard." The notes are pretty random, and Ives wanted them that way, though occasionally you'll hear a mangled theme blow by like an old photo in a hurricane. Once again, Ives is trying to momentarily overwhelm the listener.

The Alcotts is by far the shortest and simplest movement. It is mostly serene and based on the Human Faith theme, but there are some tense conflicts and outbursts of Beethoven's Fifth. For me, the interesting thing here is that the movement portrays both Louisa May and her father. You might think that the soft sections portray Louisa May and her books for children, and the loud passages Bronson's fearsome philosophical pronouncements, but I'm not so sure. Bronson Alcott was famously talkative but also serene, mild-mannered, and ineffective, while Louisa May struggled with her hot temper and worked heroically at her books to pull her family up out of poverty. The middle section of the movement clearly represents Beth in Little Women playing Scottish folk songs on the piano, but otherwise I imagine the gender roles are rather reversed in this movement from what one might assume. In fact, Ives specified that the calm opening was Bronson Alcott talking to Sam Staples, the Concord sherriff who once had to lock Thoreau up in jail.

The Thoreau movement begins with the mists over Walden Pond. Ives outlines a brief program, listing three of Thoreau's walks around Walden Pond, and you can easily hear three walking sections just after the beginning, each starting in quiet, going into a walking rhythm, and then becoming more and more vigorous. Interestingly, after its big climax in The Alcotts, the Human Faith theme is absent from Thoreau until the very end, where it suddenly enters in the flute. Or seemingly absent, because actually there's a rhythmic motive in Thoreau derived from that theme, and as he goes along Ives makes it more and more apparent, so you're being reminded of the Human Faith theme subconsciously. The three-note phrase that runs through the second half of the movement in the bass, Ives says, represents the tempo of nature, for Thoreau realizes that "he must let Nature flow through him and slowly; he releases his more personal desires to her broader rhythm, conscious that this blends more and more with the harmony of her solitude."

I want to close by mentioning what I've come to think of as a Beethovenian aspect of the Concord Sonata. Ives was, of course, very impressed by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and it inspired the conception of his own Fourth Symphony. Beethoven's Ninth has a first movement based in anger and anxiety; a playful scherzo; a calm, perhaps spiritual slow movement; and in the introduction to the last movement, all of these are quoted, after which the tenor sings, "O friends, not these tones," and Beethoven proceeds to a proclamation that all men are brothers, that the answer lacking in the first three movements is found in universal brotherhood and love for one's fellow man. We know from Ives's writings that he had a similar plan for his own Fourth Symphony: the brief first movement asks a poignant question: "Watchman, tell us of the night; what the signs of promise are?" The other three movements answer that question. The second movement, the Comedy gives a secular answer, that life is a dream and a big joke. The third movement, a fugue, seems to represent both tradition and conventional religion. And the fourth movement aims at a kind of ineffable mysticism.

I find a parallel philosophical program underlying the Concord Sonata. Emerson was a great asker of questions, and the Emerson movement seems to end with a question, like the Fourth Symphony's prelude. Hawthorne is the scherzo, the "joke" (which is what scherzo means in Italian), the secular and comedic approach to life. The Alcotts movement is more sedate and conventional, suffused with the quotidian religiosity of the parlor, if not indeed the church. And in Thoreau we find a quiet mysticism, ending similarly with an eternity-implying ostinato, akin to the finale of the Fourth. The way I've come to hear the piece, Emerson asks the questions; two fiction writers, Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott, try to answer, first with riotous comedy and then domestic tranquility - but then it's Thoreau who, disappearing into nature and infinity, provides the ultimate, more profound answer.

Copyright Kyle Gann 2015

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