Ives, Caught between Two Caricatures

May 10, 2013

By Kyle Gann

Conductor Leonard Slatkin is conducting all four of Charles Ives's numbered symphonies in New York tonight. Good for him. Wish I could be there. It's kind of too bad, then, that he marred the occasion by writing a rather condescending article about the works for New Music Box, with undue but apparently characteristic emphasis on how much he hated Ives's music when he first heard it. I myself found Mahler's symphonies overblown and too grandiosely emotional when I first heard them at 17, but I've been musically mature for quite awhile now and I don't preface all my comments about Mahler by trumpeting my embarrassing adolescent imperceptiveness. But Slatkin's strategy seems to be to assume that, of course, we in the classical music world [whaddaya mean we, paleface?] look down our nose at Ives, him being an amateur and all, but actually, when you give him a chance, he's much better than he seems, right?

What seems most indicative of a superficial view of Ives, though, is Slatkin's casual and highly clich├ęd dismissal of the First Symphony:

The First Symphony is a naive exercise, a work from Ives's student days under Horatio Parker. The music is mostly derivative, sounding sometimes like Dvorak, 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... The piece emerges as that of a talented fledgling who has not yet found his voice.

Ives wrote much of the First Symphony during his last year at Yale, and it strikes me as the least naive piece ever written by a college senior. With no strong American models to work from (I keep trying to like the Chadwick, Paine, and Bristow symphonies, but it's always kind of a mercy listening), young Ives quite brilliantly studied Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, Beethoven's Ninth, and especially Dvorak's New World symphonies as models. Peter Burkholder has laid out in detail what Ives gleaned from those works, and as he says in All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing, "Seldom does a passage truly sound like another composer." Ives did indeed model his second movement in particular after Dvorak, but here's how Burkholder describes it:

Yet Ives carefully differentiates his melody from its source. He avoids the dotted rhythm that pervades the Dvorak while creating a new motive in m. 2 and repeating it in inversion in m. 4. This motive propels the melody through the high and low points of the line, where Dvorak allows a break between melodic units... The pitch material that Ives omits... is both highly recognizable as part of Dvorak's melody and melodically somewhat repetitive, stressing the same pitches as the surrounding music. Leaving out these elements tightens the melody and makes it more Ives's own...

Taken as a whole, Ives's theme is an elegant condensation of Dvorak's, which is three times as long. Dvorak's melody is a tiny ternary form (ABA') with repetitions in each phrase; in the Ives, nothing essential is missing, but most repetitions within and between phrases are trimmed...

Comparing Ives's theme with Dvorak's shows both how similar and how different they are. This movement represents an act of homage to one of the great modern symphonists, but it is also a challenge, declaring that Ives is not afraid to compete with Dvorak on his own turf. Recognizing that Dvorak's theme is an elegant and famous tune, Ives cites it and tries to improve on it... (pp. 91-93)

And so on and so forth for many pages, showing how Ives taught himself to write a symphony by studying successful models, but not accepting them uncritically, and coming up with his own improvements where possible. This is not naive composing, the hopeful appropriation of the general sound of a more-famous composer. I wish some of my students had the mental fortitude and determination to so closely study works by other composers they admire, steal what they can and try to make their own music even better, more effective, and tighter than their models.

More importantly, the Ives First has held up very well for me over the last forty-five years, and regularly surprises me with how much I enjoy listening to it. Beyond that, I find it distinctly Ivesian. In his conventionally romantic music Ives often (as at the beginning of the first movement) had a characteristic way of modulating almost constantly, yet never leaving the ear in doubt at any particular moment what key is implied. Unlike so many of the late romantics like Reger, Scriabin, early Schoenberg, there is hardly ever the kind of tonal ambiguity that comes from slipping into and out of diminished and half-diminished seventh chords. Instead the music frankly moves from key to key almost measure by measure via a smooth use of pivot tones. This kind of tonal technique can also be found in the Busoni Piano Concerto (a 1905 work Ives surely never heard), but in none of the composers Ives was using as models. He owned it. His teacher Horatio Parker specifically complained about Ives "hogging all the keys at one meal," a patent sign that student Ives was doing something in his conventionally tonal music that the German-educated Parker hadn't seen before. This relentless yet smooth modulating technique runs from the First String Quartet up through Ives's Second and Third Symphonies as well, and was clearly a permanent fixture of his own, personal version of Romantic musical rhetoric.

That this has been so little acknowledged is a symptom of how difficult it has been for the pig-headed classical music world to bring Ives into focus. The first version of Ives's reputation came from Henry Cowell: he was a thoroughgoing experimentalist, seemingly self-taught (or taught only by his father), one who invented tone clusters, polyrhythms, and many other techniques that Europeans would later discover. The musicologists seemed to hate the idea of this outsider coming from nowhere, and in the late 1980s they launched their revisionist attack. Ives learned more from Parker than he admitted, they wrote; he knew Debussy's music, quoted it, he studied lots of great classical pieces and applied what they learned from them. The revisionist Ivesians seem to rebel against the notion that Ives ever had an original idea in his life. One exemplary article compares a page from Liszt's Sonata with one from the Concord with the aim of showing how identical they are - and I've never in my life seen any two pages of piano music look more different.

The truth is that both of these stories are true. Charles Ives had not two careers, but three: successful insurance executive, ground-breaking experimental composer, and brilliant composer of symphonies and songs in the European Romantic tradition. We know that Ives's experimental interests and tendencies emerged already in high school, but when he went to college he applied himself with vigor to a traditional education and learned to write the conventional way, very, very well. I love Ives's conventional works just as much as I love his most outrageous collages, satires, and atonal structuralist experiments - and I see little support for this position in the discourse on Ives, academic or otherwise. My favorite Ives work, swear to the gods, is his Third Symphony, which is thoroughly Romantic as to form and tonality, yet straddles the experimental here and there with its shadow lines and hidden quotations. (I've written a playable piano transcription of the Third which I hope someone will perform someday - PDF available to anyone interested.)

Ives himself contributed to the problem. In the 1920s, after he found men like Cowell, Ruggles, Milhaud, Varese, and others who were championing modernism, he began to disparage his more conventional music, calling the first three symphonies and one of the violin sonatas "weak sisters." That's really too bad, but entirely understandable in the new milieu in which he was trying to break out of his long-standing and undoubtedly frustrating isolation. Even so - and I find it one of the most revealingly poignant footnotes in Ives's long life - when he entered a recording studio on May 11, 1938, to record some of his piano music to let the world know how it was supposed to go, he played two of the Emerson Transcriptions, several abstract piano studies including the thorny Anti-Abolitionist Riots - and the original version of the slow movement of his First Symphony that Parker had rejected. Imagine this 63-year-old, cranky, diabetic man, finally riding the crest of modernism and getting some recognition, and he sits down and plays the Largo he wrote in college that was better, he was convinced, than the version his composition teacher made him write as a more conventional substitute, because the original modulated too much. Forty years later he still had that Dvorak-inspired movement in his hands, his head, and his heart. He was not going to let Parker get the last word. That music meant more to Ives than he could let on later in life.

But we, who ought to know better, are forced to choose between two stereotypes of Ives. Slatkin, typifying the admirers of Ives the experimentalist, says there was nothing Ivesian in the First Symphony, that he hadn't found his voice. For those people, the Fourth Symphony is the greatest by far, really the only important one. For the revisionist musicologists, Ives simply grafted himself onto the European tradition, and his wildest ideas all seemed to have had European precedents, merely Liszt and Scriabin (several of whose sonatas Ives owned scores of) taken to their logical conclusion. As a teenager I discovered all the symphonies at the same time as the Concord and First Sonatas. I would never have dreamed of claiming that Ives wasn't steeped in the European music literature; he knew the Romantic syntax exquisitely, and developed his own smart, individual way of handling it. And I equally would never have denied that many, many of Ives's ideas came out of his own head, and had never before been found in any music he had heard.

It is not so rare. Henry Cowell likewise wrote strange, unearthly works for the inside of the piano and relatively conventional symphonies. Lou Harrison could swerve among a Brahmsian style for his piano concerto, a Balinese style for his gamelan works, and a spiky modernism for his Third Piano Sonata. I myself have written strange microtonal works, some jazz tunes, and, in my Transcendental Sonnets, a movement based on William Billings's style and another modeled on Brahms's Requiem. These are polystylistic times, and many of us are multilingual; Ives simply seemed to be the first. We need to get over the two simplistic pictures that Ives's "real" works were his complex atonal ones, and the early ones are of merely anecdotal interest; or that he was "really" just an extension of European late Romanticism, and his innovations are of minor importance. The times and situation, and his own inner urgings, demanded that he be bilingual, and he spoke both languages - the one he learned, and the one he invented - fluently.

Copyright 2013 by Kyle Gann

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