Eccentric, but Richly American: Charles Ives, THE VISIONARY
The MHS Review 411, VOL. 12, NO.15• 1988
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Steven L. Rosenhaus
Charles Ives is one of the more peculiar fathers of 20th-century American music. A philosopher and an insurance mogul, Ives was also a composer obsessed with experimentation and a general disregard for the so-called rules of composition--unless they suited his purposes.
Where did Ives get this taste for independent thinking and experimentation? Growing up in Connecticut, Charles received his first musical training from his father. George Ives, the conductor of a local band, was an experimenter for the sheer joy of it, a real "what if?" man. Young Charles was encouraged to listen to everything and anything: the town band--never playing together in rhythm, pitch, or tempo; the sounds of the church service, with the congregation's valiant (but not always successful) efforts to sing the hymns properly as the harmonium wheezed on. These became part of the fabric of Ives' eccentric but richly American music.
George Ives' idiosyncratic teaching methods expressed themselves in other ways too. The elder Ives would play a hymn tune at the organ and have the rest of the family sing along--but each in a different key from the others and the accompaniment! Charles managed to receive a more traditional musical education later at Yale, mostly with the European-trained Horatio Parker. Parker's rule-bound Germanic teaching, coupled with the loss of the freedom to experiment that Ives had long been used to, incited Ives to rebel--to explore music's outer limits.
Many of Ives' musical experiments paralleled or even anticipated the work being done by European composers. Ives was usually completely unaware of his colleagues across the sea. Quarter-tone harmonies, chance operations, polytonality, atonality, a form of dodecaphony (12-tone music}--all came from the pen of this American original. Sometimes he got carried away and wrote more notes than an instrumentalist could possibly play. But for Ives this was besides the point. "Is it the composer's fault," he wrote in his Essays Before a Sonata, "that man has only ten fingers? Why can't a musical thought be presented as it is born .... That music must be heard is not essential--what it sounds like may not be what it is." This is the basis for Ives' art. It is bold and unflinching; you accept it for what it is, not for what it's supposed to be. Let's face it, kiddies; some of this stuff ain't easy to take, and Ives wanted it that way, with a capital "TOUGH!"
That done, be prepared to listen to some of the most fascinating and even beautiful music you've ever had the pleasure to audit. Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs, longtime proponents of this century's music and directors of the well-known Continuum group, present us with a sort of Charles Ives sampler. No "greatest hits" here, like The Unanswered Question; in fact, the only well-known title is the first song, The Housatonic at Stockbridge, originally the third of the orchestral Three Places in New England. Side one also showcases other songs (Soliloquy and the gorgeous Remembrance are just two) and chamber works, including The Gong on the Hook and Ladder, in a version for string quartet and piano, and the rather cute Hallowe'en (featuring string quartet, piano, and Sachs booming away on a bass drum).
Side two is devoted to piano music, starting with Five Take-offs (as in improvisations supposedly, but we know better, don't we?) and the not-played-oftenenough Three Quarter-Tone Pieces. The last work is played on two pianos, one tuned one-quarter higher than the other. Disconcerting at first, one realizes just how carefully Ives utilizes the "in the cracks" notes. The results are fascinating.
Seltzer, Sachs, and the whole Continuum group deserve accolades not only for the act of recording this not-often-heard music, but for doing so with expertise, polish, and love. They even seem to have some fun, finding the subtle (and often un-subtle) jokes Ives put in at times for his own amusement, nose-thumbing the musical establishment. And special kudos to sopranos Sheila Schonbrun and Victoria Villamil. Elsewhere in this issue I mention how composers judge performers: if they would want those musicians to do their works. I can't believe it; this is the second time in this issue I've found such performers. Can I have their numbers? Can we do lunch?