American Iconoclast

By Lawrence A. Johnson

For most of his lifetime, Charles Ives was regarded as something of a benighted crank. The Danbury, Connecticut, native was successful in the insurance business, but little of his music was known or performed while he was alive. In the 1950s and, largely, after his death, Ives’ stupefying originality and the innovative, experimental nature of his music were finally recognized when he was championed by Leonard Bernstein and others.

 The New World Symphony will honor Charles Ives this weekend with a four-night festival that will offer a quick immersion into Ives’ unique world, a decidedly American musical landscape that is familiar and at the same time strange and a bit unsettling.

 “I remember when I was a youngster and I first heard some of Ives’ music,” recalls Michael Tilson Thomas, New World artistic director who will be conducting several of this weekend’s performances. “There was some music that was so enchanting and beautiful—and other music that was so confounding and disturbing.

 “And that was the voyage I had to go through to understand how much of the music actually is beautiful—Ives stretches your idea of just how far beauteous music can go.”

 Ives wrote in nearly every genre except opera: symphonies, chamber music, instrumental works, and songs, all of which will be represented on this weekend’s In-Context Festival.

 For Tilson Thomas, the challenging journey through Ives music has been a lifelong enthusiasm that has produced several recordings, including an acclaimed series with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a delightfully quirky disc of choral and solo songs with Thomas Hampson.

 The iconoclastic composer was born in 1874 and came of age at a time when there was no American classical tradition to speak of. Brahms and Dvorak were the leading voices of the day, influences clearly dominant in Ives’ First Symphony.

 Yet Ives soon found his own, aggressively nationalistic voice. The small-town New England of Ives’ youth permeates his idiosyncratic music: patriotic odes, hymn tunes, holiday marches, and sentimental parlor ballads—often thrown together in his when-worlds-collide style, like a 19th-century Flag Day celebration with dangerously spiked punch. “In ‘thinking up’ music,” Ives once said, “I usually have some kind of a brass band with wings on it in back of my mind.”

 Indeed, there is great depth and expressive  power in Ives’ finest songs, the spare, existential elegance of The Unanswered Question, or the yearning lyricism of the slow movement of the Symphony No. 2. Then there’s the same work’s crazed finale, which is interrupted by Turkey in the Straw, Bringing in the Sheaves and Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, and rounded off with a rude raspberry blat.

 The influence of his music is “enormous,” says Tilson Thomas and Ives seemed to anticipate nearly every homegrown musical movement of the last century.  “Inside of Charles Ives there is definitely music that sounds like Copland or Gershwin or Cage or John Adams or Sam Barber—practically every other American composer,” says MTT.

 Thursday night will offer a prelude of sorts, with a panel discussion with Tilson Thomas and other Ives specialists, and a screening of the Ives documentary, A Good Dissonance Like a Man. On Friday, several short works will be performed including his Piano Trio, Three Places in New England, Central Park in the Dark, and The Unanswered Question. Ives’ vast Holidays Symphony will be presented Saturday, preceded by performances of some of the hymns and songs that inspired the work.

 Sunday will be devoted to just one Ives work, his epic Piano Sonata No. 2, the Concord, heard in two versions: first the original piano version with Jeremy Denk and then, Henry Brandt’s envelope-pushing orchestration.

 Yet even with his acknowledged stature even Ives’ most accessible works like The Unanswered Question or Three Places in New England seem to be less often heard now than twenty years ago.

 “The thing about his music is that it has to be knowingly performed,” says Tilson Thomas.  “In many cases he left many different versions of the pieces, and so he leaves many different options for you to choose.”

 Another problem is that compared to other composers, particularly inveterate notators like Mahler, Ives’ scores pretty much leave the performers on their own with minimal markings and instructions.  “It’s not uncommon to go through pages of music that just has ‘Slowly and very expressively,'” says Tilson Thomas. “That’s because Ives really wanted you to live through the terrain that he had himself traversed.”

 “You have to make your own path, which is a difficult and time-consuming thing to do. If you were giving people a literary comparison, I suppose it would be like trying to read Finnegan’s Wake or e e cummings works where there is a field of words in which you have to get a sense of and find your way through it.”

 Ives’ dense, sprawling Concord Piano Sonata is typically ambitious, and even outrageous, spanning fifty minutes and in its garrulous way attempts to reflect the mystical rhapsodic strain of American Transcendentalism with movements subtitled Hawthorne, Emerson, The Alcotts and Thoreau.

 “It’s daunting when you first look at it because you really have no idea of what he’s trying to do,” says Jeremy Denk. “There’s a lot of clusters and contrapuntal pileups because of all the ideas.”

 “But it does get easier,” adds Denk, who has now performed the sonata more than two-dozen times, along with several other Ives works. “Once you unravel the puzzle,  everything falls into place. That’s true of a lot of Ives’ music.”


 In addition to requiring a pianist who can handle the fusillade of notes, the sonata also calls for a flute in the concluding Thoreau movement, and, in some editions, a viola in Emerson, which Denk believes is a too-literal misinterpretation of Ives merely asking for a viola sound. “I don’t think even Ives was perverse enough to put a viola in a piano sonata.”

 The  practical issues of dealing with Ives’ no-holds-barred scoring and extremely dense writing are well known to musicians, which means performing Ives amounts to a research project in itself. “The problem with Ives’ orchestral music is trying to balance them to get them to not sound muddy,”says MTT.  “They’re very complex and over-written. In his lifetime Ives only heard two or three performances of his own music, and so he didn’t have this vast wealth of experience.  So you have to prioritize things so there’s a clarity of ideas.”  Denk agrees. “You have to solve the problems yourself. Ives doesn‘t solve them for you.”

 Tilson Thomas says he receives occasional requests from other musicians asking if they can borrow his own notated scores, which he politely declines.  “There would be no point to that because if I worked out a particular way that I think these pieces go, it wouldn’t necessarily work for you,” he says.

 “You have to find your own way with Ives and kind of make a plan for yourself. There is no short cut to that. I want to encourage these young musicians to spend time with his music and sort of keep that stream going inside of the American tradition.”

 Perhaps Ives should be his next recording project with his San Francisco Symphony now that the Mahler cycle has wrapped up?  The conductor thinks for a moment and says, “Well, instead of recording it all again I’d like to pass on what I’ve learned to a generation of young musicians and let them carry on their own living tradition of what Ives is about.  I think nothing would make me happier.”

  The New World Symphony presents Charles Ives: Pioneer Modernist, an In-Context Festival Thursday through Sunday. $15, $20 and $35. 305-673-3331;

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Tue Feb 17, 2009
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