Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus
Nos. 2 & 3
A Rodgers Organ was used for this recording, and was provided through the courtesy of Rodgers Organ Studios, Elmhurst, Illinois
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Charles Ives's First Symphony was written in partial fulfillment of his degree requirements for graduation from Yale College in 1898. In tackling his first large-scale orchestral project he turned out what from today's perspective is a fine, often very beautiful, symphony in late-Romantic style.
Its four movements were initially sketched out at different times, beginning in 1895. In his Memos (written in the 1930s), Ives recalled: "The first movement was changed. It (that is, the symphony) was supposed to be in D minor, but the first subject went through six or eight different keys, so [Horatio] Parker [professor at Yale] made me write another first movement. But it seemed no good to me, and I told him that I would prefer to use the first draft. He smiled and let me do it, saying 'But you must promise to end in D minor'." The second movement also caused trouble: "[Parker] didn't like the original slow movement [begun in 1897], as it started on G-flat-he said it should start in F. Near the end, 'the boys got going'-so at the request of Parker...! wrote a nice formal one-but the first is better!" What we have by way of Ives's second try is a beautiful F-major Adagio molto in rounded binary form. Its most distinguished feature is Ives's elegant and inspired melodic writing. It is difficult to believe a twenty-three-year-old student could have produced so fluent and polished a flow of melodic ideas.
The third movement, also from 1897, is the most conventional of the four-a Scherzo and Trio in standard A-B-A form. The Mendelssohn-like Scherzo opens with a rapidly moving theme in canon; the slower Trio is Brahmsian in inspiration. The closing movement ("started Xmas vacation 1897-finished May 1898"), like the first movement, another extended sonata-allegro design, brings back two themes heard earlier in the work (the opening theme of the first movement and the lyrical second theme of the second movement), ending with a grand, march-like flourish.
Charles Ives and (he American Hymn tune Probably no form of American music made a more lasting impression on Ives than the traditional American hymns he sang and played while growing up in Danbury, Connecticut. His first employment as a working musician was as organist, at age fourteen, for the First Baptist Church of Danbury. In New Haven, while at Yale, and then later in New York, he played the organ and directed choirs at Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches, gaining a wide familiarity with the mainstream of American hymnody. Hymn tunes and Gospel songs (the latter being a late nineteenth-century blend of inspirational poetry set in popular song styles of the day and widely used in revival meetings) formed a kind of core repertory upon which Ives drew in quoting melodies and short phrases in many of his works. These tunes- Ives used more than sixty of them-provided not only recognizable thematic material to be reworked in a wide variety of compositional contexts, but also (and more important) a source of religious and philosophical inspiration.
The Fourth Symphony uses, in addition to a number of patriotic songs and popular airs, at least a dozen hymn tunes and Gospel-song melodies, of which some are recorded here. Two of the hymn tunes, "Bethany" and "Missionary Hymn," are still found in many American hymnals today. They were composed by Lowell Mason (1792-1872), one of the most influential church musicians and music educators of nineteenth-century America. "Bethany" (composed for the text "Nearer, my God, to thee") was quoted by Ives more often than any other hymn tune, appearing in at least ten works. "Missionary Hymn" ("From Greenland's icy mountains"), on which Ives based the fugal subject for the third movement of the Symphony, was one of Mason's most popular works, originally composed in 1827 as a solo song for use at Missionary Society meetings.
Ives was also fond of another missionary hymn, which rivalled Mason's in popularity, "Missionary Chant," a setting by the German emigre composer Heinrich Christopher Zeuner (1795-1857) of the anonymous text "Ye Christian Heralds, go proclaim." Ives used the opening phrase (which recalls the first theme of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) in at least eight works, including Three Places in New England, where it forms the core thematic material of the last movement.
"Martyn" was composed by the Presbyterian singing-school teacher Simeon Butler Marsh (1798-1875) in 1834, and soon became the favorite American tune for Charles Wes-ley's famous hymn, "Jesus, lover of my soul," which had been written a century earlier for use in Methodist church services.
Two enormously popular Gospel songs from the late nineteenth century also make an appearance in a number of Ives works. "Beulah Land" ("I've reached the land of corn and wine"), here recorded on the organ, remains the best-known of the more than one thousand such songs turned out by John R. Sweney (1837-1899). Even more widely sung, both then and now, was "Sweet By And By" ("There's a land that is fairer than day"), composed by Joseph Philbrick Webster (1819-1875) in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, in 1867. It became for Ives what "O Sacred Head, now wounded" had been for J. S. Bach, a kind of Leitmotiv used over and over again at key movements in some of his greatest works. The melody of the chorus ("In the sweet by and by") appears in both first and second movements of the Fourth Symphony, in Thanksgiving, and at the climax of the last movement of the Second Orchestral Set.
Ever since its celebrated premiere in 1965 by Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra, Ives's Fourth Symphony has ranked as the ne plus ultra of American symphonies. Its reputation stems partly from the formidable performance problems it poses. Although not overly long (about thirty minutes), the work requires extraordinary forces-an augmented orchestra, an elaborate percussion battery, a mixed chorus- and this array of performers must negotiate a host of daunting rhythmic and textural complexities unprecedented in any symphonic composition up to Ives's time.
The symphony, substantially completed in 1916, was long in gestation. Portions and even whole torsos of earlier pieces-some fifteen in all-found their way into the work, the earliest of them dating back to Ives's years at Yale. The compositional techniques themselves represent a stylistic synthesis of Ives's most far-reaching and arresting musical ideas, developed over two decades of experimentation. Densely layered textures are formed by superimposing two, three, and even four separate ensembles, centered on different tonalities and proceeding in different meters and tempi, constantly shifting in and out of synchronization. This polytonal, polyrhythmic fabric is not made from monolithic blocks of sound but rather from fantastically intricate webs of contrapuntal lines, moving in different rhythmic patterns and often at different dynamic levels-now prominently in the foreground, then receding to a middle or barely audible background. The individual melodic lines are frequently derived from the familiar Ivesian mix of hymn tunes and popular and patriotic songs (over thirty have been identified to date in the work). The borrowed material is sometimes directly quoted in manner intended for listeners to recognize. But just as often the tunes are skewed into shapes or fragmented into small motiVic cells. As these melodic elements undergo structural transformations in a variety of ways, they skitter, in a dream-like fashion, back and forth across the threshold of perceptibility-now distinct, now fading into inaudibility.
For a performance in 1927 of the Prelude and comedy movement, Ives gave the writer Henry Bellamann a description for use as program-note material: "This symphony... consists of four movements-a prelude, a majestic fugue, a third movement in comedy vein, and a finale of transcendental spiritual content. [Ives later inverted the order of the second and third movements.] The aesthetic program of the work is...the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life. This is particularly the sense of the prelude. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies...The fugue...is an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism. The succeeding movement...is not a scherzo....It is a comedy in the sense that Hawthorn's Celestial Railroad is comedy...." In his Memos Ives added a further comment on the finale: "The last movement (which seems to me the best, compared with the other movements, or for that matter with any other thing I've done)...covers a good many years....In a way [it] is an apotheosis of the preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience."
Ives provided his programmatic description of the symphony a decade after he had substantially finished composing it. The program note for the 1927 performance characterized the last three movements as different kinds of "answers" to questions posed by the prelude; but Ives's remark in the Memos implies another order of precedence, with the first three movements leading up to the last. Was he forgetful or did he change his mind? In all likelihood he was instead merely offering two alternative ways of perceiving the progression of movements through the work. Whether or not we take the description at face value, there can be no doubt but that Ives intended his greatest work to function on one level as a set of deeply felt religious meditations.
-Paul C. Echols Vice-President of the Charles Ives Society