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Charles Ives wrote his Piano Sonata No. J in the years between 1902 and 1910. Together with the Piano Sonata No. 2 known as the Concord Sonata, it ranks as one of Ives' most monumental compositions exceeding even his symphonic works in duration.
The choice of the piano as an instrument and medium for realizing the complex structures present in both sonatas rests on broader reasons than the fact that Ives himself played the piano and organ. Other influences were the ubiquitous use of the instrument in concert halls and private homes, its playing traditions which thanks to technically advanced mechanics permit an exceptional degree of virtuosity and refinement of sound, the register which includes the entire range of pitches that served musical practice in our western culture, the possibility to sustain sounds through variations of touch and pedal action, and the associated possibility for polyphonic structures. As these structures could be realized without the effort of coordinating an ensemble of musicians, often necessitating the presence of a conductor, it was for an experimental composer such as Ives finally simpler to animate a single player rather than a group of players - to say nothing of the institutionalized apparatus of an orchestra - to be open to new ideas. Above all the deciding circumstance may have been that for decades the piano was Ives' only sound source and permitted him in his compositorial isolation to realize at least approximately the music he imagined. Before Ives only a few works in piano literature made use of these special advantages of instrumental solo playing, which might be interpreted as a compromise or compensation, in a manner as expansive as that demonstrated in both of these sonatas; almost none goes so far to the limits of what can be played and continues so assertively beyond to where the idea becomes more important than the possibility to produce the sound. And the fact that before Ives almost nothing so dense, so polyphonic, so loud, so fast, or so complex was written for the piano, suggests that the piano became something more for him, namely an assisting instrument or receptacle that was often unable to contain the overflowing abundance of ideas.
That Ives' first piano sonata frequently stands in the shadow of the second is due first of all to extra-musical reasons which however should not be strong enough to affect any system of subjective attachment or aversion to one or the other. Primarily, the first sonata lacks the wide ramifications of the second sonata's philosophical theme which is indicated not only in its subtitle, Concord, Mass., 1840 - 1860, but in the captions for the four movements, each of which is a portrait of famous representatives of the Transcendental Movement (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, as well as Henry David Thoreau), which has so deeply influenced the spiritual life of America; the effect of their ideas extends even into our own time for example in the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi or John Cage. Ives wrote an extensive commentary to accompany the sonata, the Essays Before a Sonata, that has also attracted attention to this work. In spite of this it was only in 1939 that the second sonata was played in its entirety by John Kirkpatrick in New York. Finally a second revised edition of the sonata (1947) shows how much Ives himself valued the work.
In a certain sense the fate of the first piano sonata is even more extreme as regards the span of time. For decades after it was written, the piece still lay unpublished and unperformed. In the thirties a valuable finished copy was lost. In 1948 the composer and close friend of Ives, Lou Harrison, made a transcript from a photocopy in his possession, and the pianist William Masselos undertook to prepare the piece from this material. Masselos gave the premiere in New York on 17 February, 1949 (a day chosen as astrologically auspicious) and repeated the work the following month in Carnegie Hall. The sonata finally reached publication in the year of Ives' death (1954). Harrison has often reported on the problem of preparing the manuscript which he preferred to describe as less a transcription or edition than literal excavations"(1). Especially interesting about his remarks were the sporadic double or multiple variants in Ives' musical text which forced him to choose between different notated possibilities. Fortunately Harrison printed in his version which received Ives' approval many of his alternate solutions and apparently resisted making editorial additions. That Harris did not consider his version definitive is revealed in his comparison of the work to a "beautiful public park" out of which one might create "lovely versions" for a "long, long time"(2) Harrison's observations continue to apply for the contemporary performer because there is still no facsimile publication (as Harrison earlier proposed) of Ives' manuscripts which alone would place authentic material in the hands of the interpreter. Many questions remain unanswered even after the publication of a new edition (1981). The element of ambiguity in the musical text is nevertheless a component of Ives' musical thinking, in that the interpreter is capable of consciously producing out of the available musical material a version of his own which may correspond most closely to his musical ideas and may even reflect his own changing moods. Given an horrendously difficult part for the pianist this should be seen neither as generosity toward the over-taxed player nor as an endorsement of the editorial desire to present a "performance-oriented" edition of the musical text in spite of pages of footnotes. In the case of the Concord Sonata at least fourteen corrected versions of the work lie between the two editions (1920 and 1947). There are for example places in the printed version where variants or interchangeable elements from the manuscripts definitely may be substituted, which presumes an essentially altered relationship to the work of art as a finished self-contained whole(3). In the first piano sonata it is primarily in the second and fourth movements that even in the printed edition possibilities arise for the interpreter to make such choices. However the listener will only perceive such alterations if he is acquainted with other versions of the sonata or is following a performance with the score.
The large formal structure of the first piano sonata exhibits a conscious conception spanning the five movements based on the principle of symmetry. In the center of the work stands the third movement, which consisting of three sections Largo - Allegro - Largo is itself symmetrical. Surrounding it are two ragtime movements(4) (movements two and four), each built out of two unequal sections: a shorter opening section and a longer conclusion. All four sections end with a quotation of the choral / Hear Thy Welcome Voice. These three inner movements are framed by two outer ones of large dimensions which in their dramatic nature, symphonic climaxes, and the nearly total absence of ragtime elements are more closely connected with the third movement. The odd-numbered movements (one, three, and five) also have in common more prominent motivic material in fifths which is present from the first bar of the work; examples are the beginning and the end of the first and third movements as well as the coda of the fifth movement.
The first and fifth movements are further balanced out by two expansive quiet areas over pedal points: the billowing C-sharp major surface which appears after the first climax in the first movement, and the extended C major passage in the fifth. This latter passage, understandable only in connection with the preceeding culmination of the music at a climax which breaks down suddenly and disintegrates into fragments, is for many listeners certainly one of the most moving parts of the whole composition; and it is as if one were to experience the rebirth of the purest, most longed for key. With disbelief one discovers that this placid C major theme shares its pitches with the theme of the first ragtime.
What in sonatas of the past was expressed as themes, is here not properly described by that term. Rather one might speak of thematic raw material, which at the beginning of this work emerges out of the bass. And yet already contained in the first three sixtenth-notes is the entire work's double motivic system which we will encounter again in the Concord Sonata.
In the left hand appear the ascending fifths, in the right a sixth (which later is inverted to a third) and a second (which later appears before the third). Ives presents this intervallic constellation forward and in retrograde and also inverts the intervals (in the same manner the major and minor intervals are interchangeable) until we arrive at a situation where all the intervals may be traced to the opening figure, particularly since even the tritone (e-flat-a) is included. Such an interpretation in the direction of an all-interval system may be strained in Ives' music even with its wealth of intervallic connections. Nonetheless the study of the intervals is certainly a fascinating task even though the results may not lead one as far as in the Concord Sonata, where the thematic material, including the musical quotations, gradually becomes so similar that in the end everything sounds related to everything else and the contrasting characters are increasingly integrated into a single entity.
Herbert Henck (English Translation by John Patrick Thomas)
(1) Lou Harrison, in: Charles Ives Remembered. An Oral History, edited by Vivian Perils, New York: Norton, 1974, p. 203.
(2) Lou Harrison in the section Editor's Experiences, in: An Ives Celebration. Papers and Panels of the Charles Ives Centennial Festival Conference, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Vivian Perils, Urbana/Chicago/London: University of Illinois Press, 1974, p. 83.
(3) Sondra Rae Clark, The Element of Choice in Ives's "Concord Sonata", in: The Musical Quarterly LX, April 1974, No. 4, pp. 167 - 186.
(4)The ragtimes in the first piano sonata, namely the movements 2a and 2b (In the Inn) as well as 4b, come from a group of pieces titled Ragtime Pieces composed between 1902 and 1904. Movement 2b also appears with the above title as the second piece in the Set for Theatre or Chamber Orchestra (1906 - 1911).