Recorded December 1995 at Tonstudio van Geest, Sandhausen
Charles Ives, said Stravinsky, "quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before anyone else had even found a seat at the same table." True to form, Ives's spirited violin sonatas, written between 1903 and 1916, seem to prefigure specific musical developments up to and including contemporary polystylism, even as they bear anecdotal witness to the sounds of rural Connecticut of the late 19th century and comment, often laconically, on the concert music of Ives's day. As Giselher Schubert writes in his liner notes to this CD : "The Sonatas are capable of adopting the character of purely 'late Romantic' music, of anticipating the neo-classicism of the twenties, or portraying a disreputable march or ragtime tune, of taking up the style of wild fiddling familiar from American folk music, of masquerading as simple, naive songs without words, or of ascending into the ethereal spheres of church music."
Ives completed only four violin sonatas although fragments of others remain, including the withdrawn sonata of 1901 that Henry Cowell called, somewhat confusingly from posterity's perspective, the Pre-First Sonata and from which material was taken and redistributed through the two sonatas that followed. Moreover, thematic-motivic material is linked through all the sonatas. The best account of the genesis of these works is to be found in Ives's Memos, splendidly candid because, as Ives scholar and pianist John Kirkpatrick has noted, the composer was not dictating for publication but to "get things off his chest."
The era of the violin sonatas was a complicated period in Ives's never-straightforward biography: the composer was leading, at least, a double life. His insurance business flourished - Ives & Myrick outdistanced all competitors, in 1909 even opening a school for insurance agents. By day Ives penned instructional materials for his teams of budding salesmen, by night he wrote music that almost no one wanted to hear. This took a toll on his health and in 1906 there were early intimations of serious heart illness. Mounting stress on all fronts was counterbalanced by courtship and finally marriage of Harmony Twichell, his partner and muse.
Meanwhile, experts continued to assure him that his compositions were both unplayable and unpalatable. Ives's Memos detail a disastrous encounter with a German violinist, invited to play through the early violin sonatas and unable to get beyond the opening page of the first. "I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears!" Ives: "I began to feel that if I wanted to write music that seemed to me worthwhile I must stay away from musicians." The third violin sonata, as if reeling in shock from Ives's collision with the "hardboiled, narrow-minded, conceited prima donna violinist" looked back to old Camp Meeting and ragtime pieces for security and although the composer used these imaginatively he feared the themes may have represented too many concessions "to the soft ears." Lack of dependable instrumentalists to play his pieces prompted Ives to draft his fourth sonata as a piece that his nephew, 12-year old Moss White, might be able to play. This too was wishful thinking. Unable to keep to his own game plan, Ives drifted far away from it in the second movement (which neither Moss nor his teacher Clarence Nowlan - personally tutored by Ives's father - could master). The work is one of those Ivesian compositions soaked in memory, of hymns and spirituals sung down by the river in Brook side Park, of the marching bands led by George Ives...and its good humour is also tinted with regret. As Stuart Feder points out in his "psycho-analytic biography" of Ives, My Father's Song, "Music itself may be the more intimately related to mourning and hence to acts of remembrance, since of all the arts it is, par excellence, the art of time." Ives the innovator and Ives the chronicler are both well-represented in the music of the Sonatas for Violin and Piano.
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The Violin Sonatas of Charles Ives
Charles Ives probably conceived and laboured upon seven sonatas for violin and piano, but completed, fully acknowledged and kept only four of them.
An early First Sonata written while he was still a student of Horatio Parker has disappeared entirely; a final Seventh Sonata survives only as rough sketches dated a few years before Ives's compositional powers dried up, suddenly, around 1926. The Sonata that was actually his second, written around 1901 and sometimes called his "Pre-First Sonata", was withdrawn by Ives, though he used music from it in the violin sonatas that have become known definitively as his Sonatas No. 1 (1903-8) and No. 2 (1902-10). These two sonatas are thus closely related thematically; the main themes from the opening movements of both are, in fact, identical. Ives further explores themes from these sonatas in the Violin Sonatas No. 3 (1901-14) and No. 4 (1905-16). He even managed to use the original finale movement of the Sonata No. 4 in reworked form as the Finale of the Sonata No.2 without undermining the context of the latter work. Ives took the traditional method of cyclical integration of the individual movements of a work by means of motivic-thematic reminiscences and applied it to separate compositions. Thematic relationships among the Sonatas are always apparent, even when the themes are subjected to extreme metamorphoses or additional developments.
This cyclical unity within the four Violin Sonatas is all the more surprising given that Ives also managed to build other pieces of his music into these compositions: organ music, marches, dances, popular tunes, ragtimes, sonatas and other instrumental works. In addition, there are substantial quotations from the music of other composers, sometimes conspicuously quoted and sometimes inconspicuously integrated: above all, marches and religious songs, but also a fugue theme written by his father (the first movement of Sonata No.4). Moreover, music that appears in the Violin Sonatas is also found in Ives's other works - such as the String Quartet No.1,the Symphony No.4 and the songs with piano accompaniment-and it is impossible to determine whether Ives is using borrowed music for the Violin Sonatas or deriving music from them for other works. It is not even possible to say whether Ives intends by these processes of musical derivation to place the works in a particular context. The radical heterogeneity of the musical material in the Violin Sonatas is combined with a pluralism of compositional methods that remains unparalleled. In his later years, full of exasperated admiration, Stravinsky compared this pluralism with the European avant-garde: "Polytonality; atonality; tone clusters; tone rows; multiple orchestras; perspectivistic effects; micro-intervals; chance; statistical composition; permutation; rhythmic dimensions that maintain a lead on the avant-garde even now; add-a-part, practical-joke, and improvisatory music: these were Ives's discoveries, patented by the silence of the musical world of a half-century ago; in fact, he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before anyone else had even found a seat at the same table." For Ives, though, the traditional methods behind such compositional advances were always evident. In the Violin Sonatas in particular he varies suddenly, even within a single movement, the compositional system of relations-tonality, atonality, syntax, setting, motivic-thematic developments, athematicity - allowing musical expression to veer unpredict-ably. The Sonatas are capable of adopting the character of purely "late Romantic" music, of anticipating the neo-classicism of the twenties, of portraying a disreputable march or ragtime music, of taking up the style of wild fiddling familiar from American folk music, of masquerading as simple, naive songs without words, or of ascending into the ethereal spheres of church music. Of course, Ives did not create his musical materials in the way that composers from Schoenberg to Varese to Boulez did, each of them presenting his compositional procedure as the only possible direction for "progress". Rather, Ives composed with these methods. The plurality of materials and means was not a compositional "goal" for Ives, but rather a way to enable music to participate in - or even to represent - the public ideas, conceptions and ideals that affected him deeply as a politically, socially, intellectually, and culturally conscious and confident citizen of his native land. Ives never transports his music into unapproachable, even inhuman, spheres of aesthetic autonomy. He certainly identified with Ralph Waldo Emerson's cynical criticism of narrow-minded musicians: "How partial, like mutilated eunuchs, the musical artists appear to me in society! Politics, bankruptcy, frost, famine, war- nothing concerns them but scraping on a catgut, or tooting on a French horn. The crickets in the grass chirp their national song at all hours, quite heedless who conquers, Federals or rebels, in the war, and so do these."
The general ideas or moods contained in the Violin Sonatas are discussed by Ives in the programmatic notes that have survived for all the Violin Sonatas except Sonata No. 2. Violin Sonata No. 1 conjures up a memory of the popular gatherings at fairs or on holidays during the 1880s and '90s in rural New England. The people would frankly and fearlessly express their opinions, and the songs and hymns they sang would blend with the sounds of nature. The first movement, according to Ives, is meant to express the way that man and nature sometimes speak to each other in an inner harmony. The second movement recalls the feeling of mourning and sadness of the American Civil War period. The third, by contrast, captures the festive atmosphere of country fairs.
In the Violin Sonata No. 2 Ives gives the movements titles that characterise the mood of the music:"Autumn", "ln the Barn", "The Revival". This sonata, too, is about the harmony and dissonance between nature and man: autumn / contemplation / maturity - harvest / evening dances - spring / renewal / religious revival.
Ives remarks on the Violin Sonata No.3: "The first movement is a kind of a magnified hymn of four different verses, all ending with the same refrain. The second movement may represent a meeting where the feet and body, as well as the voice, add to the excitement. The last movement is an experiment: The free fantasia is first. The working-out develops into the themes, rather than from them ... As the tonality throughout is supposed to take care of itself, there are no key signatures."
Ives described the Violin Sonata No. 4 as an attempt to write a work that even his twelve-year-old nephew Moss White could play. "The first movement," according to Ives, "kept to this idea fairly well, but the second got way away from it, and the third got about in between. Moss White couldn't play the last two, and neither could his teacher. It is called 'Children's Day' because it is based principally on the church hymns sung at the children's services. At the summer Camp Meetings in the Brookside Park, the children (more so the boys) would get marching and shouting the hymns... And the slow movement [recalls] a serious time for children, Yes, Jesus loves me - except when old Stone Mason Bell and Farmer John would get up and shout or sing - and some of the boys would rush out and throw stones down on the rocks in the river. At the end of the slow movement, sometimes a distant Amen would be heard..."
Ives himself tried repeatedly to find a violinist with whom he could play his sonatas, but all such attempts ended in a fiasco. Ives remarked sarcastically about a rehearsal of the Violin Sonata No. 1 with a German violinist: "The 'Professor' came in and, after a lot of big talk, started to play the first movement of the First Sonata. He didn't even get through the first page. He was all bothered with the rhythms and the notes, and got mad. He said 'This cannot be played. It is awful. It is not music, it makes no sense.' He couldn't get it even after I'd played it over for him several times. I remember he came out of the little back music room with his hands over his ears, and said, 'When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears (by a dose of oil)."
The sarcasm of this description reflects the bitterness Ives felt about the total incomprehension that greeted his music, forcing him to lead a double existence as a (completely isolated) composer and an (extremely successful) insurance magnate. It also reveals a fundamental distance from public musical life that caused him to become ever more deeply entangled in contradictions, contradictions that at the same time shed light on his position as a composer in the puritan-influenced musical life of America's East Coast around the turn of the century. Ives isolated himself as a composer in part because he felt his own compositional existence threatened by new music from abroad. A performance of Max Reger's Symphonic Prologue to a Tragedy that Ives heard in New York in 1909 so upset him, as he himself described it, that for a time he could no longer compose unhindered. He decided to avoid entirely concerts with unfamiliar music. Ives, it seems, was unwilling and unable to expose himself to the music of other contemporary composers, and yet he nevertheless ridiculed those who did not accept his music immediately. His decision to lead a double life as composer and businessman, and to keep his distance from musical circles, is also ambivalent and all but incomprehensible unless understood in the context of the musician's status as a social outsider within the puritan society in which he grew up, a society whose moral conceptions he internalised. He himself freely admitted that he kept his distance from other musicians above all for aesthetic reasons. As boldly as Ives may have dared to free himself from all conventions in his music, he nevertheless solicitously tried to follow moral conventions that his American biographer Frank Rossiter calls "narrow-minded"and "prudish". More than any other modern composer, Ives identified himself emotionally with "the people" whose history, morals, and customs were the source for almost all of his works, and despised composers who tailored their music to those very "people". Yet music of precisely that sort - marches, hymns, popular tunes - nevertheless lives on in countless quotations in his own work.
- Giselher Schubert (translation: Steven Lindberg)