Classic Recordings. Leonard Bernstein. New York Philharmonic Orchestra
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When a determinedly "new world" composer sets his hand to creating a personal addition to that holiest of holy "old world" canons - the symphony - we can expect something unusual. Charles Ives (1874-1954) wrote four numbered symphonies (a total that rises to six if you count the unfinished Universe Symphony or the cobbled-together New England Holidays that was assembled in 1954, many years after the movements had been published as separate pieces). In any event, all of Ives's works in this genre have interest.
Unbelievable as it may seem, Ives's first major orchestral work to be performed by a professional symphony orchestra was the Symphony No.3, subtitled The Camp Meeting, which received its world premiere on April 5, 1946 in a performance featuring the composer and conductor Lou Harrison and New York Little Symphony - a flabbergasting 42 years after the last notes were set on paper. The symphony went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition. And then the spectacular late blooming of Charles Ives started in earnest: in 1951, Symphony No.2 was presented under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No.l was presented in 1953, while the Symphony No.4, the most ambitious (and arguably the most intriguing) of the set, waited until 1965 for its world premiere.
And so, in his symphonic efforts, Ives never had the opportunity to learn by experience (and there is no learning experience more central to a composer than hearing the works performed). Ives was well into his 70s when Symphony No.3 was played in 1946 and he chose not to attend. When Leonard Bernstein decided to present Symphony No.2 with the New York Philharmonic five years later, Ives went so far as to try and stop the performance and then refused to come to the opening night concert. But after the critics had weighed in - Olin Downes in The New York Times called it a work "of unique inspiration and a noble elevation of thought" and Virgil Thomson, by no means an uncritical admirer of Ives's music, acknowledged that it was "unquestionably an authentic work of art" -Ives relented so far as to listen to a broadcast and was suitably pleased.
His wife, Harmony Twichell Ives, attended the opening night of the Symphony No.2. "At the end of the performance Bernstein applauded the players and then turned toward the Ives box to join in the wild and prolonged applause that rose from the hall," Henry and Sidney Cowell wrote in their book Charles Ives and His Music. "The warmth and excitement suddenly reached [Harmony] and she said in a heart breaking tone of pure surprise: 'Why, they like it, don't they?'"
There is indeed much to like in Ives's Symphony No.2. Ives began the work in 1901 and finished it the following year. It is in five movements; some adapted from earlier compositions (the opening Andante moderato and the third movement Adagio cantabile both come from organ works, now lost, and the finale Allegro molto vivace came out of an early overture called American Woods). And yet we find a rare formal cohesion throughout the symphony; this is one of Ives's most organic pieces and it is doubtful that an uninformed listener would be able to guess its various origins.
Symphony No.3 was written in 1904; it; too, consists of transposed and revised fragments from the copious amount of organ music Ives created early in his life. This symphony is program music - a work with specific extra-musical meaning - and Ives gave the three movements decidedly American subtitles (Old Folks Gathering Children's Day, and Communion), a collective aural portrait of remembered times. The symphony is scored for small orchestra and contains quotations from many other sources. -Fragments from more than 150 pieces have been identified in various of Ives's works and some songs -"The Battle Cry of Freedom", say, or "Bringing in the Sheaves" were repeated again and again.)
Ives's merits and demerits as a composer have been discussed for years; he has had few such persuasive advocates as Leonard Bernstein, both in the recordings preserved here and the 13-minute spoken exegesis "Leonard Bernstein Discusses Charles Ives". It should never be forgotten that Bernstein was among the most effective and influential music teachers in history, through the many "Young People's Concerts" that were broadcast through the 1960s to a nation of bewitched youth. Here is an appropriate sampling of his inspired pedagogy.
Charles Ives was all but ignored during his lifetime (1874-1954), and then celebrated wildly during the 15 or 20 years directly before and after the American bicentennial, when it seemed as if every other concert included one of his compositions. Today, he seems an arresting historical figure - a sort of Yankee icon and a heroic inspiration for young experimental composers. This album begins with one of the most haunting and evocative works in the American repertory, The Unanswered Question.
Scored for orchestra and solo trumpet, it begins with a slow, seraphic, barely audible chorale, played by the strings. A quizzical, angular phrase for trumpet poses the musical "question" which is "answered" by a gaggle of wind instruments. This is repeated, with greater intensity, and the piece eventually devolves into a controlled cacophony, after which it regains its gravity, repeating the question again before dying out into cosmic stillness.
This is great music in a number of ways. It is both consonant (the soft bedding of the string chorale) and abrasively dissonant (the "questions" and "answers" are naked and awkward). It is a work that creates its own form, perfects it, then breaks the mold. There was nothing like The Unanswered Question before it was written and, by its very nature, it can never have a legitimate sequel.
Holidays (Symphony) was assembled long after the fact from four existing compositions - Washington's Birthday (1909), Decoration Day (1912), The Fourth of July (1911-1913), and Thanksgiving (1904), which is also known as Forefathers' Day. This symphony might better be called a suite, as there is little sense of overriding formal structure. But it is agreeable to listen to, and contains many examples of one of Ives's customary compositional devices - the incorporation of hymn tunes and patriotic melodies into the structure of a complicated work, often heard as if in the background.
In short, this is Ives's aural portrait of a long-ago America. The complete Holidays (Symphony) was presented for the first time in Minneapolis on April 9, 1954, only a month before the composer died.
A latterday reader who comes across the title Central Park in the Dark might be forgiven for expecting a spooky and ominous piece. No; New York City's Central Park was a very different place in 1906, when this piece was written, and Ives captures instead a sense of rare, bucolic and almost timeless stillness in the heart of the largest city in North America.
- Tim Page
Leonard Bernstein discusses Charles Ives
Suddenly, over a decade after his death, Charles Ives is on the verge of being canonised. America has always desperately needed her saints, partly because she is so young comparatively, and partly out of a certain profound cultural guilt. Now, Ives fits perfectly into his saintly niche. We have suddenly discovered our musical Mark Twain, Emerson, and Lincoln all rolled into one. Actually, most of the shouting about Ives is based on his pioneering, like his experiments with atonality even before Schoenberg had formulated his ideas; like his experiments with free dissonance half a century ago; his experiments with multiple rhythms; with two or more actual pieces of music going on at the same time; with new techniques of piano writing, using fists and palms and rulers and that sort of thing. All of these can be found in Ives's Fourth of July, that wild and beautiful tone poem which is included in this recording. [Fourth of July is available on Bernstein Century SMK 60203] In fact, they con all be found in the following short, climactic excerpt, and if you listen carefully, you will be able to discern, for example, three patriotic tunes going on at once: first, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," screeched out by trumpets and trombones in octaves...well, not quite octaves [demonstrates at the piano].
That, of course, would be an imitation of the local brass band of Danbury, Connecticut. But simultaneously, one valiant cornet is trying to burst through with his version of "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" [demonstrates at the piano]. And at the very same time, xylophone and piano ore hammering away a "Yankee Doodle" [demonstrates at the piano].
Now all three of these competing tunes are set against a background of caterwauling harmonies, made of tone clusters that slide up and down in the strings [demonstrates at the piano] and against rhythm clusters that are almost impossible to define. Take the percussion section, for instance. The timpani is playing one march rhythm, [demonstrates at the piano], the snare drum is playing another, [demonstrates at the piano], and the bass drum yet another [demonstrates at the piano].
Of course, all this melange grows out of Ives's impulse to picture in sound several marching bands operating at once. That's one of his favourite nostalgic techniques. But apart from any descriptive purpose, it is still multiple music, dissonant music, employing atonal elements and, even, at the climax, that piano writing I spoke of that uses the forearms rather than the fingers [demonstrates at the piano]. Now listen to this excerpt complete, with all these elements going at once [orchestral excerpt]. It is something to shout about, isn't it? Especially dating, as it does, from 1913.
But the real measure of Ives's greatness is that those works of his that do not rely on such experimentation - works which employ the normal procedures of music as he found them - that those works, for all their simplicity and easy listenability, succeed in carrying a strongly personal and original message. This Second Symphony is such a work. It contains few, if any, problems of dissonance or modernistic techniques. Its only problem is one of attitude: our attitude as well as his. Let's just try to identify ourselves with the young Ives of this Second Symphony, a mere 27 years old, living in a country and a community where being a musician was then considered vaguely reprehensible, and trying withal to record the sound images of his world. Those images were a combination of the great works of the German tradition - Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner - plus the local music he lived with - hymns, folk tunes, patriotic songs and marches, college ditties and the like. All of these can be found in the Second Symphony, from Beethoven's Fifth to "Turkey in the Straw," but it all comes out Ivesian, somehow transmogrified into his own personal statement. It's really astonish ing. For example, Beethoven's Fifth: Ives had an obsession about those famous four opening notes [demonstrates at the piano] which keep turning up in various works of his. He had in his mind some kind of association between those notes and the philosophy of transcendentalism, which he inherited from Emerson, Thoreau and company. But when you hear those notes in the third move ment of this Second Symphony of Ives, you will hear them hushed and mystic, in the manner of the kind of church organ playing with which he was familiar [orchestral excerpt].
Very different from Beethoven's fierce original statement [orchestral excerpt].
There's Brahms quoted in this movement, too, a fragment from his First Symphony [orchestral excerpt]. But in Ives's hands, it's quite another story, joined on, as it is, to another quoted fragment from, of all things, "America the Beautiful" [orchestral excerpt].
Then there are other references to Brahms's Third Symphony, to Wagner's Tristan and his Walkure, to Bach, to Bruckner and even to Dvorak's New World Symphony, but the Ives symphony never sounds like Brahms and Wagner and the rest. It sounds like Ives. It has all the freshness of a naive American wandering in the grand palaces of Europe, like some of Henry James's Americans abroad, or perhaps more like Mark Twain's innocents. The European spirit has been Americanised, just as a Bach chorale gets Americanised into a Methodist hymn. It acquires a new total quality. In fact, Ives goes even further by tossing odd bits of Americana into this European soup pot, thus making a new brew out of it, very American in flavour, like speaking French with an American accent, or better still, like speaking English with a Yankee twang. The list of these oddments of Americana is very curious. Besides "America the Beautiful", which we've talked about, and "Turkey in the Straw", you'll also hear "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean", used here and there, finally emerging triumphant at the end [orchestral excerpt]. Then you'll hear the "Camptown Races" [orchestral excerpt]. Then there are five or six hymn tunes, including "Bringing in the Sheaves" [orchestral excerpt]... and also including "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" [orchestral excerpt]. Then you'll hear phrases that sound very Stephen Foster-ish, like a mixture of "Swanee River" and "Ol' Black Joe" [orchestral excerpt]. Then there's a delicate little touch of "Long, Long Ago" [orchestral excerpt]. Then there's a sudden wild reference to "Reveille" [orchestral excerpt], and even a number of college songs, including one old Dartmouth favourite called "Where, Oh Where, are the Peagreen Freshmen?" [orchestral excerpt]. And all this combines with Bach, Brahms and Wagner, not making a hodge podge but a real work - original, eccentric, naive, and as full of charm as an old lace valentine or a New England village green. And through it all there is always that fresh, awkward, endearing style of his, where all the rules get broken. There are gauche endings, unfinished phrases, wrong voice leadings, inexplicable orchestration - for example, the big climax of the third movement is played by the strings only. Now, no modern professional composer would have missed the chance for a big noise there by the whole orchestra. Then there are those strange personal jokes of his - burlesques, take-offs, deliberate infringements of conventionality, deliberately intending to shock, like the very last chord of the whole piece, full of wrong notes, incongruous as a Marx Brothers gag, completely out of style and out of context and containing every note of the chromatic scale but one [orchestral excerpt].
And so he ends his symphony with a yelp of laughter. In short, this symphony adds up to a sort of personal memoir of Ives's own musical experience. In a way, it is music about other music, rather than about anything programmatic. When you hear "Turkey in the Straw" in this symphony, [orchestral excerpt] you are not supposed to. visualise a barn dance, but rather try to feel the impact of such a beloved, homely tune on one particular composer's consciousness, and a given moment in American cultural history, when anything that was any good at all was supposed to come from Europe. That's what's so touching about all this use of Americana. It comes to us full of Ives's brave resolve to be American, to write American music in the face of a diffident and uninterested public.
But all the brave resolves in the world won't make good music. Nor will patriotic songs, or impudent shockers, or reverent gestures toward Bach and Beethoven. It's talent that counts in the end, and talent is what Ives had, and in such abundance that we must call it genius.
Leonard Bernstein June 2, 1966