Ives – Symphony #2

Charles Ives grew up in the upper-middle-class suburb of Danbury, Connecticut.  The family business was selling insurance, but Ives’s father George was a former Civil War band­master and one of Danbury’s most visible musicians.  Young Charles studied music as an avoca­tion and later attended Yale, where he balanced his interest in music with a talent for sports, especially baseball.  With minimal commit­ment to his course work but great energy for his extra­curricular pursuits, including an appetite for playing the piano at parties or for the University’s various clubs, he became one of the most popular students on campus.  Only one teacher at Yale held any interest for him, the noted composer Horatio Parker.  Parker’s philosophy toward composition was conservative, and he had discouraged the bizarre experiments Ives was undertaking (such as a four-part fugue with each voice in a different key).  But Ives could not deny Parker’s mastery of traditional compositional values, and while he performed his assignments for Parker begrudgingly, at least he did them – which is more than could be said for most of his other assignments.  While Ives’s interest in breaking down musical boundaries would only intensify as he matured, he also recognized the value of a solid traditional foundation.


Ives’s accomplishments as a musician were, at first, widely recognized; as a college freshman he landed the organ­ist’s job at New Haven’s Center Church, the town’s top keyboard post.  Upon graduating from Yale, however, he faced the reality that the musical establishment was too conservative for a career path as a composer to hold any promise.  He followed his father’s footsteps into an insurance career, remaining in that industry throughout his working life and composing in his limited evening and weekend hours.  During the first two decades of the twentieth century, when nearly all of his most important music was written, he was entirely ignored as a composer.  The only perfor­mances he received were private readings he organized himself, given by bemused and often unsympathetic musicians.  A heart attack suffered in 1918 left him perma­nently weakened, and he was forced to retire from his insurance business in 1930, while in only his mid-fifties.  But the decade of the 1920s saw the development of a cautious interest in his music, and soon the cutting-edge composers of the next generation were doing what they could to bring recog­nition to Ives’s work.  Although he died an invalid, he did live long enough to see interest in his work begin to take hold on a large scale.


Ives has a very strong Nationalistic influence in his music.  As European composers had done in the latter half of the 19th century, Ives incorporated folk tunes and popular songs into his music, ensuring that it would have a distinctly American feel even while resembling, in most other respects, an Austro-Germanic symphony.  Sometimes the borrowed melody is presented in its entirety, such as the several statements of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” the most majestic of which comes at the end of the symphony’s final movement.  Other times only a portion of the borrowed tune appears, such as with “Camptown Races” or “Turkey in the Straw,” again both in the finale.  And other times, a fragment of the borrowed melody is transformed to become the building block for an original phrase, such as with the subtle appropriation of “America the Beautiful” in the third movement.  As Leonard Bernstein – who conducted the first performance of the symphony a full fifty years after it was completed – wrote, “Ives had a way of tossing odd bits of Americana into the European soup-pot, thus making a whole new symphonic brew out of it.” 


The symphony is cast in five movements, but can also be thought of as being in three “parts,” with the first two and last two movements each forming a linked pair and the third movement standing alone.  The first and fourth movements, thematically almost identical to one another, both take on the character of a prelude, proceeding without a pause into lengthy march-based movements.  The second and fifth movements are also similar structurally, with a form that might be described as (ABC)(A’B’C’)A’’.  In each movement, a sizeable first section is followed by a reflective, slower section, and then by a transitional section combining several characters and melodic ideas – at times simultaneously.  This entire three-section plan is repeated with slightly different music, and then each movement concludes with a very energetic coda.  The third movement, structurally and harmonically, is the most conventional of the piece, and it also contains the most beautiful writing, enabling it to stand as the emotional center of the work.


Ives had a great interest in counterpoint, with an approach that defied the “rules” he learned while at Yale or studying the work of earlier composers.  While traditional counterpoint follows predictable procedures for the handling of consonance and dissonance, Ives used counterpoint more freely and more dramatically.  Dissonance occurs more consistently and is often resolved arbitrarily, if at all; the composer deliberately attempts to make the orchestra sound fractured and, to most ears, incoherent.  Indeed, later in his career Ives carried this idea to extremes, writing pieces to be performed by multiple orchestras simultaneously, each with a different conductor and tempo.  The resulting textures can be extremely disorienting and are difficult to listen to for the uninitiated, but once the ear learns how to sort out the competing voices, the effect is fascinating.  The Symphony #2, although an early work, demonstrates Ives’s interest in this procedure and his unique skill in making it work.


2003-04 PCO repertoire