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ClassicsOnline Home » IVES: Piano Sonata No. 2 / The Celestial Railroad
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No. 2 ‘Concord’ • Varied Air and Variations • The Celestial Railroad
Four Transcriptions from ‘Emerson’ No. 1
The American composer Charles Ives was a musical prodigy. Taught first by his father, he was composing by the age of thirteen and became a professional church organist the next year. He continued as a working organist through four years at Yale, from 1894 to 1898, studying there with Horatio Parker, Yale’s first professor of music, and continuing thereafter when he moved to New York and began a job in life insurance. In 1902 he “gave up music”, as he later said disingenuously, for in fact, although he continued his successful and lucrative career in insurance until retiring in 1930, he continued to compose furiously, at white heat, during evenings, weekends, and vacations. This is not to say he soon became recognised as a composer or that his music was published or even performed: basically it was not, until the 1930s, after he had ceased to compose, and gradual recognition of Ives as the pre-eminent American composer of his generation began to emerge.
About 1910 Ives decided to write some orchestral works celebrating “Men of Literature”. These included his favourite New England writers, and he began an Emerson Overture for Piano and Orchestra, a Hawthorne Piano Concerto, and an Alcott Overture. He soon abandoned these but reworked their music as a piano sonata with three movements with the titles Emerson, Hawthorne, and The Alcotts, adding a fourth, Thoreau, newly composed. In 1920-21 he had this work, the Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord, Mass. 1840- 1860) printed, at his own expense, as well as a tiny book, Essays before a Sonata.
Ives casually described the Concord Sonata as “impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne”. But it was a very special piece for Ives, as Howard Boatwright, editor of Ives’s Essays, pointed out:
“For some composers, one work… may become a channel through which the streams of philosophical concept, musical technique, and style flow in singular unity. For Charles Ives, the ‘Concord’ Sonata was such a work… It is representative of Ives’ highest achievements in richness of harmony and freedom of rhythm, and it is stamped unmistakably… with the highly individual personality of the composer.”
Emerson, the Concord Sonata’s opening movement, is a musical portrait of immense power and density. It seems to be full of struggle, and in fact Ives wrote that it has more to do with the struggles of [Emerson’s] soul than [with] that peace of mind which he commands even in his struggles. The scherzo Hawthornerushes by in a blur, except for one quiet, slow passage coloured by huge clusters of notes vibrating high in the treble (to be played with a strip of board edged with flannel) and a couple of other passages in which the hymn-tune Martyn (1834) appears in hushed harmony. The third, slow movement of the sonata, The Alcotts, is a slightly blurred tintype portrait. It evokes a variant of Martyn that is related to the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (which shows up often throughout the sonata, most prominently at the climax of The Alcotts). Thoreau, the final movement, is deceptively calm in spirit; after its climax, it unwinds in a long dénouement and concludes with the complete melody of a tune that has been hinted at from the sonata’s very beginning: a “human-faith melody,” said Ives, “transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic”.
Reducing the orchestral music of the Concord Sonata’s “parent pieces” for a pianist’s two hands required Ives to simplify the musical textures. Ironically, hardly was the sonata printed than Ives had second thoughts about this simplification, and he began restoring to the music material that he had scratched from the orchestral scores in arranging them for piano. Eventually this tinkering led Ives to prepare a second, much revised edition of the Concord Sonata in the late 1940s. (That is basically the version heard in the present recording.)
Ives’s tinkering led to two related but independent piano pieces in the 1920s. One was Four Transcriptions from “Emerson”, revisions of parts of the sonata’s first movement (Emerson). On the present disc we hear the first of these transcriptions, an extensive improvisatory reworking of the first page or so of the printed sonata, together with passages based on the original orchestral Emerson Overture. The other was a major transcription of the sonata’s Hawthornemovement. Ives orchestrated this new version and made it the second movement of his Fourth Symphony, but, far from abandoning the Hawthornepiano transcription, he gave it a new title, The Celestial Railroad. This was the title of one of Hawthorne’s short stories, the narrative of which had in fact largely determined the shape of Ives’s music:
A man falls asleep and dreams of a fantastic train, its destination the Celestial City. Persuaded by a Mr Smooth-it-away to join him, the man boards the train just as it begins its trip; it speeds past horrible sights and the temptation-filled town of Vanity Fair, to arrive at Beulah Land on the river Jordan. A side-wheel ferry is there, to take them all across to the Celestial City. Once on board the ferry, though, the man realises that Mr Smooth-it-away has stayed behind and that the trip has been a hoax. The side-wheels turn and throw water in the man’s face, and the shock of the impact awakens him: the nightmare is over. And it’s the Fourth of July in Concord (not in Hawthorne’s story).
If the Four Transcriptions from “Emerson” and The Celestial Railroad arose from Ivesian tinkering with the Concord Sonata of 1920-21, a third piano piece, of the mid-1920s, may have been inspired (or provoked) by the sonata’s failure to be performed or reviewed after Ives had it printed and sent it around. This is Varied Air and Variations, a title which the jokester Ives may have intended to be punned as “Very Darin’ Variations,” for it is an angry (if humorous) parody of a pianist’s recital situation, though subtitled “Study… for Ears or Aural and Mental Exercise!!!”. Its core is a series of five diverse variations based on an atonal “air”, a non-repetitive, awkwardly phrased, hyper-chromatic melody almost impossible to hum, sing, whistle, or even remember (“the old stone wall around the orchard — none of those [stones] are the same size”, Ives scribbled in the manuscript). All but one of the variations are full of in-your-face dissonance. They alternate with brief, whimpering, effete “protests” representing the “box belles…Ladies (male and female)” for whom, as Ives put it in his Essays, “beauty is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair”. Of the exceptional, less dissonant variation, Ives writes, “All right, Ladies, I’ll play the [air] again and harmonize it nice and proper”, and the music evokes not a protest this time but rather “Applause (non-protest)” with simple, consonant C major chords played not just loudly (f or ff — forte or fortissimo) but ffffffffffff! The pianist, says Ives, “gets mad at [the Ladies], starts to throw [dissonant] things at them again, and the piece ends, as it had begun, with a “protest.”
Thus, in this recording of piano music by Ives, we have heard him as vanguard composer of a masterly, major composition, tinkerer with (and re-user of) his own music, and rambunctious musical humourist.
H. Wiley Hitchcock
The Transcendental Ives
Ives drew inspiration from his father’s world: from the Danbury, Connecticut, of his childhood, from the “common” and “familiar,” from chapel hymns and corny theatre tunes. To a degree uncanny and extreme, the preserved memories of father and childhood anchored his creative identity – as did his surrogate Transcendentalist fathers Emerson and Thoreau. Of all three of these fathers, two of whom he never met, Ives spoke with reverence and a peculiar familiarity. He spoke of George Edward Ives as if he were still living. “He lived as though Emerson were standing beside him,” adds the Ives scholar Vivian Perlis.
The unreined individualist in Emerson and Thoreau of course captivated Ives. “Ives aimed at the same spontaneity, the same freedom,” his disciple John Kirkpatrick recalled. “Emerson was a Yankee individualist – he didn’t give a damn for the reactions of anybody.” Parallel to his private career as a composer, Ives undertook a public vocation in life insurance. By middle age, he was wealthy and successful; and yet he pursued a lifestyle as reclusive – as ostentatiously simple, in its way – as Thoreau’s.
No less than Emerson or Thoreau, Ives was intensely democratic. He identified with the barber, the farmer, the country neighbour. He detested rank and caste. He celebrated the common man. The Transcendentalists, though solitary searchers, aspired to worldly influence through social experiments like Brook Farm. Ives, by comparison, was too much the loner to seek community, but he possessed a warm and meddlesome social conscience. Those who knew him testified to the generosity and kindliness underlying his fiercely laconic demeanor. His proposed Twentieth Amendment, which he circulated to leading political figures, would have implemented a national direct democracy.
Like Emerson and Thoreau, Ives was religious by temperament. He felt a kinship with the New England come-outers, who removed themselves from institutions which violated their conscience. Thoreau’s abolitionism and civil disobedience are offshoots of this tradition. Ives’s Christianity was less heretical, but he was far from an orthodox worshipper. “Many of the sincerest followers of Christ,” he once wrote, “never heard of him.” He followed Emerson and Thoreau in his religious regard for nature, in his conviction that the world is a wholesome place, in his insistence that art, like nature, is moral. Ives aspired to the condition – immortalized by Thoreau in Walden – where art, religion, philosophy, and daily life become one and the same.
Ives was an Everyman who cherished the quotidian, a vigorous democrat addicted to ordinary people and things. He was a philosopher who idealised art and spiritualised everyday experience. His music is equally prone to plain and extravagant speech. These juxtapositions, if contradictory, are not singular, but quintessential Emerson, quintessential Thoreau.
Ives characterized the Concord Sonata as “a group of four pieces, called a sonata for want of a more exact name . . . The whole is an attempt to present [one person’s] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a century ago”. The four pieces are Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau.
Ives wrote voluminously about the underlying subject matter in Essays before a Sonata, published in 1919. For his nephew, Brewster Ives, he would read passages from the authors in question in connection with playing excerpts from the sonata — “to convince me,” Brewster recalled, “that the music was expressing the words”. Taking inspiration from this anecdote, I culled readings from Emerson (his essay Circles), Thoreau (his journal and Walden), and Ives for performances of Emerson and Thoreau by Steven Mayer at a Brooklyn Philharmonic Ives celebration in 1994. Music and words (as spoken by the actor Donald Moffat) became a satisfying whole. For the present recording, I have added excerpts from Ives’s writings on Hawthorne and the Alcotts. CD technology enables the listener to hear the sonata with or without these interpolated words.
In Ives’s essay, Emerson is a “seer,” “invader of the unknown”, “America’s deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities”, “a recorder, freely describing the inevitable struggle in the soul’s uprise – perceiving from this inward source alone that every ‘ultimate fact is only the first of a new series’”. His strength is his optimism – “a possession which gives the strength of distance to his eyes, and the strength of muscle to his soul”.
Ives’s essay Hawthorne disavows “any comprehensive conception”. Rather Ives isolates “Hawthorne’s wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms”. The Alcotts, in Ives’s essay, embodies a domestic vignette including Scottish songs and family hymns “sung at the end of the day” – as well as “a strength of hope that never gives way to despair – a conviction in the power of the common soul”.
In Ives’s Thoreau, the writer sits “rapt in reverie, amidst goldenrod, sandcherry and sumac”. Here, the essay proposes a programme, a trajectory: the restless eagerness of an early morning tramp gradually slows toward “the tempo of Nature”; a buoyant, too personal introspection gives way to harmonious solitude. To the player of Thoreau, Ives instructs: “Both pedals are used almost constantly.” The rendering of misted water, cloud and dew, of “drifting meadows of the air” is both physical and metaphysical. Tolling octaves in the bass evoke “the faint sound of the Concord bell… At a distance over the woods the sounds acquire a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept… A vibration of the universal lyre.” An innate music merges with nature and with the idea of nature.
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IVES: Piano Sonata No. 2 / The Celestial Railroad