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ClassicsOnline Home » IVES, C.: Songs, Vol. 1
By David Denton
It would surely have delighted the unconventional Charles Ives to find that Naxos is presenting his songs in nothing more high-brow than alphabetical order.Throughout his musical life he rejected orthodoxy, an attitude he had inherited from his father, a local bandmaster, who together with his young son had embarked on some zany musical experiments. Yet initially the young man had shown an aptitude to become a conventional composer, following his studies at Yale University with Horatio Parker. But it was the more practical aspects of earning a living that took him into the insurance business, where he was to prove extremely successful, and as a weekend composer he could return to his liberated musical world where performance and publication were no longer his objective. It was this freedom that proved the recipe for his eventual success, his experiments taking him into atonality, while at the same time he could write in the most conventional mode that returned to his youth and time spent playing church music. Only in his later years was his music taken seriously on the international stage and he began to see his works in print. Throughout his life he wrote songs, some little more than snippets lasting a few seconds, others extended and taking their inspiration from German lieder. He left almost two hundred, this projected series containing all those completed at the time of his death. By the second volume we have reached Gruss, so I guess there will be eight volumes when complete. It was courageous of Naxos to use opera singers, though this has its dangers. If only the singers had sat down and listened to Marni Nixon’s long deleted LP, some deficiencies may have been avoided. Sara Jakubiak may then have shaped At the River with more affection; Leah Wool would have heard the ‘tongue in cheek’ charm that can be brought to Ann Street, and David Pittsinger could have noted the mood swings possible in General William Booth Enters into Heaven. The singers find the sentimental ballads much easier to achieve, Pittsinger’s bass heard to good effect in Because of You, and the tenor, Kenneth Tarver, bringing the right mood to Dreams. I also much enjoyed the baritone, Michael Cavalieri, in Die alte Mutter. But finding the style for such songs as Charlie Rutlage, The Circus Band and The Greatest Man is a very different matter.Of course it is all too easy to stand by and comment on such a complex project, and at very least we should be grateful that a complete recording is being undertaken. The piano accompaniments from Eric Trudel and Douglas Dickson are models of cleanliness and good taste, if a little short on the bad taste that Ives sometimes requires. The sound quality is admirable.
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Songs • 1
When, in 1922, Charles Ives published a volume entitled 114 Songs, he was likely drawing attention to the fact that the genre had played a central part in his output. 85 years on and, for all that his wider reputation may now rest on his orchestral, chamber and piano music, it is the songs that represent the heart of his creative thinking. Nor was that initial volume at all comprehensive; Ives having written almost two hundred songs, of which this present edition includes all of those he completed. The expressive variety encountered is accordingly vast: indeed, the gradual evolution of Ives’s songwriting, from those that draw overtly on the Austro- German Lieder and English parlour-song traditions to ones that evince an anarchic humour as keenly as others do a profound vision, is surely analogous to the wider evolution of American music over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Although it would be entirely possible to collate Ives’s songs according to type, the alphabetic approach adopted by this edition ensures that each volume (of which this disc is the first) contains a representative cross-section. A considerable range of poets is set (and Ives could be highly interventionist as and when it suited his purpose), including a number of (mainly early) German settings and forays into French and Italian. The temporal distance (1887-1926) traversed by the songs is as little compared to their stylistic diversity or their emotional range.
In its capering, tonally vague piano writing and text by the composer that poses a question at once frivolous and earnest, “1, 2, 3” (1921) represents the essential Ives and thus makes an ideal frontispiece.
Although a little over-wrought in expression, the highly expansive setting of Henry Francis Lyte’s Abide With Me (1897) provides a thoughtful, art-song alternative to the familiar hymn-tune version.
Among his most visionary and profound songs, Ives’s setting of Walter Savage Landor’s Aeschylus and Sophocles (1922) proceeds from a rapt introduction for piano and string quartet (the latter marked as optional yet essential to the spirit of the piece) through a passage of rapid protestation to a culmination of philosophical import, before a measured coda that leaves all such enquiry tantalizingly unanswered.
A meditation on transience, Afterglow (1919) sets James Fenimore Cooper’s verse as a distant, even hieratic vocal line combined with a piano part whose restraint exhibits an almost Expressionist tinge.
Ives’s setting of his own, complementary verses in Allegro (1899) reveals a young composer looking toward the future in music whose open-hearted demeanour is both unaffected and touching (see also Volume 5, track 22, Naxos 8.559273).
Its anonymous text speaking portentously of the impermanence of human endeavour, The All-Enduring (1896) is a statement which, if undertaken too early, still compels respect for the dynamism of its structure and an elaborate piano part in which numerous instances of instrumentation suggest Ives contemplated an orchestral treatment.
In its whimsical yet capricious interplay between voice and piano, the setting of Alfred Tennyson’s Amphion (1896) does full justice to the pastoral scene that the one-time Poet Laureate so deftly evokes (see also Volume 3, track 16, Naxos 8.559271).
A treatment of Maurice Morris, Ann Street(1921) is entirely typical of the later Ives in its harnessing of diverse and often conflicting sentiments within a single, unbroken stream of musical expression.
The wistful sentimentality of Frederick Peterson’s verse inspired the teenage Ives to a setting such as makes At Parting (1889) a song that both respects yet also thoughtfully transcends its text.
Sparse in texture yet conveying a deep underlying emotion, the setting of Robert Underwood Johnson’s At Sea (1921) represents Ives’s late phase of songwriting at its most imaginative and assured.
The tune of At the River (1916) may be familiar, but Ives has placed Robert Lowry’s verse in intriguing relief with a prelude that has only an oblique resemblance to the melody, along with frequent tonal quirks in the accompaniment that give the song a restless, questioning manner.
Despite evoking decidedly secular pleasure, Folgore da San Gimigano’s August (1920) - as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti - is given a tensile, even acerbic setting with the recitative-like vocal line and densely wrought piano writing combined in purposeful onward motion.
Among the most radiant of Ives’s songs, Autumn (1907) sets words by Harmony Twichell (Mrs Ives) that evoke the earth’s rest at sunset with a gentle striving that has been effortlessly transfigured by the close.
A love song typical of its era, Because of You (1898) is notable for the way in which Ives sets the anonymous text so that it can yield subtler shades of meaning than are evident from the words alone.
Another drawing-room song of an unabashed romantic inclination, Because Thou Art (1901) sets a text of unknown origin with growing impulsiveness, albeit yielding to warm contentment towards the close.
Setting a brief verse by the composer, Berceuse (1903) demonstrates an unobtrusive mastery in its perfectly-poised vocal line and piano writing whose gently undulating motion amply reinforces the title (see also Volume 6, track 29, Naxos 8.559273).
Another of Ives’s profound epigrams, The Cage (1906) is determinedly experimental in its dissonant prelude, then in the way that voice and piano pursue seemingly separate ways to a close that is left hanging.
A condensation of the finale from Ives’s Third Symphony [Naxos 8.559087], The Camp Meeting (1912) sets Charlotte Elliott’s text with keen awareness of the spiritual enlightenment arising from a communal revival meeting typical of those he experienced in his youth.
Among the most engaging of Ives’s early songs, Canon I (1893) sets its anonymous text with sleight of hand such that the melody switches between left and right hands of the piano with nonchalant ease (see also below, track 20).
While it sets Thomas Moore’s verse to virtually the same music, Canon II (1894) separates out melody and accompaniment so as to highlight even more clearly the changing relationship between voice and piano (see also above, track 19).
One of a handful of French settings, Chanson de Florian (1898) treats Jean Pierre Claris de Florian’s amorous pastorale in a resourceful manner which is enlivened by the constantly flowing accompaniment.
Although it starts out in a notably populist manner, Ives’s setting of Kid O’Malley’s Charlie Rutlage (1920) takes on a graphic theatricality in its depiction of the cowhand’s untimely demise; the song then continuing as before, only to stop short when the end of the text is reached.
The attractive setting of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour (1912) has a benign inwardness that dispels any sentimentality. Edith was also the name of the composer’s adopted daughter.
Edith Osborne Ives wrote not only the words but also the melody of (Edie’s) Christmas Carol (1925), Ives providing the harmonization for a seasonal song whose touching naïvety is underlined by delicate piano figuration and a sparing contribution from glockenspiel in the postlude.
Simplicity is equally the watchword of A Christmas Carol (1894), in which Ives accentuates the traditional text’s sense of wonder with piano writing that is seldom other than syllabic in its accompaniment.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, The Circus Band (1894) is a raucous setting of Ives’ own verse, with repeats of the initial stanzas, though the subsequent unpredictability of the piano writing can make one wonder if the mature composer gave his teenage self an overhaul.
With an organ part making it highly suitable for liturgical use, The Collection (1920) sets James Edmeston’s text as a response between ‘soprano’ and ‘village choir’, functional and appealing in equal measure.
A sacred song of rather greater expressive range, Country Celestial (1897) sets John Mason Neale’s paraphrase of the medieval Bernard of Cluny so that it alternates between the pious and the joyous (see also Volume 2, track 6, Naxos 8.559270, and Volume 6, track 24, Naxos 8.559273).
Among the most straightforward of Ives’s later songs, Cradle Song (1919) sets a text by Augusta L. Ives (a distant ancestor) with great serenity, for all that the dying away of the closing bars gives the final verse an ambivalence as might be thought at variance with its words.
Available sung texts may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/559269.htm
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IVES, C.: Songs, Vol. 1