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ClassicsOnline Home » IVES, C.: Songs, Vol. 3
By Leonard Link
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Songs • 3
When, in 1922, Charles Ives published a volume entitled 114 Songs, he was indirectly drawing attention to the fact that the genre had played a central part within his output. 85 years later and, for all that his wider reputation rests on orchestral, chamber and piano music, it is the songs that represent the heart of his creative thinking. Nor was that initial volume comprehensive; Ives having written almost 200 songs, of which this present edition includes all those that he completed. The expressive variety encountered is accordingly vast: indeed, the gradual evolution of Ives’s songwriting, from those drawing overtly on the Austro-German Lieder and English parlour-song tradition to ones that evince anarchic humour as keenly as others do profound vision, is analogous to the evolution of American music over the last quarter of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries.
Although it would be possible to collate Ives’s songs according to type, the alphabetic approach adopted by this edition ensures each volume (of which this is the third) contains a cross-section of his achievement. A wide range of poets is set (Ives could be highly interventionist in others’ verse), including a number of (mainly early) German settings as well as forays into French and Italian writers. Whatever else, the temporal distance (1887-1926) traversed by these songs is as little compared to their stylistic diversity and also their emotional range.
The extent to which Ives reworked songs throughout his career is considerable, whether substituting a text or reworking the actual music. To this end, songs with a musical or textual connection are crosslinked accordingly (i.e. in brackets at the end of the relevant paragraph).
With its intricate harmony and surging motion, Harpalus (1902) is a notably unsentimental view of Thomas Percy’s stanzas on unrequited love: as Ives notes in an epigraph to the score, “We are all sorry for Harpalus - notwithstanding the music” (see also Volume 4, track 31, Naxos 8.559272).
A ‘battle-cry’ with a difference, He Is There! (1917) sets out as a marching-song only to develop unpredictably, with its rhythmically volatile piano part and an ‘ad lib’ contribution (here from piccolo) which overshoots the end of the song (see also Volume 6, track 4, Naxos 8.559274).
Setting lovelorn lines by an unknown author, Her Eyes (1898) avoids bathos with some deftly ironic pianism (see also Volume 4, track 8, Naxos 8.559272).
A notably subtle treatment of an anonymous text that tells of an invitation spurned, Her Gown was of Vermilion Silk (1897) is among the more suave of Ives’s earlier songs, despite its pert piano pay-off.
With its heavily chorded piano prelude and its granitic setting of lines (for unison male voices) by Robert Robinson, His Exaltation (1913) is among the most forceful of Ives’s transcendentalist statements.
A literal ‘translation’ of the final movement from his orchestral Three Places in New England, The Housatonic at Stockbridge (1908) sets Robert Underwood Johnson’s meditation on the river’s course with an underlying momentum evincing strong emotions held barely in check.
The setting of Gerhardt Tersteegen (as translated by John Wesley), Hymn (1921) is typical of Ives in his most metaphysical mode as the poem’s sentiments bring forth unruffled music of a serene ecstasy.
Hymn of Trust (1898) is a sacred song, to words by Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which voice and keyboard (probably intended for organ and adapted so by John Kirkpatrick) are closely intertwined, and with a telling illustrative touch near the close (see also Volume 4, track 21, Naxos 8.559272).
Utilising the poem Ein Ton by Peter Cornelius (translated by C. Hugo Laubach), I Hear a Tone (1900) is surely among the most elegant of Ives’s straightforward ‘Lieder’ settings (see also Volume 4, track 18, Naxos 8.559272, and Volume 6, track 12, Naxos 8.559274).
Despite a momentarily disruptive central section, I Knew and Loved a Maid (1898) sets its anonymous text with an impulsive directness as could almost be that of an English composer from the same period.
Setting the famous poem by William Wordsworth, I Travelled Among Unknown Men (1901) is notable more for its undulating piano part than for its over-wrought vocal line (see also Volume 2, track 20, Naxos 8.559270).
Setting a well-known lyric by Heinrich Heine, Ich grolle nicht (1898) is a thoughtful treatment of its text, such that Ives defended himself against those who might criticize him for appearing to emulate the work of his fabled Austro-German predecessors (see also below, track 13).
As if to pre-empt this criticism, I’ll Not Complain (1898) sets the same Heine poem in translation by John Sullivan Dwight; less poetic than the original, it yet preserves the music’s noble essence (see also above, track 12).
Another German text, here by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ilmenau (1903) is most notable for a clarity and restraint that aptly capture the warm sentiments of the text (see also Volume 4, track 32, Naxos 8.559272).
A setting of the composer’s own lines, Immortality (1921) is typical of late Ives in the stark contrasts of its moods: qualities which, in this instance, seem most likely to betray an autobiographical connotation.
With its words by Clifton Scollard, In April-Tide (1897) is among the most warmly attractive of Ives’s earlier songs both in its deftly phrased vocal line and its limpid accompaniment (see also Volume 1, track 7, Naxos 8.559269).
Another instance of Ives’s early songwriting, In Autumn (1896) sets an unknown source as a winsome ‘parlour song’ that is over too soon.
In Flanders Fields (1917) is notable for the allusions to both American and French national tunes during this setting of implacable lines by John McCrae, as well as a falling-away in the final bars that serves to place its sentiments in a wholly new and more equivocal perspective.
Setting some (not very distinguished) lines by J. M. Chauvenet, In My Beloved’s Eyes (1899) is saved from sentimentality by the warmth of its vocal line and poised piano writing (see also Volume 4, track 20, Naxos 8.559272).
With its expressive vocal line and seamless accompaniment, In Summer Fields (1898) sets Henry G. Chapman’s translation of Hermann Allmers with a nod to the songs of Liszt, for all that the repetition of certain phrases seems less effective here (see also Volume 2, track 16, Naxos 8.559270).
An early instance of Ives’s quizzical humour, In the Alley (1896) sets his own words as a drawing-room ballad whose contrived rhyming scheme is capped by the drawn-out expectancy of the final bars.
In the Mornin’ (1929) is the late harmonization of a spiritual, supplied by Mary Evelyn Stiles, that effortlessly preserves its heartfelt essence.
With words by George Gordon (Lord Byron), The ‘Incantation’ (1921) is among the most visionary songs of Ives’s later years; evoking so much with its intoned vocal line and gently rippling accompaniment.
Very different is The Indians (1921), a setting of Charles Sprague that evokes the decline of a culture in terms both fatalistic and poignant.
The setting of Ives’s own words, The Innate (1916) finds him at his most soul-searching and philosophical, with both the vocal line and piano part intensifying as a ‘way forward’ seems to be envisaged.
Setting lines by Parmo Karl Ploug (translated by Clara Kappey), Kären (1900) is a gentle song of love’s intimations whose questioning final words are delectably underlined by the piano’s teasing half-close.
The Last Reader (1921) is a curious song in that its text, by Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr, has a quaintly meandering feel that Ives’s music reinforces with a tonal waywardness that can only be deliberate.
Something approaching a sacred song, The Light that is Felt (1903) sets John Greenleaf Whittier’s stanzas on childhood innocence as reflected in adult experience with a poise to offset any sentimentality.
With its (likely autobiographical) lines on mortality and the imminence of death by John Keats, Like a Sick Eagle (1920) is notable for its motion, halting yet sustained, and also for the use of glissandi in the vocal part that reflect the song’s origin in a piece for violin and piano.
Setting words by Edwin Markham, with an epigraph (spoken here) by the composer, Lincoln, The Great Commoner (1919) is one of Ives’s most powerfully rhetorical songs; paying tribute to the slain president with its implacable vocal writing and a densely chorded piano part.
Ives’s last setting of Heinrich Heine (and also of a German text), Die Lotusblume (1908) evinces an inevitably retrogressive feel for its date, despite its easeful charm (see also Volume 5, track 37, Naxos 8.559273).
With verses by Rudyard Kipling, The Love Song of Har Dyal (1899) eschews overt plaintiveness for a more subdued melancholy as the protagonist contemplates a life of drudgery without her lover.
Setting a haiku-like text by Robert Underwood Johnson, Luck and Work (1920) compares the reckless fortune-seeker with the methodical pragmatist in terms as contrasted musically as they are lyrically.
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IVES, C.: Songs, Vol. 3