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ClassicsOnline Home » IVES, C.: Songs, Vol. 6
By Steve Hicken
By Howard Goldstein
BBC Music Magazine
By Bob Briggs
Charles Ives (1874–1954)
Songs • 6
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 in his output. 85 years on and, for all that his wider reputation may now rest on his orchestral, chamber and piano music, songs 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 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 traditions to ones that evince anarchic humour as keenly as others do a profound vision, is analogous to the evolution of American music over the last quarter of the nineteenth and the 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 sixth and last) contains a representative crosssection of his achievement. A wide range of poets is set (Ives could be highly interventionist when it suited his purpose), including (mainly early) German settings as well as forays into French and Italian writers. Moreover, the temporal distance (1887–1926) traversed by the songs is as little compared to their stylistic diversity or 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).
The setting of Rudyard Kipling’s Tarrant Moss (1902) uses just two verses, treated in a peremptory fashion as if to suggest that the text was merely the nearest one to hand (see also Volume 5, track 27, Naxos 8.559273).
Set to an anonymous text, There is a Certain Garden (1897) has a tripping and irregular piano part against which the vocal line unfolds a little awkwardly, though the charm of the song is undoubted.
A revision of an earlier German song, now to Ives’s own text, There is a Lane (1902) is a brief but winsome setting; the fond nostalgia of its vocal line underscored by the piano (see also below, track 27).
A late addition to his song canon, They are There! (1942) was Ives’s contribution to the American war effort; setting his own (updated) text with a conviction aptly summed up by the subtitle ‘Fighting for the People’s New Free World’. It can be performed (as here) by unison voices, and with a lively ad lib instrumental part. Ives left a memorable, breathlessly enthusiastic recording (see also Volume 3, track 2, Naxos 8.559271).
Written during the previous world war, The Things our Fathers Loved (1917) sets Ives’s own text with a fervency which threatens to break through the expressive bounds of the song during its later stages.
Following an evocative spoken preface, Thoreau (1915) sets lines by philosopher Henry David Thoreau with a contemplative rapture that reflects its proximity to the finale of the ‘Concord’ Piano Sonata (Naxos 8.559127).
To verse by Thomas Moore, Those Evening Bells (1907) is another of Ives’s songs of recollection, here with a piano part whose delicacy sets the vocal line into expressive relief (see also Volume 5, track 20, Naxos 8.559273).
Set to Ives’s own words (based on those by J. S. B. Monsell), Through Night and Day (1897) is a fervent love song whose venturesome piano writing does rather tend to get the better of the vocal line.
With its lines by Harmony Twitchell Ives, To Edith (1919) is a warm evocation of the Ives’s adopted daughter which inspired the composer to essay one of the simplest and most tender of his later songs.
A further setting of Rudyard Kipling, Tolerance (1913) affirms Ives’s life-long belief in the mutual interdependence of men with a rhetorical force that is all the greater owing to the song’s sheer brevity.
The First World War occasioned Tom Sails Away (1917), an evocation of family parting set to Ives’s own words that ranks among the most potent and finely realised of his ‘childhood recollection’ songs.
Although he had used this music elsewhere, Ives’s setting of Peter Cornelius’s Ein Ton (1900) is the most fitting guise for its bitter-sweet sentiments (see also Volume 3, track 9, Naxos 8.559271, and Volume 4, track 18, Naxos 8.559272).
Setting verse by the composer’s wife, Harmony Twitchell Ives, Two Little Flowers (1921) is inscribed to the children named at the close and its wistful aura is made more so by the piano’s gentle discords.
A typically thoughtful dualism from his later years, Two Slants (1921) finds Ives drawing a pointed contrast between the lofty ‘Christian’ sentiment expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Duty with the introspective ‘Pagan’ musing (and set here to the original Latin) as ascribed to Marcus Manilius in Vita.
One of Ives’s most visceral songs, Vote for Names! Names! Names! (1912) vents dismay over electioneering: as an editorial aside explains, “The [three] pianos represent three political candidates, each uttering his own ‘hot air slogan’; the singer represents the disillusioned voter”.
For John Newton’s worthy if over-wrought poem of aspiration, The Waiting Soul (1908), Ives revisited earlier material in a song whose nobility is weighed down by too earnest a treatment of the text’s sentiments (see also Volume 2, track 8, Naxos 8.559270, and Volume 5, track 35, Naxos 8.559273).
A ‘dramatic scena’ in miniature, Walking (1900) sets Ives’s text as to the goings-on that the walker overhears but leaves behind as he continues forthrightly on his journey—the ‘walk of life’, perhaps?
Setting lines by the poet in question, Walt Whitman (1921) vividly matches the offhand nature of the words with music whose rapid changes of mood seem to have been improvised there and then.
In the manner of a parlour song from the period, Waltz (1894) sets lines by Michael Nolan (likely assisted by the composer) that recount a local wedding in dryly humorous and ever so slightly ironic terms.
To verse by John Bowring, Watchman! (1913) frames with a cascading prelude and questioning postlude the hymn-like setting that Ives was soon to incorporate into the first movement of his Fourth Symphony.
One of several songs Ives set to its original text and also in translation, Weil’ auf Mir (1902) has a serenely flowing demeanour that reinforces Nikolas Lenau’s expressive sentiments (see also Volume 2, track 11, Naxos 8.559270).
A setting of Matthew Arnold’s famous sonnet, West London (1921) intensifies the poet’s vision of an aspiring human community with a powerfully-wrought eloquence that is edged-round with tenderness.
Setting (Lord) Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s When Stars are in the Quiet Skies, Ives drew on earlier music which captures the poem’s lovelorn sentiments (see also Volume 1, track 28, Naxos 8.559269, and Volume 2, track 6, Naxos 8.559270).
Taking a short poem by Monica Peveril Turnbull, Ives makes of Where the Eagle Cannot See (1906) a song whose content yields much despite (or perhaps because of) its relative simplicity of manner.
Using an anonymous text (translated by Maurice Morris), The White Gulls (1921) is another of Ives’s reflections on the divine presence within nature; in music by turns rarified, supplicatory and resigned.
With a text by Wolfgang Müller von Königswinter, Widmung (1898) is notable less for the restrained ardency of its vocal line than for the caressing charm of its piano part (see also above, track 3).
A setting of Klaus Groth, Wie Melodien zieht es mir (1899) is among Ives’s most alluring German songs, rendering the poem’s expressive warmth in music of truly lyrical poise (see also Volume 2, track 10, Naxos 8.559270).
Hardly less appealing, Wiegenlied (1906) sets verses from the folk anthology Das knaben Wunderhorn and by Georg Scherer in a song whose serenity is at one with its title (see also Volume 1, track 16, Naxos 8.559269).
Subtitled ‘A Republican Campaign Song’, William Will (1896) sets Susan Benedict Hill’s eulogy to William McKinley with no mean panache, its four verses marked off by a hectic ‘Interlude or Dance’ for piano.
A setting of Harmony Twitchell (Mrs Ives), The World’s Highway (1906) tells of experience gained and comfort then sought in rather flowery verse to which the composer responds with suitably emotive music.
Turning to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ives’s take on The World’s Wanderers (1898) is a limpid setting where questions asked of star and moon are answered by the piano’s closing phrase (see also Volume 2, track 26, Naxos 8.559270).
To lines by Henry Bellamann, Yellow Leaves (1923) evokes the poem’s autumnal imagery through a capricious vocal line as well as tonally ambiguous piano writing that say so much though stating so little.
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IVES, C.: Songs, Vol. 6