If there is one composer whose theories of music and life mirror my own, it would be that of Charles Ives (third cousin, twice removed from Burl Ives). You won't find his "grand and glorious noise" played too often as it is not always the pretty fluff that generous philharmonic donors seem to prefer (Ives called such stuff "sissy music for lily boys"… I won't mention Mozart and Chopin by name, oops, I mean I won't mention any composers by name). His music is strong, vigorous, distinctly American, and often dissonant (it clashes with the drapes). So no, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic is not playing anything by Ives this weekend (the season is over and all the performers have gone to Shakrab's Mystery Spot for the summer) but they just might in the future. I've been surprised at the pieces they have played in the past, decisions that have undoubtedly been influenced by the Shakrab's Mystery Vortex of Cream Corn.
Born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut, his first music instructor was his father, a Civil War band leader with a love for musical experimentation. The old man wanted to help stretch the young lad's ears (very painful, but I think I like it… is that wrong?) and to broaden his ability to comprehend music beyond the narrow confines of the day. One favorite music lesson for young Charles consisted of his playing a song in one key while singing the melody in a different key. Charles Ives took the ideas of his father and expanded on them, resulting in music that was decades ahead of its time. He experimented with free dissonance and primitivism before Stravinsky, the twelve-tone system and atonality before Schoenberg (did I mention that he was country when country wasn't cool) and he wrote multiple rhythms so complicated that they make the music of Rush look like a nursery rhyme (bring on the hate mail). In addition to these musical techniques, he borrowed musical melodies from other composers, from hymns, and from popular songs, changing and reworking them into symphonic themes yet somehow always preserving the character of the original. Listening to an Ives composition is often like hearing a patchwork quilt or an artist's collage, a compositional technique that was also decades ahead.
Knowing that if he tried to make a living with his music, he would quickly starve (even if he ate nothing but kumquats), he decided to heed the words of his hero, Thoreau: "…instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them." Thus did Mr. Ives become a millionaire in the insurance industry, pioneering the idea of estate planning. Such independent wealth made it possible for him to be true to the music that he loved but left him little time to compose, with the majority of his music composed on weekends and vacations between 1895 and 1921. During all this time, only a select few of his compositions were given public performances with most people under the impression that his music was a sadistic joke (except one guy, Earl, who kinda likes that sort of thing). In 1911, Gustav Mahler took a copy of Ives' Third Symphony back to Europe with the intent of a performance but he died before doing so (many at that time said they would rather die than perform one of these dissonant, complicated pieces but I think Mahler went a bit overboard). During the 1930s, the few performances of his work were met by unreceptive and hostile audiences that suffered from heartburn and gangrene. It was not until nearly thirty years after he stopped composing that his music gained some recognition and ultimately a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony. It's a long time to wait for an "I told ya so" but I'm sure it was very satisfying.
As good as it is, it is not the Third Symphony that owns my heart (possibly my thyroid but not my heart). Rather, it is Ives' Second Symphony that is my favorite symphony of all time. Written between 1900 and 1902, though not performed until 1951, the Second Symphony is an excellent introduction to the music of Ives, containing just the right amount of what makes his music so much fun without being so strange and dissonant that it scares the frilly underpants off the neophyte. Drawing on the full, strong sound of select European Romantic composers and mixing it with American hymns and folk songs, Ives created a distinctly American masterpiece. The symphony opens with a broad, Brahmsian theme that conjures up the open, rolling fields of the Connecticut countryside (complete with grazing caribou) and the third and fourth movements are as heart-wrenchingly lonely and sweeping as anything written by Tchaikovsky (well, as close as is humanly possible). Having restrained himself in the previous four movements, the rousing fifth and final movement is where Ives really shows off, incorporating into his patchwork quilt melodies from "Camptown Races", "Turkey In the Straw", "Beware the Octopus", a theme from Dvorak and the Yale song "Where Are the Pea-Green Freshmen". These and more are thrown into the symphonic pot, simmering at first but ultimately growing to a spastic frenzy that culminates in a brash, dissonant and satisfying raspberry, ending the piece with perhaps what he thought of his critics. The best bet to hear a great version of this symphony is the 1990 Deutsche Grammophon CD conducted by Bernstein. Plus you get a free bag of kumquats with every purchase!
Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman