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.