by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, June 7, 2004.
I recently held in my hands the manuscript of Charles Ives’s “Three Places in New England.” The staff of the Music Library at Yale University left it out for me on a wooden table, and I hesitated before touching the pages, because no American wrote music more momentous than this. Ives was an insurance executive who doubled as perhaps the most audacious composer of the early twentieth century. He began to conceive “Three Places” in 1908, and made changes as late as 1929. The movements have long, heavily freighted titles: “The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Robert Gould Shaw and His Colored Regiment)”; “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut”; “The Housatonic at Stockbridge.” They are more than evocations of places; they are meditations on American destiny. The first movement is a nightmare vision of the Civil War—a “Black March,” Ives called it. The second is an innocent frenzy of patriotic tunes looking back on the American Revolution. The finale is a mystery in sound, which enshrines the memory of a summer walk that Ives took with his wife, Harmony, along the banks of the Housatonic River in the Berkshires. There are dissonances and ambiguities in the river’s flow. This is the New England landscape that generated not only Norman Rockwell’s small-town idylls but also the American apocalypse of “Moby-Dick.”
Ives’s manuscript is an enigma. Some of the music is crisply written in ink, but other passages are crammed in the margins. You can see new notes and chords pencilled in, sharps and flats added here and there, afterthoughts galore. All told, it looks like the work of an amateur, which is how a lot of people saw Ives when he first appeared on the scene. Then, there is the matter of the dates. In the nineteen-eighties, the writer Maynard Solomon suggested that Ives may have revised and backdated his manuscripts in order to make himself appear to be more revolutionary than Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Unfortunately, many of Solomon’s observations were borne out by subsequent research. One incriminating bit of evidence is visible on the first page of “St. Gaudens,” which carries the legend “Hartsdale, N.Y., 1911, July-Aug.” The type of music paper that it was written on became available only in 1915, the scholar Gayle Sherwood has shown. Even more unsettling is the directive that Ives scrawled on a subsequent version of the score: “Return to Chas. E. Ives, 70 W 11.” Ives lived on West Eleventh Street in New York from 1908 to 1911, but Sherwood says that the manuscript dates from sometime between 1919 and 1923. The composer apparently created a fiction for history’s benefit.
Here, on one sheet of paper, is Ives in all his thrilling, maddening complexity. Many who love this composer’s music refuse to accept that he might have faked some dates; it mars his image of uncompromising integrity. For me, it is all part of his prankster aesthetic—his refusal to play by anyone’s rules. All that matters, in the end, is the sound, and the sound is grand. Consider the harmony that is added to the beginning of “St. Gaudens”—a combination of A minor and E-flat minor. It is a dark, eerie chord, like a tendril of fog before dawn. It is a bluesy chord, the sound of opposites colliding. It is, at the same time, a distant, hazy chord, scored softly for the strings; Ives seldom evoked the past without also suggesting the emotional distortions of memory. Indeed, this might be one of Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory”—not yet touched, it seems, by those long-awaited better angels of our nature.
Ives died fifty years ago. In January, Juilliard honored the so-called “grandfather of American music” by mounting a weeklong festival, with “Three Places” on opening night. This month, the New York Philharmonic mounted an ambitious Ives jamboree, comprising five programs over three weeks, with “Three Places” heard again at the end. Marches blared, hymn tunes soared, ensembles clashed out of tune, nocturnal mists descended. John Adams came from Berkeley to conduct Ives alongside his own music. In the aisles, the debate went on, with a few sober souls always ready to spoil the fun by muttering that Ives had no idea what he was doing.
The ongoing confusion over Ives’s career was visible in the Philharmonic programs, which were a forest of question marks. The “Country Band” March, a loving satire of an amateur band trying to keep it together as a dozen different tunes fly around, was comically dated 1903/05?, ca. 1910-11?, rev. 1914. The interesting thing about the revised chronology is that it still preserves Ives’s reputation as the Great Innovator. As early as 1907, when Schoenberg and Stravinsky had not yet cut ties with Romantic tonality, this composer was setting rhythms of five against seven against eleven in ten- and eleven-note non-repeating rows. Why he indulged in the charade of dates is anyone’s guess. It was probably in response to claims that he was influenced by Hindemith, or that he “knew his Schoenberg.” He knew his Debussy and his Strauss, maybe his Mahler and his Scriabin, but he knew not his Schoenberg and certainly not his Hindemith, who was a small child when Ives started writing in many keys at once.
Ives hated highbrow pretensions and exulted in the music of the streets. Strange, then, that he was so diffident about reaching the public. An honest assessment of Ives should admit not only that he had a bent for tall tales but that his obscurity in the first part of the century was largely a result of his disdain for the music business. Around 1910, he showed his early symphonies to Walter Damrosch, and when that not very bright conductor failed to respond he simply gave up on the works in question. In the insurance business, he preached the hard sell, telling his salesmen to plant themselves firmly in front of a potential customer’s door and “knock some big ideas into his mind.” Why couldn’t he do the same for his music? A close reader of Emerson, he evidently missed this sentence: “To genius must always go two gifts, the thought and the publication.”
The Philharmonic festival emphasized the radical in Ives. The festive pandemonium of the Fourth Symphony, “Decoration Day,” and “From the Steeples and the Mountains” shared space with European pieces like Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra” and avant-garde constructions by Cage, Cowell, and Varèse. We were invited to look at Ives as a velvet-robed figure in the modernist processional, moving toward maximum density and maximum complexity. The juxtapositions were sometimes thrilling—hear how Berg and Ives both hammer darkly at the four-note motto from Beethoven’s Fifth—but the over-all picture was too narrow, too severe. I wish we’d heard, by contrast, the First or the Second Symphony, in which Ives puts a sassy spin on the conservative style of Brahms and Dvorák. Those works, Leonard Bernstein once said, are the true measure of Ives’s greatness, proving that he could write in his own voice without resorting to modernist gimmicks.
A similar attempt at canonization recently took place at Zankel Hall, when Pierre-Laurent Aimard placed Ives’s majestic “Concord” Sonata alongside Elliott Carter’s hyper-dissonant “Night Fantasies.” Carter, America’s greatest living European composer, actually knew Ives in his youth, and once saw him adding dissonances to the score of “Three Places.” Later, he complained that Ives was “naïve, often too naïve to express serious thoughts.” Indeed, the “Concord” has its gaudy, sentimental stretches, and Aimard meticulously stripped them away, giving the music a Euro-modern sheen. It was bracing to experience the work through the prism of Aimard’s technique, but I wouldn’t want to hear it this way again. Ives was robbed of his raw, rude soul. Naïveté was the source of his expressive power.
John Adams got it right when he used his Philharmonic program to underline Ives’s connections to a host of turn-of-the-century popular sounds, from the hymns and marches of old New England to the rags and blues that were electrifying the cities. Audra McDonald sang some quietly soulful Ives songs alongside numbers by Gershwin and Irving Berlin; Adams conducted, among other things, “Ragtime Dance No. 4,” which is the grittiest “jazz” composition of the early twentieth century, and also, it seems, the first (1902-11?, ca. 1915-16?). Adams then yanked us in a different direction, by presenting “Easter Eve 1945,” a tantalizing excerpt from his opera in progress, “Doctor Atomic.” It is an aria for Kitty Oppenheimer in Los Alamos on the eve of the first atom-bomb test. The music, an ever-soaring, ever-plunging vocal line with weirdly luminous orchestration all around, sounded nothing like Ives, but it might have been a modern sequel to “Three Places in New England”: the Housatonic with its waters turning red.
Three weeks of Ives had an invigorating effect on the Philharmonic. The orchestra delivered this next-to-impossible music with precision and heart. The achievement was more striking in light of the fact that the number of rehearsals for some programs had been cut back, to make room for a pension-fund concert under the direction of Daniel Barenboim.
Lorin Maazel conducted only the last concert in the series, the one with “Three Places.” Otherwise, the spotlight fell on two fast-rising young American conductors. Alan Gilbert led the Fourth Symphony, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,” the Berg “Three Pieces,” and, with the baritone Nathan Gunn, some Mahler and Copland songs. David Robertson appeared twice, first in a program of Debussy, Ives, and Varèse, then in a percussion-oriented evening at the Miller Theatre. Earlier in the month, as it happens, Marin Alsop directed the Philharmonic in Bernstein’s “Candide,” and Robert Spano showed up at Carnegie Hall with the Atlanta Symphony. Thus, the month of May turned into an informal festival of homegrown conductors, any one of whom would make a plausible—perhaps too plausible—successor to Maazel.
Spano, who has been leading the Atlanta since the fall of 2001, is the most complete talent of the four. His performance of Vaughan Williams’s “Sea Symphony,” which he has also recorded for Telarc, was technically superb and spiritually vital; a noble, underplayed masterpiece came to life. Robertson is perhaps the strongest technician, but his performances are on the chilly side. In Ives’s “Decoration Day,” he nailed the notes but somehow missed the point. His rendering of Varèse’s “Arcana” was sensational, though. As for Alsop, no one should judge her solely on the basis of “Candide,” which here was undermined by poor amplification and a madcap stab at Broadway staging. This conductor has been drawing wildly enthusiastic notices in England, and the Philharmonic should invite her back for a more varied program.
Gilbert, a thirty-seven-year-old Harvard and Juilliard graduate, who is currently leading the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, struggled to find a sustained narrative arc in the Berg. After intermission, however, he turned in a stupendous performance of the Ives Fourth. Often, this piece comes off as a kind of spring break for orchestra, oboes gone wild; it sounded that way at Juilliard in January, under Anne Manson’s direction. Gilbert made the notorious “Comedy” movement into an overwhelming force of nature, almost scary in its progress. Then, in the fugal slow movement, he led with a hypnotic slow beat, at once liquid and exact. The strings sang out in endless intertwining lines, and emotion surged through the music. This man can conduct.
Though the Ives festival featured many brilliant performances, there was, in the end, something dispiriting about the Philharmonic’s attempt to break the bounds of programming convention. Attendance was on the sparse side, and every evening many listeners walked out before the program was over. The Philharmonic administration may well conclude from this experience not that more aggressive marketing is needed but that the unconventional simply doesn’t work. We have to accept the reality of the situation, they might say. To which one might respond with the words of another Connecticut insurance man, Wallace Stevens: “Reality is an activity of the most august imagination.”