"Tribute to Ives After 30-Year Effort"
by Alex Ross
The New York Times, Feb. 23, 1996
With money earned in the life-insurance trade, Charles Ives published his Second Piano Sonata, "Concord, Mass., 1840-1860," in a private edition in 1920. Nearly two decades later, his Transcendentalist masterpiece finally received its first complete performance. And while it waited to be heard, American music passed through its glorious pioneer years. Edgard Varese unleashed "organized sound"; Carl Ruggles carved his granite chords; Roger Sessions gave new bite to established Germanic forms; Aaron Copland perfected his astringent early style; Henry Cowell toyed with clusters and polyrhythms. Conductors like Stokowski and Koussevitzky vied for premieres. American music arrived as a world power.
That era is now long gone. Its last stalwart was the legendary encyclopedist, conductor and raconteur Nicolas Slonimsky, who died in December at the age of 101. But you can still find a few figures with peripheral links to Ives's world, among them the California-based composer Henry Brant, who is featured on a program this Sunday at Carnegie Hall by the American Composers Orchestra. In 1929, Mr. Brant saw the second movement of Ives's Fourth Symphony in Henry Cowell's ground-breaking New Music Editions, to which his parents subscribed, and he became an Ives fanatic on the spot.
Now 82, Mr. Brant has pursued a distinctive career as a composer of "spatial" music, distributing players in all corners of a concert hall or performance space. By way of showing gratitude to Ives, he has also labored for more than 30 years on an epic orchestration of the "Concord" Sonata. That formidable score is to have its American premiere on Sunday, alongside Mr. Brant's "Plowshares and Swords" and Sessions's Fifth Symphony. Together, these works tell an interesting story of where American music has gone since it first touched greatness in Ives.
The "Concord" Sonata -- with its movements titled "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts" and "Thoreau," after the famous literary residents of a Boston suburb -- is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. It begins with remorseless octaves, crashing upward in the treble and downward in the bass, driving a wedge through tonality. It is solitary, difficult, self-made music, just as Ives was a solitary, difficult, self-made man. Later, dissonant declamations give way to passages of consummate gentleness, hymnal dreaminess; unrest creates a deeper rest. This is music of absolute freedom: the composer is free, and so are all the voices under his command.
Ives's private printing of the "Concord" fell into the right hands. Elliott Carter, whose opinion of Ives's music has wavered between admiration and disdain over the years, was intrigued by his teacher's copy of the score. Bernard Herrmann found the "Concord" in the Half-Price Music Shop, now known as Patelson's, next to Carnegie Hall; he would echo Ives's montage effects in his film scores, notably "Citizen Kane." Copland's first teacher, Rubin Goldmark, also had a copy, but warned his pupil away from it; some years later, Copland came to admire Ives's rugged brand of Americana.
Having glimpsed the future in Ives's Fourth, Mr. Brant moved from his birthplace in Montreal to New York at the age of 18. He joined the Young Composers' Group gathered around Copland; his colleagues included Herrmann, Vivian Fine and Elie Siegmeister. He made his mark with a brutal, humorous Neo-Classical style and wildly bizarre instrumentations: "Five and Ten Cent Store Music," for violin, piano and kitchen utensils; "Angels and Devils," for an orchestra of flutes. His work appeared on the New York concert series jointly organized by Copland and Sessions. To his intense regret later on, Mr. Brant shied away from an opportunity to meet Ives.
Mr. Brant arrived on the American scene in the twilight of its individualist heyday. During the Depression, independent patronage dried up. Composers were faced with divergent career paths: writing on commission for major orchestras; writing for commercial theater or the arts wing of the Works Progress Administration, or writing for a closed professional circle at universities. Styles split accordingly: studied simplicity in the public sphere, studied complexity in the universities. Some composers zigzagged from one extreme to another, writing for laborers one decade, score-readers the next.
The promise held out by the "Concord" was for a style at once thoroughly American and thoroughly modern. Now, the American and the modern divorced: Copland thoroughly simplified his style to achieve the nostalgic glow of "Appalachian Spring," whereas composers like Sessions and Carter scorned Americanisms. The very idea of a joint venture by Copland and Sessions, so logical at the end of the 20's, became improbable. Ives himself came to be revered more for particular innovations than for the fundamental personal force of his music.
Mr. Brant incisively analyzed the situation in a 1993 essay: "Our composers had three choices: a) to stop composing altogether (Varèse did just that); b) to compose and/or orchestrate commercially, for documentary or feature films, for radio minidramas, for jazz groups; c) to compose in a simpler, much less radical style (Aaron Copland became the leading exponent of this practice)." Like Herrmann, Mr. Brant diverted some of his energies into movie and radio work; he also did jazz arrangements for Benny Goodman.
But he adds: "There was a fourth possibility. Satiric and comedic ingredients, echoes of the circus, the dance hall and of street music, insincere nostalgias, and more or less glossed-over horseplay were all tolerated in the concert music of the time. I found in this approach a welcome escape from the grim goings-on of the concert world." An element of the circus -- "The Grand Universal Circus" is one title from his output -- remains strong in all his work. It is interesting that his vocabulary here resembles theoretical writings of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke.
After World War II, Mr. Brant also began to think about music that would break concert barriers in literal terms. From Berlioz's Requiem, Gabrieli's brass canzonas and most significantly Ives's Fourth and unfinished "Universe" Symphony, he picked up the idea of multiple ensembles distributed in space, venturing different styles or genres simultaneously. His first piece in this vein was "Antiphony I" from 1953, well in advance of Stockhausen's multiple-orchestra "Gruppen," which is usually credited with originating this field.
Mr. Brant's "fourth path" has led him into a world of free-form spectacle. His work list includes "Orbits" for organ and 80 trombones; "Fire on the Amstel," a three-hour work for musicians on and around the canals of Amsterdam, incorporating boatloads of flutes, jazz bands and church carillons; "Prisons of the Mind," written for Meyerson Hall in Dallas, with 314 instrumentalists in eight groups, and "Meteor Farm," a multicultural festival in which jazz band, gamelan orchestra, African drummers and South Indian musicians go their separate ways.
The new work, "Plowshares and Swords," was written exclusively for Carnegie Hall; seat plans included with the score show positions for the 74 orchestral players. (Strings and percussion on stage, winds and horns in the first and second tiers, trumpets and trombones far up in the dress circle.) The music veers between widely spaced solos and wild, simultaneous free-for-alls, generally dissonant on impact.
Mr. Brant's orchestration of the "Concord" Sonata is very different both in intent and result. Departing from his usual practice, he has scored for a conventional orchestra, arrayed conventionally on the stage. Moreover, his style of orchestration is not based on Ives's usual practice, even though he might have taken strong hints from the Fourth Symphony (which incorporates parts of the "Concord" into its second movement) and "Three Places in New England" (which quotes several of the same marches and hymns).
Instead, this "Concord Symphony" is given exceptionally tidy instrumental garb: well-defined bass lines, neat balancing of instrumental groups, songful string writing, an avoidance of extreme rhythmic complexity. What emerges is something more like the bright, clear scoring of Roy Harris or William Schuman than Ives's glimmering murk. And this is exactly Mr. Brant's intention: he hears a potential "Great American Symphony" in the "Concord." He has also tried to create a mature Ives orchestral piece that does not make extreme logistical demands.
How well the result serves Ives is up for debate. Does this "Concord" make compromises that Ives adamantly avoided during his lifetime? Does Ives's music lose its magic aura without its characteristic obscurities and uncertainties? Or might this "Concord" show the presence of a cogent argument underneath the chaotic surface, answering skeptics who accuse Ives of spewing notes at random? A tape of the work's world premiere last June in Ottawa suggests that Mr. Brant has perhaps created something powerful on its own terms, much as the composer Larry Austin has given vibrant, independent life to the sketches for the "Universe" Symphony.
Unresolved issues and untested possibilities still surround the work of Ives. They are often a headache to confront. But at least the issues circle back to Ives himself, rather than into the well-traveled cul-de-sacs identified by Mr. Brant as a), b) and c). The professional divisions that scarred American composition later in the 20th century never touched Ives. He wrote for no audience except the one that formed around him and grew to love him. He had the genius; then again, he also had the money.