Friday, June 21, 2013

Charles Ives: An American Journey

Charles Ives was the head of a successful insurance agency in Connecticut who happened to also be a masterful composer, though this was largely unknown until the 1930s and afterward.  He produced a body of work through 1926 that was a striking combination of modern experimentalism and eclecticism with a timely concern for older American music traditions that were disappearing as American modernized, industrialized and urbanized.

It was not until he was in his early seventies that real recognition came, thanks for the tireless work of his admirer, the California composer Lou Harrison, who conducted a performance of Ives' Third Symphony, which was then given a Pulitzer Prize in 1947.  Ives gave Harrison half the money that came with the honor and waved off the attention.  Slowly, however, Ives' work began to be performed more often, mainly in Europe, although Michael Tilson Thomas, who has been the music director at the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, has been a champion of the composer.

Hence this interesting compilation that gives some idea of the vast range of types of music created by Ives from the 1890s to the mid-1920s.  Much of these have march-like qualities, not surprising since Ives' father was a band master and, during the Civil War, led a Union Army band.  A number of these are songs with vocals by baritone Thomas Hampson and they are redolent of Ives' fascination with everyday people and their lives.  One piece, "Charlie Rutlage: is about a cowboy; another evokes popular music played in what appears to be a small-town opera house; there is one about a circus band; a couple deal with the horrors of the First World War; and so on. 

The opening piece, "From the Steeples and the Mountains," has the soaring quality the title implies, but there are interesting contrasts between tolling bells and wild and wonderful brass playing.  The Things Our Fathers Loved," with its brief lyrics referencing small town bands, religion and patriotism, is a subtle and beautiful work.

The staggering "Three Places in New England" include a dreamy, atmospheric first section dedicated to a monument that commemorated a segregated black military unit in the Union Army during the Civil War; a wildly diverging second movement with dramatic shifts that almost seems like a travelogue through the bracing combination of traditional and new forms of music that Ives championed and which took its theme from the Revolutionary War.  The third returns to a quieter, stately mood with a chorus beautifully singing "The Housatonic at Stockbridge," which was inspired by a walk by the composer on his honeymoon along the titular river in Massachusetts.  This movement was initially instrumental, but Tilson Thomas recorded the choral element in the spirit of what Ives had done elsewhere by adding choral performance to instrumental works.

Other works include lyrics directly from Ives' childhood or are religious expositions with one of these based on the poet John Greenleaf Whittier or pay tribute, via the poem of Vachel Lindsay, to the founder of The Salvation Army (General William Booth.)  These are the kinds of themes that animated so much of Ives' work as he surveyed the landscape of American society through new, evocative forms of music fused with earlier styles.

The liners are very helpful in understanding the amazing breadth and depth of what Ives did in his three or so decades of active composition, with one written by Tilson Thomas and the other Jan Swafford.  To a novice like YHB, they were exceedingly helpful in identifying what motivated Ives in his fascinating work and this album is a remarkable survey of the long and diverse career of one of America's great musical masters.

Charles Ives:  An American Journey (RCA, 2002)

1.  From the Steeples and the Mountains  4:15
2.  The Things Our Fathers Loved  1:47
3.  The Pond (Remembrance)  1:42
4.  Memories  2:30
5.  Charles Rutlage  2:38
6.  The Circus Band  3:02
7-9.  Three Places in New England  18:19
10.  In Flanders Fields  2:41
11.  They Are There!  2:52
12.  Tom Sails Away  2:48
13.  Symphony No. 4—III: Fugue  6:38
14.  Psalm 100  1:35
15.  Serenity  2:00
16.  General William Booth Enters Into Heaven  5:42
17.  The Unanswered Question  6:19

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