thoughts about Charles Ives (and Copland, Barber, and Gershwin) … plus thoughts about making lists of favorites (and making such judgments in general)

 

 

On Sunday, February 25, I attended a performance of Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 2 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

The program notes for the concert read as follows:

Charles Ives is widely recognized as the first authentically American composer. The supreme collagist in music, Ives is perhaps most appropriately described by piling on words the way he piles on tunes. Composer Lou Harrison, rejoicing in Ives’s “bewildering munificence,” has written: “There is very nearly something for everyone in Ives — rousing band marches for the athletic extrovert, sweet prayers for the pious, amazing constructs for the intellectual … big-sized pieces, minute works, vulgar ones, polite ones, serious, funny, bland, tortuous, affectionate, and business­like ones, ones for the many, ones for the few, and some in between, and so on, and whatnot else … Plainly he was a man who loved many things much.”

Ives’s multiplicity is evident in every aspect of his life and art. An insurance man who composed at night, Ives was almost totally isolated from the musical establishment. He was a passionate nationalist who based his music on traditional American tunes and his metaphysics on Emersonian transcendentalism. Yet, with the help of his father (a small-town bandleader), he inaugurated the most daring kinds of polyrhythmic, polytonal, and aleatory effects. Indeed, his international significance stretches beyond music. As poet and short-story writer Guy Davenport puts it, “Ives aligns with the most significant art of this time: with Pound and Eliot in the reuse of extant compositions, with Joyce in the hermetic diffusion of symbolism throughout a work, with Picasso in exploring the possibilities of extending forms and techniques.”

Like Joyce, Ives aspires to the abstract and the visionary, yet is rooted in the homely and the everyday. Pierre Boulez pointed out that Ives is distinct from other musical innovators in that “the origin of his music, of his invention, is to be found in the surroundings of his life” rather than in a symphonic tradition. Prior to Ives, there was no American tradition in symphonic music; there was nothing to extend or rebel against — only a pallid recycling of European Romanticism. (Even the New Orleans syncopations of Louis Moreau Gottschalk were more popular in Europe than America.) For his inspiration, Ives went directly to the hymns, popular tunes, and band marches from his boyhood in Danbury, Connecticut, transforming these simple sources into a complex mélange.

Ives once called his most ambitious works “ear­stretchers,” and given the stretch that is required, it is not surprising that he has always incited controversy and bewilderment. Many of his most visionary works had to wait half a century for a performance because musicians hadn’t the slightest idea what to make of them.

 

 

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A few phrases leaped out at me: “the first authentically American composer”; “a passionate nationalist who based his music on traditional American tunes and his metaphysics on Emersonian transcendentalism”; “Ives aspires to the abstract and the visionary, yet is rooted in the homely and the everyday”; “the origin of his music, of his invention, is to be found in the surroundings of his life.”

Another daring innovator, a visionary poet, whom these words call to mind is Walt Whitman. I feel that Ives, an American original, is much like Whitman (who, by the way, was also influenced, deeply, by transcendentalism).

I am less inclined — this is probably a shortcoming on my part in comprehension — to think of Ives (as does Guy Davenport) in connection with Joyce, Eliot, and Pound, let alone Picasso.

 

 

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Another quintessentially American composer — by which I mean not only an American native but also a composer of works unmistakably American — is, of course, Aaron Copland. I regard Copland as the greatest American composer. Copland was an early champion of Ives’s music. If for no other reason, I would say that Copland outranks Ives because the latter’s output was comparatively meager.

The greatest single WORK by an American composer? I will take a stab at answering the question and say Porgy and Bess.

 

 

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A DIGRESSION

 

I had a lively exchange with a follower of this blog recently. He wrote as follows:

How do you rank classical composers?

Yes, some are timeless — Mozart, Beethoven, Bach — but how would you rank Nielsen vs. Sibelius, Copland vs. Chopin, Brahms vs. Roger Sessions? Or even Bach vs. Mozart or Beethoven?

And why bother? What one likes is important. I’ve always objected to someone who says this author or this composer is overrated, etc. Compared to what, and why? And overrated by whom?

 

 

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I answered as follows:

My answer would be yes and no.

I generally don’t like ratings and usually disagree with them (what are the 10 greatest American films?).

But to say someone is overrated (I might say, for example, Hemingway, but I know there would be lots of disagreement) or underrated (e.g., Haydn, in my opinion) is entirely valid; people often make such judgments — it’s a matter of making comparisons.

What’s wrong with that? One is always enjoying works of art for their own sake and, at the same time, engaging in armchair criticism.

So, I recently heard a piece of Max Bruch’s in concert and was pleasantly surprised; he reminded me of Brahms. But I am not prepared to say that he outranks Brahms.

I am always compiling inventories and laundry lists in my mind; it’s a good way mentally to keep track of writers, composers, etc. and their works. I FEEL THAT THIS IS KEY.

So, I get into Carl Nielsen, and think: how does he compare to Sibelius? People are still arguing about Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky.

 

 

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to which the follower of my blog replied:

I am not saying you shouldn’t rate composers yourself, or authors, or whatever. And I enjoy discussions such as Chopin vs. Schubert.

I’m just saying that when you say that someone is overrated, I say by whom? If you are saying that you believe that x is better than y, or more interesting than y, that’s fine. If you’re ranking your opinion of Nielsen vs. Sibelius, that I understand.

But if you’re saying that the world knows that one is better than the other (either way), I say on what authority is this statement made?

That’s my only point here. And maybe that people waste their time arguing things like Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky. They were both great writers and I don’t give a damn if someone thinks that one is marginally better than the other.

 

 

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Our email exchange ended there. But, I think it does make a great deal of difference whom one thinks is better: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. We are usually not talking about marginal differences — some people actually like one and dislike the other. I know of lovers of Tolstoy’s works who can’t bring themselves to read Dostoevsky.

The point is that such comparisons can be trivial or frivolous, but not necessarily so. There is an inner critic in the brains of aesthetes. So that, experiencing a work of art — literature or music, in this case — they are not only “submitting” to it, allowing themselves to enjoy and be edified by the work, they are also asking themselves what they think of it. This is a good thing. And, by applying one’s own standards, which, needless to say, are subjective, one is making a mental inventory for future reference. So, for example — as a person immersed in literature and music — I have developed a mental map to help orient myself. I have my likes and dislikes. And, I make comparisons: Bruch reminds me of Brahms, Schumann as well. (Whitman reminds me of no one else!) I think that Thomas Wolfe is far superior to Theodore Dreiser. And, so on.

 

 

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I have posted here (below) some of my favorite pieces by composers whom I regard as quintessentially American.

 

 

three songs by CHARLES IVES

 

 

Charles Ives, “A Christmas Carol”

 

 

 

Charles Ives, “Memories”

 

 

 

Charles Ives, “In the Mornin’ (Give me Jesus)”

 

 

 

CHARLES IVES

“The Circus Band” (sung by Sara Dell’Omo, soprano)

 

 

 

CHARLES IVES

string quartet no. 1

 

 

 

AARON COPLAND

from The Tender Land (opera)

The opening bars are posted here.

 

 

 

 

AARON COPLAND

“Morning on the Ranch” (from the Red Pony Suite)

 

 

 

AARON COPLAND

“Letter from Home”

 

 

 

AARON COPLAND

“Quiet City”

 

 

 

SAMUEL BARBER

Adagio for Strings

 

 

 

SAMUEL BARBER

Knoxville, Summer 1915

 

 

 

 

PORGY AND BESS

Also posted here is a recording of the film score of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. For a long time, the LP was out of print. In my opinion, the soundtrack album is outstanding for its arrangements and orchestration.

 

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   February 2018

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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