A short foray

Over the course of these blog posts, my classmates and I have discussed an enormous range of subjects and, for the most part, usually tried to connect them back to race and identity in American music – the topic of the course. However, this week, I have decided to stray from said topic into something a little lighter: A composer renowned for his ideas about tonality that were later lauded as incredibly forward-thinking and were vital in forging an American modernist identity. A man whose music was written almost entirely for himself and close friends and then (figuratively) left in his desk for future musicians to discover. A figure who thought that classical music as he knew it was overly refined, feminine, and therefore emasculated. If you hadn’t figured it out already, today I will be talking about none other than Charles Ives. More specifically, I will be talking about Charles Ives’s correspondence1 with his fiance and eventual wife, Harmony Twitchell.

Charles Ives and Harmony Twitchell

I miss you all the time & feel how rich I was when I had you last week – to hear your voice & put my hand & feel you – never mind. I have your love and that is everything after all – I was quite wrong when I said that it was a year ago that I knew I loved you[.] It’s been all the time just the same but I never said it right out to myself until a year ago & gloried & rejoiced in it…

 

Harmony

How endearing! It can be so easy to forget the humanity of historic figures, (and modern day ones as well) but the act of reading someone’s correspondence with a loved one is one of the easiest ways to avoid such selective amnesia. In the blink of an eye, Ives goes from being a one-dimensional curmudgeon, to something a little more complex, a little more human. And that makes all the difference.

1 Ives, Owens, and Owens, Thomas Clarke. Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives. Roth Family Foundation Music in America Imprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

Yaddo Festival Brings Music of Copland and Ives Together

During the 1930s, amidst the Great Depression and the American modernist movement, works by two of the most well-recognized American composers were performed in the same place in the same weekend. The First Festival of Contemporary American Music, held at the Yaddo estate in Saratoga Springs, NY featured a weekend of music programmed largely by Aaron Copland. Included in the Sunday afternoon concert were seven pieces from Charles Ives’ “114 Songs.”1

In this letter included in The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland, Copland writes to Ives to gain approval to perform these works as part of the festival and to obtain scores to begin work. Although Copland does not overtly mention why he has chosen to include Ives’ pieces in the festival, the editors propose that Copland included Ives’ pieces to provide historical background for the more contemporary pieces on the program.2

Ives’ art songs performed at Yaddo, a few of which are included here, marked a turning point in his reception among critics. Critic Paul Rosenfield wrote of sensing “the presence of a first-rate composer of Lieder in the ranks of American Music.”3 The festival, while giving voice to numerous contemporary composers of the time, also served as a chance for Copland to moderate a forum between critics and young composers, greatly benefiting the reputation of Ives’ compositions while simultaneously making Copland out to be exceedingly disapproving of the way journalists impacted contemporary music.4

Although Copland’s preferences for simple, easy-to-understand music which we discussed in class last week seemed in conflict with Ives’ ultra-modernist “push-the-envelope” styles, it’s enlightening to see that parts of both composers came together successfully in the Yaddo Festival. While there are many things that set these composers apart, it still is important to note that they were able to appreciate one another for the contributions they were making in a period of economic turmoil and financial hardship for a majority of the United States.

Portrait of the American Artist as an Old Man

When I walked into Print Study Room in St. Olaf College’s Dittman Center, the first painting that caught my eye was this one of Walt Whitman. I was drawn to it because I recognized the subject. I can’t say I knew exactly what Whitman looked like beforehand, but I knew figure in the portrait was probably him. A wise looking older man with a beard of pure white wearing simple, earth-toned clothes–now this had to be America’s transcendental literary hero!

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Xanthus Russel Smith, “Walt Whitman.” Oil on canvas, St. Olaf College Tetlie Collection.

So, I was not surprised to pull a tag from behind the frame that read “Walt Whitman;” nor was I surprised to learn that the painter, Xanthus Russel Smith, was best known for his Civil War paintings. Why? Because this painting is a portrait. Portraits are created with intent. Unlike a beautiful landscape a painter happens upon or an idea a painter wants to portray visually, a portrait exists to honor a person. They are often planned and commissioned and sometimes even created for a specific room or occasion. Portraits depict heroes. That is why it made sense that the painter of this portrait also made Civil War paintings. Smith must have been interested in portraying what heroism in America looked like 19th century, and he chose Walt Whitman to be one such example.

My second guess, if this had not been Whitman, was Charles Ives. If not America’s literary hero, perhaps it was America’s musical hero! Ives certainly would have been deemed worthy of a portrait as well. Though the style of the clothing looked a bit old, I thought it could be Ives because of the subject’s white beard and older age. Then, I realized that–though the portrait could have been Whitman or Ives because they are both figures of American heroism–the main reason I knew it was either Whitman or Ives was because the man in the portrait was old. Why are the most well-known depictions of both Whitman and Ives of them as old men?

It must be because both of them were exalted by artists of the younger generation. Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac adopted his vagabond lifestyle and imitated his anaphoric style in their own writing. Ezra Pound said of Whitman, “he is America.” So though Whitman was writing in the 19th century, his works became very popular in the 20th century. Similarly, Ives was composing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but his works did not become popular until the mid 20th century, when composers like Henry Cowell and Aaron Copland promoted them.

Both Whitman and Ives were recognized long after their work was published and held up as examples of the American spirit. They both embodied the American tradition of individualism, originality, and self-sufficiency. Had Whitman lived in Massachusetts, he perhaps could have made it into Ives’s Concord Sonata. Passing down these American traits, like father and son, Whitman and Ives make me wonder if we have a current day example of the American artist as an old (white) man. Clint Eastwood? Or have we moved beyond this narrow definition of America (at least now we recognize that Whitman was gay!) to include American heros of different ethnicities, races, genders, sexualities, and ages? Who do we paint portraits of today?

Charles E. Ives: Memos

When I was searching for Charles Ives correspondence in our music library, I came across a book called Charles E. Ives: Memos.  It is a collection, constructed by John Kirkpatrick from Yale University, of previously unpublished loose leaf writings of Charles Ives.  Some were initially handwritten by Ives himself, while others were written in shorthand by his secretary, Miss Florence Martin, and edited by him later.  After his death in 1954, these loose leafs were collated and organized by when they were written, and ultimately published in this book.  As with any correspondence collection, it does not include every single “memo” Ives ever wrote; it is believed this collection includes approximately three-fifths of his loose leaf writing.

The book is in three main parts: “Pretext,” “Scrapbook,” and “Memories.”  While it looks as if each section is written in prose, that may not necessarily be the case.  Kirkpatrick took the time to mark each piece, sometimes a paragraph or a few sentences, with identifying information revealing where those words came from.  “Pretext” focuses on Ives’ aims, his views on music, critics, and criticism.  “Scrapbook” reveals the composer’s notes on his own music.  “Memories” provides the reader with biographical and autobiographical information.

Below, I have included the pages from “Scrapbook” of Ives’ Second Piano Sonata, since we are studying this piece in class (number 30).  Ives provides insight as to how each of the four movements came to fruition.  He reveals that he never really came up with an ending for the first movement, “Emerson,” or developed one way to play it.  For the second movement, “Hawthorne,” Ives describes the cluster chords on page 25 of the score, how to play them and what effect they are supposed to have on the listener.  In his words about the third, “The Alcotts,” and fourth movements, “Thoreau,” Ives reveals that he had intentions of expanding his orchestration to include organ, strings, woodwinds, etc.  Some of the material from the fourth movement came directly out of a string quartet Ives had been working on but never finished.

Ives - Memos pgs 78-79

Kirkpatrick, J., ed. Charles E. Ives: Memos. New York: W. W. Norton &, 1972. 78-79.

Ives - Memos pgs 80-81

Kirkpatrick, J., ed. Charles E. Ives: Memos. New York: W. W. Norton &, 1972. 80-81.

Ives - Memos pgs 82-83

Kirkpatrick, J., ed. Charles E. Ives: Memos. New York: W. W. Norton &, 1972. 82-83.

 

These notes by the composer about his or her own pieces are eye opening, especially to the performer.  They are very insightful and allow the performer to get into the mindset of the composer, and learn more about exactly what the composer meant when he or she wrote the piece.

 

Kirkpatrick, J., ed. Charles E. Ives: Memos. New York: W. W. Norton &, 1972.

Charles Ives Startles Bandmaster John Philip Sousa

Probably the most famous story of the Ives family is that of George Ives directing two town bands to walk towards each other in an aural experiment of clashing proportions.  Whether or not this story is true, it does tell how George inspired a desire to experiment in his son, as well as the tradition of band music that comes from the late nineteenth century.

As an adult, Charles Ives became involved in insurance, but remains one of the most prolific American composers of the 20th century.  Much of this acclaim comes from the innovation of his compositions as they experimented with key, quotations, melody, and rhythm.

In 1918 Ives became ill with some sort of heart disease.  As Ives grew sicker, he tried harder to reach the American musical communities by sending out his works to composers and musicians.  Many recipients thanked him generously for the free scores he sent, but likely did not read through the pieces–or if they did, might have been put-off by the strange and new work.  This is why John Philip Sousa’s reply is one of the best.

1 June 1923, John Philip Sousa to Charles Ives

My Dear Mr. Ives:

Permit me to thank you for your kindness in sending me your volume of 114 Songs of which you are the composer.  Some of the songs are most startling to a man educated by the harmonic methods of our forefathers.

Yours Sincerely,

John Philip Sousa”

Sousa’s comment is neither positive nor negative, but reflects the sentiment of a man confronted with something entirely new.  As a composer steeped in the tradition of bandmasters such as Sousa, Ives must have been honored that Sousa took the time to read his work.  Band music played such a prominent role in the Ives household as George led the town bands himself and probably chose many Sousa marches to direct.  The satisfaction of knowing Sousa was impressed by Ives’ work reflects his life desire to write his father’s work.  To Charles, Sousa probably represented a bit of George with his marches.  Gaining the attention of the famous march composer must have been like receiving the approval of George Ives himself.

Burkholder, J. Peter.  “Charles Ives and His World.”  Princeton University Press, Princeton 1996.