Conductor David Loebel writes about works he has programmed with the NEC Philharmonia on December 5, and provides a selection of texts by composer Charles Ives as background to the performance of Ives's A Symphony: New England Holidays.
Two Unconventional Symphonies
In 1914, Sibelius made what would be his only visit to America; his agenda included conducting a concert of his works at the Connecticut estate of wealthy businessman Carl Stoeckel and accepting an honorary degree from Yale. (During a side trip to Boston, Sibelius visited New England Conservatory and dined with its director, George Whitefield Chadwick).
Yale professor Horatio Parker facilitated the visit; he certainly never mentioned to Sibelius the iconoclastic young composer, Charles Ives, who had studied with him 20 years earlier. Ives’s relationship with Parker was far from easy; in the words of Ives biographer Jan Swafford, Parker “would turn up most often in history books as the teacher who laughed off the experiments of his most famous student, who failed to recognize a genius who labored under his nose for four years.”
Sibelius’s and Ives’s paths never crossed during Sibelius’s visit, even though Ives had recently moved to Redding, Connecticut, a mere 80 miles from Stoeckel’s home in Norfolk. Sibelius would have been as bewildered as Parker was by Ives’s experiments; Ives, in turn, had no use for Sibelius’s music. In 1934, after attending an all-Sibelius concert which included the Seventh Symphony, Ives let loose a venomous screed against conservative composers and the reactionary concert life that supported them. “Every phrase, line, and chord, and beat went over and over the way you’d exactly expect them to go,” he wrote; “…trite, tiresome awnings of platitudes, all a nice mixture of Grieg, Wagner and Tchaikovsky (et al, ladies).”
Although Sibelius and Ives both wrote conventional symphonies, neither work on this evening’s program is a textbook example of the genre. Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony (1924) abandons multi-movement form in favor of a compressed single movement containing related subsections; Ives’s “Holidays” Symphony is a set of four individual pieces that can be performed either separately or together. By 1912, when his “symphony” had reached its final form, the very word had become for Ives as much a political as a musical statement. In his Memos, he wrote:
These four pieces together were called a symphony, and later just a set of pieces, because I was getting somewhat tired of hearing the lily boys say, "This is a symphony!—Mercy!—Where is the first theme of 12 measures in C major?—Where are the next 48 measures of nice (right kind of) development leading nicely into the second theme in G?" (second Donkey contrasting with Ass #1)—the nice German recipe, etc.—give it a ride, Arthur!—to hell with it!—Symphony = "with sounds" = my Symphony!
Although they inhabited completely different musical worlds, the two composers remain compelling symbols of their respective countries—Sibelius the voice of Finnish nationalism, Ives the uncompromising American innovator. Like other major twentieth century composers—Janacek and Varèse come to mind—they seem to have appeared on the scene virtually without antecedents and remain singular figures.
Ives on A Symphony: New England Holidays
"Cold and Solitude," says Thoreau, "are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to see the snow on the trees."
And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!—in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan's fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?
The older folks sit
“…the clean winged hearth about,
Shut in from all the world without,
Content to let the north wind roar,
In baffled rage at pane and door."
But to the younger generation, a winter holiday means action!—and down through the “Swamp Hollow” and over the hill road they go, afoot or in sleighs, through the drifting snow, to a barn dance at the Centre. The village band of fiddles, fife, and horn keep up an unending “breakdown” medley, and the young folks “salute their partners and balance corners” till midnight. As the party breaks up, the sentimental songs of those days are sung, and with the inevitable “adieu to the ladies” the “social gives way to the grey bleakness of the February night.
[Postface from the published score]
In the early morning the garden and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the day's memorial. During the forenoon, as the people join each other on the green there is felt at times a fervency and intensity—a shadow, perhaps, of the fanatical harshness—reflecting old abolitionist days. It is a day, Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of "Nature's kinship with the lower order—man."
After the town hall is filled with the spring's harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the warden and burgesses (in carriages!!), the village cornet band, the G.A.R., two by two, and the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer fire brigade, drawing the decorated horse-cart with its jangling bells, brings up the rear—the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and "Adeste fideles" answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg.
After the last grave is decorated, "Taps” sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. Then the ranks are formed again, and we all march to town to a Yankee stimulant—Reeves’s inspiring Second Regiment—though, to many a soldier the somber thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops, and in the silence the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the day.
[Postface from the published score]
The Fourth of July
It's a boy's Fourth—no historical orations—no patriotic grandiloquence by grown-ups—no program in his yard. But he knows what he is celebrating—better than some of the county politicians—and he celebrates in his own way—with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism.
It starts in quiet of the midnight before and grows raucous with the sun. Everybody knows what it's like—if everybody doesn't: cannon on the green, village band on Main St., firecrackers under tin cans, shanks mixed on cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, church bells, lost-finger, fifes, clam chowder, a prize-fight, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs. Beaver Brook Boys), pistols, mobbed umpire, Red, White and Blue, runaway horse—and the day ends with the sky-rocket over the church steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town Hall on fire. All this is not in the music—not now!
[Postface from the published score]
Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day
Anyway, in considering my music, the secular things—that is, those whose subject matter has to do with the activities of general life around one—seem to be freer and more experimental in technical ways…
The Thanksgiving movement in this set is, in a way, an exception, because when it was first written (played in Center Church, Thanksgiving Service 1897), it was quite experimental harmonically and, to a certain extent rhythmically, … but heard today with the other movements in this set, it would seem quite conservative. But in considering the case of the Thanksgiving music as it is, a kind of paradox seems to appear. Dissonances, or what seemed to be dissonances at the time, had a good excuse for being, and in the final analysis a religious excuse, because in the stern outward life of the old settlers, pioneers and Puritans, there was a life generally of inward beauty, but with a rather harsh exterior. And the Puritan “no-compromise” with mellow colors and bodily ease gives a natural reason for trying tonal and uneven off-counterpoints and combinations which would be and sound of sterner things—which single minor or major triads or German-made counterpoint did not (it seemed to me) come up to. This music must, before all else, be something in art removed from physical comfort.
[Ives Memos, pp. 129–130]