Charles Ives was one of America’s most singular composers, and arguably the first truly American voice in classical music. However, his music was hardly known beyond a small circle of outsiders until the early 1950s. By then, Ives had long since stopped composing, having created a body of work that includes four symphonies, two piano sonatas, three string quartets, 114 songs, and a number of other works.
Ives studied music at Yale, following a musical education with his father, who was a band leader for the Union Army in the Civil War. After graduating from Yale, he took a job with an insurance company, and eventually made millions from the insurance industry, composing in his spare time.
Much of Ives’ music is dissonant and polyrhythmic – he famously witnessed an experiment by his father, where two marching bands, playing different tunes, converging in cacophony in a town square. His Concord Sonata – his second piano sonata – is a gnarly programmatic piece about four American thinkers, full of dissonance and chromaticism. Some of his music was performed during his lifetime; he wasn’t unknown, but he was only known among the musical avant-garde, composers such as Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Carl Ruggles and Aaron Copland.
Ives’ second symphony is one of his most accessible works. While his first symphony, a student work composed at Yale, is fairly standard for the time, the second symphony shows Ives using many of the motifs that figure in the rest of his work. He notably weaves American popular songs into the symphony, such as Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, Camptown Races, Long, Long Ago, and America the Beautiful, as well as riffs on Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. But the result is one of the most charmingly American symphonic works, and one that gives me a frisson every time I get to the finale.
When the symphony was premiered in 1951, by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic – who would later champion Ives’ music – the composer heard it on a radio, and wasn’t impressed. He had long since turned the page on composing, stopping in 1927, when he told his wife, “nothing sounds right.” But Bernstein’s premiere was a triumph, bringing Ives into the pantheon of great composers. Bernstein recorded the work in 1958 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), and again in 1990 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). The latter recording has wonderful sound, and is coupled with some other great, shorter works, such as Central Park in the Dark and The Unanswered Question.
There was a fair amount of controversy around Bernstein’s approach to Ives, having taken liberties with the score, notably in the final chord, a “raspberry,” that Bernstein extended (to much great effect). But Bernstein made this work come alive, and I find that his interpretation of this work is the benchmark. A new, corrected edition of the score was made in 2000, and Kenneth Schemmerhorn recorded this with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) His reading lacks the punch of Bernstein’s, but is certainly closer to Ives’ intentions.
Other conductors have recorded this work, including Michael Tilson Thomas (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), today’s most prominent supporter of Ives’ music. Tilson-Thomas’s recording dates from 1991, and I would love to hear an updated version, with the San Francisco Symphony that he directs.
Ives’ second symphony is one of the great American works of classical music. It was way ahead of its time when composed, and, while parts of it sound a bit standard, other parts, such as the final movement, remain unique. It’s a great introduction to the work of this composer who followed no school and trod his own path.