Charles Ives – old-timey, crotchety, gosh-darned genius

July 9th, 2014

We go on again in a week, ladies and gentlemen. We have two splendidly large and ultra-modern sextets book-ending our concert – one by Austraia’s wonderful Brett Dean, and the other by the imposingly intelligent American Fred Lerdahl. Both are works to be reckoned with – bold, emotional and clever, they confirm for me the reason we exist as an ensemble. This is music that deserves to be heard, and the five of us (and our beloved guests) are lucky enough to get to play it and gleefully dissect every last bar!

But sandwiched between these contemporary masterworks is a little throwback gem, written about a hundred years before the other two works. It’s the Fourth Violin Sonata of Charles Ives, and it’s getting me all nostalgic. One of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced as a solo pianist was learning and memorising the First Piano Sonata of Ives – I lived and breathed it for about 18 months until its twisted dissonances and fantasies on Yankee hymns infiltrated all of my waking moments (and most of my sleeping ones too).

I’m quite glad I never met Charles Ives, although I’m incredibly grateful that he existed. Cantankerous, homophobic and stubborn-to-a-fault, he nevertheless wrote some of the most forward-thinking and philosophically-probing piano music of the twentieth-century.
His Second piano sonata, the so-called ‘Concord’, is far more well-known than his untitled first. And yet it’s to the First Sonata that I find myself returning again and again for enrichment and inspiration.

Ives’ backstory is as interesting as his unorthodox music. Growing up in the USA in comparative musical isolation in the small town of Danbury, Connecticut, his primary source of musical stimulation was his eccentric (but always encouraging) father, George, who would get his children to participate in such brain-stretching musical experiments as singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in several keys at once, or musically notating a thunderclap. With no establishment to scold him against ‘improper’ means of composition, the precocious Charlie grew-up to accept the avante-garde as normal, anticipating in his works devices such as polytonality and serialism way ahead of his European counterparts, simply because he didn’t know he shouldn’t be doing it!

The First Piano Sonata for me captures perfectly this duality of naïvety and innovation. In purely technical terms, this is about as difficult as piano music gets, requiring an unprecedented range of colours, intellect and facility from anyone brave enough to tackle it, as well as plenty of stamina (it clocks in at around 40 minutes). Ives really was writing with all the capabilities of a Steinway concert grand in mind! And yet it’s subject matter is simple – it’s about the day in the life of one nameless man as he goes about one unremarkable day in New England as filtered through Ives’ nostalgic lens. The work’s five movements take us through the day: the work opens at dawn, with a morning trumpet reveille across the lake and a motley community band tuning their instruments and attempting to play together. The remaining movements respectively take us to lunch at the pub, a local baptism, some post-baptismal celebrations, and the contemplation of nightfall.

What makes the piece so wonderful, while contributing to its substantial difficulty, is Ives’ fastidious notating of all the blemishes and imperfections that make up the musical life of a small town. So in the first movement, one pianist really does have to sound like two ends of a marching band getting out of sync with each other. Later on in the fourth movement, in one of my favourite moments of the work, there is a drunken, discordant climax where a mob of revellers attempt to sing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ in a rendition that (almost literally) brings the house down.

The piece incorporates all manner of styles from traditional romanticism through to gospel, ragtime, impressionism, and straight-up atonality. Comparisons can definitely be made with James Joyce’s Ulysses, where the banal is turned into sprawling high-art.

But for me, what I adore is the humanity of the piece. The sonata is epic because Ives believed that every life, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was special and was worth shouting about. Jenny and I keep discovering exactly these notions again and again as we explore the Fourth Violin Sonata in preparation for next week’s concert. For all its forward-thinking, this is music that actually looks backwards – nostalgic for times that were more personable and interactions which were more meaningful.

To anyone who feels that contemporary music doesn’t have a strong emotional core, I can offer no better recommendation than to explore the music of this wonderful composer, and see how ‘challenging your mind’ and ‘tugging at your heart’ don’t have to be mutually exclusive concepts.

And to begin this exploration, you could do worse than to come along this Wednesday to the MRC. 😀

Yours in recognition of crotchety genius,

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