I walked out of my Second Tier seat of Davies Symphony Hall into the lobby on Friday February 5, 2010 only to hear a string quartet in the distance – two floors below. Charles Ives would have loved the music wafting up from a source unclear, as if lifted on a sonic cloud to my ears. For this great American composer, hearing all kinds of music in different environments was as natural as eating watermelon on a hot summer afternoon in Danbury, Connecticut, Ives’ birthplace. He incorporated these sounds into his formal compositions, including his Concord (piano) Sonata, the orchestration (by Henry Brant) of which was on the second half of the program that evening.
The American composer Henry Brant had heard Ives’ metaphysical hymn, “The Unanswered Question,” and admired his use of “spatial separation, un-coordinated rhythm and a polyphony of simultaneous, contrasting styles.” He saw the possibilities of “the complete [Concord] Sonata, in a symphonic orchestration, that might well become the ‘Great American Symphony’ that we had been seeking for years.” From 1958 to 1994 he worked on orchestrating the Sonata and A Concord Symphony was premiered in 1995.
The cacophony of the orchestra warming up for the performance of the Concord Symphony served as an un-programmed but appropriate overture. Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, verbally introduced the work to the audience in his inimitable Bernsteinian manner. “This work was Ives personal reaction to his feelings about American Transcendentalism – people whose spiritual state was achieved through individual intuition, not religious beliefs,” he related. “In Hawthorne, the second movement, Ives meant to confuse us with wacky, sensory, overload.”
I listened to the only recording of this amazing work several times at home and was excited to hear it performed live. Nothing could prepare me for the forceful beginning of the famous chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony pounded out by the whole orchestra. The way Brant scored the strings as a melodically soft counterpoint to the muscular winds and brass was magical. There were moments of full-orchestral majesty that melted into plangently hushed horns…and the use of the wind machine was mesmerizing. MTT bounced from one foot to the other, his animated arms and body urging the orchestra on.
The end of Emerson (the first movement) brought forth images of a quite New England evening as people dozed off into their reveries. Hawthorne (the second movement) became a phantasmagorical Halloween night with creepy creatures hip-hopping in the dark. Whiffs of honky-tonk jazz merged with the ever-present da-da-da-duh of Beethoven. The quote from Ives’ Three Places in New England raucously marched in…and ‘Columbia the Gem of the Ocean became a quiet interlude rudely interrupted with a karate-chop ending, repeating the finale of the composer’s Second Symphony. Only in America could these two composers (Ives and Brant) get away with that kind of polyphonic eclecticism!
Then came the ‘Alcotts,’ a diametrically opposite vision of American Transcendentalism – a warm, hazy, sentimental and comfortable picture of an American family. It was relaxed and lyrical, the perfect antidote to the chaos of Hawthorne. The fourth movement – ‘Thoreau’ – quiet, impressionistic and thoughtful – ends the work. The passionate performance was given an enthusiastic applause by the less than capacity audience. It was an outpouring of gratitude for those knew how rare it is to hear this great symphony performed live.
Is it one of the candidates for ‘the Great American Symphony?’ Can it stand with Ives’ Second and Fourth Symphonies, Copland’s Third, Schuman’s Third and Eighth, Barber’s First or the Harris Third? In an earlier class, we saw a 1958 Leonard Bernstein “Young People’s Concert” video whose title was “What is American Music?” In the end, Bernstein named the diversity of the American personality and its musical roots as the criteria for defining music that’s American. He used the syncopated rhythm of jazz in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the young, optimistic sounding music of William Schuman’s American Festival Overture, the loneliness of wide open spaces in Copland’s Billy the Kid, and the sweet homespun melodies from Virgil Thompson’s opera, the Mother of Us All as examples. The finale from Copland’s Third Symphony was his choice as a work that encapsulated a lot of these diverse American personalities, and he brought the composer on stage to conduct it. Bernstein never mentioned Ives, but in 1958 he still was a well kept secret or ignored.
Author Jan Swafford, in his biography, Charles Ives: A Life with Music, identifies the different aspects of Ives musical personalities: ultra modernist, nationalist, amateur, primitive, neurotic and sly fabricator of his own myth. David Schiff, in a 1997 article in the Atlantic, “The Many Faces of Ives,” concludes that “Ives believed music had to be with sublime or ridiculous: it could lead either to spiritual redemption of mankind or to a good laugh.” Each of these sources concur with Bernstein that the singular characteristic of American music is its diversity. Of all the possibilities of the ‘Great American Symphony’ listed above, A Concord Symphony has the most musical diversity.
And yet, there are two other characteristics that are missing for me to choose it as the one. The Ives I heard in Davies Symphony Hall that night never moved me. Ives clothes the popular and diverse roots of his music in a musical language that, especially upon one hearing, would be difficult for most people to ‘understand.’ I remember a Bernstein performance at the University of Michigan in the 1960s of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Ives’ Second Symphony. Mahler, who Bernstein ‘discovered’ in the Sixties, has gone on to become an audience favorite. Ives remains a curiosity in the concert hall today. Mahler’s music may be complex, but it evokes an emotional response in the listener that is missing in A Concord Symphony. Bernstein was right in choosing Copland’s Third Symphony in 1958 as the ultimate example of ‘American Music.’ It has diverse American roots, and evokes emotional responses in listeners. Yes, in terms of music of our times, it may lack the intellectual substance of Ives, but hearing the last movement of Copland’s Third brings tears to my eyes. Maybe the ‘Great American Symphony’ hasn’t been written yet. Oh, I forgot John Adams Harmonielehre! But that’s a topic for another paper and another day.