Symphony No 4

The purpose of this note is to give some general background only to Charles Ives. The outline of the symphony itself will be dealt with by Matthew.

Charles Ives is regarded as one of the first American composers of international renown although his music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. His influences were a combination of American popular and church music traditions of his youth, coupled with military marches and European (Beethoven-Brahms) tradition. At the same time he was among the first composers to engage in a systematic program of experimental music using techniques including polytonality polyrythm and quarter tones, foreshadowing by many years many musical innovations of the 20th century. Ives’ music reaches our ears even now with a similar shock to that of Stravinsky in his time. Yet Ives did not write to shock. He wrote as a professionally trained amateur and, without the expectation of his music being played, did not court popularity. What never ceases to surprise is that his music was written mainly before 1918 at the same time as Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, composers he was unlikely to have encountered, were flying their revolutionary flags in Europe.

He was born in Danebury, Conneticut in 1874, the son of George Ives, a U.S army bandleader in the American Civil War. His father was his principal teacher whose influence instilled in him the desire to reproduce the surrounding sounds and not to be afraid of resulting discord. Ives himself became a church organist at the age of 14 and composed his own hymns. He went on to Yale where he studied music as well as being an all-American lad in the football team. His teachers were more than bemused by his early compositions. Ives did not go on to be a composer waiting to be performed. Composition was a serious pastime but his chosen career was as an insurance broker. With his business partner and friend he formed the firm of Ives and Myrick in 1906 and he wrote “Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax” a tome, which was to be an insurance broker’s bible for many years. In 1908 he married and moved to New York giving up the church organ in the process. For a composer his wife bore the most delightful name, Harmony Twitchell

Despite a long life Ives was composing mainly between 1900 and 1920. Like his contemporary, Sibelius, he stopped altogether in 1927 having in tears announced to his wife he would never compose again. He did continue to revise existing works.

Ives’ music is like that of none other. His works often resemble an aural collage of sepia photographs evoking old memories. For example in his Holidays Symphony one hears misty impressionist sounds and buzzings with vague mixtures of distant military calls or hymn tunes intermingling and merging but one should not be surprised to hear a sudden upsurge from the military town band parade as if John Philip Sousa himself had taken over. Then out of some indefinable chaos one can be given a popular tune such as the Campdown Races played on a jews harp. Much is based on reminiscences which Ives would recall, particularly of his father rehearsing the military band in the town square or, as in the fourth symphony two bands marching past each other in opposite directions.

The fourth symphony written between 1910 and 1916 bears some relationship to his earlier work, “The Unanswered Question”. Ives is stated to have said “that it contains a searching question of ‘What’ and ‘Why’ which the spirit of man asks of life” It is said to have included 15 references to earlier compositions of Ives and some thirty hymns. It also has an offstage battery of percussion, six trumpets and an ether organ (which might have been some sort of synthesiser) and it needs a second conductor. So get yourselves ready for a unique aural experience

This note was written for the Blackheath Music Appreciation Society by Lionel J Lewis ©