Spring Symphonies: 29/60 Ives: Symphony No. 2
It’s a short a step from the crazy world of Rued Langgaard to that of Insurance salesman Charles Ives. There’s something very determinedly individual about their symphonies - though I suspect every symphonist has to feel the need to say something unique in this form that demands a personal voice. To be fair it’s actually in his later symphonies that we hear more of Ives’ creative genus for innovation though the roots are here. His wide range and consummate skill as a composer of symphonies should not be overlooked. I could have chosen later symphonies and would very much have liked to introduce you to his Holidays Symphony but there is time enough for that. There is a claim he wrote nine symphonies but he only finished four that have that name tag.
What draws me to this work is one chord, It was the most exciting chord I’d ever heard when I first encountered in in my late teens. The five minutes that preceded it were some of the most glorious mind-blowing sounds I’d ever heard too. For many years that’s all I’d play. But there is something ingenious and telling about this symphony, written in 1897-1901, as a whole and the way it moves us 100 years in 40 minutes. Ives had to be taken, in his wheel chair, to hear his neighbour’s radio for the belated premiere of the work in 1951, in a broadcast performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. It was a mongrel premiere at that, because Bernstein fiddled with the score a lot and made cuts. Not that the score was that well presented in the first place: a pile of unnumbered pages represented Ives’ filing system: Kenneth Schermerhorn found over 1000 mistakes in it as he prepared the critical edition 100 years after it was written.
The symphony opens with a highly classical tune in canon rich and full on strings in the manner of Brahms (though far longer) and it moves to something a bit more perky and up to date sideways across the scale before returning to a more classical mood. The opening is given a short reprise and varies to another diversion. There’s something pleasingly familiar about these digressions - especially when the trombones go further than before in quoting something we know or partly know. The third reprise is preceded by a modulation figure which will become important. This third reprise is fuller than any preceding it and moves to a grand climax. The fourth entrance is simplest of all and gives way to a elegant oboe tune which then bursts into the perkiest interlude. There’s something familiar here too. An American audience in 1951 would be familiar with these fragments as part of their national musical language: in Europe we can tell their source is not the standard European tradition to which the string melody belongs. The American music may be folk tunes, hymn tunes, popular song or just something more characterful and lyrical - perhaps it doesn’t matter much now - but Ives was playing with the vernacular.
The fragments of “bringing in the sheaves” are somewhat satirised with a vehement quote echo around the various sections of the orchestra. A pair of oboes take us to the plains but the tone in the orchestra behind is ironically Dvorakian. There are hesitancies here which cause those languishing in the soft familiarity a bit of a jolt. I won’t go on through this Ivesian method of reflecting the romantic and classical masters and quoting popular tunes - there is some truly excellent writing here which rather shows up Brahms and Dvorak. The novelty is partly about how seriously these popular fragments blurt out - a kind of orchestral Tourette's and the instrumentation Ives uses to disrupt the landscape, in the slow movement there’s also an outbreak of percussion to emphasis Ives’ intrinsically disruptive nature. Nothing is sacred here. There’s much wit amongst the irony too.
The third movement is different gravitas reigns. It opens in Brahmsian manner and has grandeur and sweep which can be compared with the finest of the Late Romantics. The solo cello is something more homely. It’s difficult to know how seriously Ives is taking this - the music is exquisite and beautiful weighted. I think of Ives showing the nobility of the Americana here, he certainly seems to be heaping affection on these familiar tunes. It’s utterly convincing and draws to the most eloquent close.
The fourth movement has a bit more tension to it’s start. The mood is in that odd space Brahms and Dvorak (and no doubt some others) found between the rock of Wagnerian expression and classical restraint. Stirring and yet dispassionate at the same time - it sets up a great Romantic denouement which doesn’t happen.
The spritely Allegro that follows is where the these threads all start to come together. Tunes from across the face of the United States fizz along - interrupting the progress is a homely passage first heard on strings with horn accompaniment. It puts a brake on the progress but is beautifully judged. Proceedings recommence with a bold and dramatic section which yields to the fast paced music again. Its breathless stuff. The mix is enlivened with militaristic percussion - the fragments we may know or might guess are Americana flick around the orchestra and the drama of the movement builds to giddy heights.
For someone who loves contrapuntal complexity this is the bees’ knees: though I didn’t know this until I find that none of the rest of the traditional symphonic canon contained such delights. The soft music now on solo cello with flute is a cause for regrouping. But the violins dive in with God Bless America and we are in a limbo between the fast and slow - horns sound out - it could be Bruckner but the material takes a wry turn. As Ives winds things the tunes begin to overlap - it runs ahead of expectation and when a side drum comes in the roof does too.
In a glorious amalgam all the tunes blaze out on full orchestra - this is the orchestral coda to set the contrapuntist’s neck hairs raised. Its bewildering even now - all that spirit of America bursting out of the seams of the symphonic straitjacket. I was, and still am, cheered up immensely by this chaos. The Romantic tradition put firmly in it’s place there remains the most marvellous snook cocked at any musical snobs who remain in the room. It ends with brass and drums and rudest chord in all symphonic music.
Here's the only YouTube performance that isn't by Bernstein, Leonard Slatkin in Detroit.