Taking pieces of songs from different sources, Charles Ives made orchestra music that described America.
I spent some time last week listening the music of an American composer named Charles Ives. Born in Connecticut in 1874, Ives isn’t very familiar to the general population but some say he’s one of the few American composers who ranks alongside Europeans. He wrote his remarkable second symphony between 1897 and 1902 but it wasn’t performed publicly until 1952. Leonard Bernstein was among those who tirelessly championed the then mostly unknown Ives and his music. ( more)
As the second symphony begins, its overarching theme is not at all evident. Intertwining lines seem to search for something to latch onto. A vaguely familiar melody briefly emerges but just as you think you could hum it, it disappears. For a moment things sound a little like Dvorak’s New World Symphony but then without warning you hear the old hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” weaving in and out like a deer moving through the shadows of the forest, a minor note slipping in here and there. But then it’s gone.
A bit of subsequent back and forth makes you think of a Beethoven symphony but then you realize the melody you’re now hearing is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” But again, as soon as you hear it, it's gone. Now it's something else, something patriotic. You’ve heard it before but you may not know the name. (It’s “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean”). It doesn’t return immediately but you’re left with the impression that maybe you’re beginning to sense what Ives is up to.
Melodies you’ve not thought of as orchestral are proving to be, but it’s as though the whole orchestra is struggling to fuse these diverse snippets into something unified. Without realizing it you’re drawn in, listening for clues as to how this will resolve. As you sort through all you're hearing, your ears start filling in the gaps, as if the orchestra were giving you space to join them and help carry the load.
By now you're listening for any trace of your cultural patrimony. There’s another hymn again, then a piece of Stephen Foster's “Camptown Races.” Suddenly trumpets cut through with "Reveille," clear as the dawn breaking. As if to answer, the low brass reprises “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” more completely now than before. And then just like that it’s over.
Bernstein called Ives “our musical Mark Twain, Emerson, and Lincoln all rolled into one,” and notes that for all his influences and musical quotations, Ives doesn’t sound like any other composer: It’s “a new brew out of a European soup pot,” he said, “very American in flavor.”
Ives’ second symphony speaks to us because it reminds us that we’re a nation of immigrants. Not merely of people, but of the culture they bring with them. Beethoven’s music itself is an immigrant to the new world, interacting with the culture that was born here and producing something new. Something American.