Several places in the music of Charles Ives

Posted on

Charles Ives (1874–1954) is the quintessential American composer. Some of his compositions are as American as cherry pie. Take the Country Band March (1905), for example. It brings you straight to the turn-of-the century America:

It’s a collage of folk tunes, patriotic songs, and marching band music, but you only hear a melody briefly, and then it’s either interrupted rudely or mutated gracefully into another. Very often two or three motifs are played simultaneously so you can’t decide which one to follow. It’s fun, and you can clearly detect a sense of mischief: the composition begins with a merry marching band melody, but gradually degenerates into a confusing mess; and then the orchestra seems say “oh wait, what am I doing!”, and attempts to do it right from the top. Since this is Charles Ives we are talking about, the second attempt is even more deranged, so the musicians have to reboot once more. I think in public performances, musicians should act out this drama. They should look like half-drunk amateurs trying desperately to play some decent American music in a country fair, but repeatedly failing to do so.

Ives was a great recycler of his own materials. The Country Band March motif would appear a couple of times in his later works. For example, listen to the second movement of Three Places in New England, completed in 1914. It is essentially a more elaborated version of the Country Band March. The amateur country fair band is now upgraded to a full-scale orchestra:

Symphony No. 4, finished in 1924, is Ives’ opus magnum. In contrast to the sheer joy of the Country Band March, it is abstract and impenetrably complex. At times it feels like total chaos. It is almost serious, respectable music, but there’s still the Ivesian mischief - I can see the smirk on his face, feeling proud of the pandemonium he would bring to the concert hall. Near the end of the second movement, at 11:00, he let the country fair band march in:

I always consider Ives’ second piano sonata (1915) the most beautiful piano music ever written. It’s philosophical and contemplative. Near 5:20, a spiritual Ives meditated on the meaning of existence (the three-note motif was derived from Beethoven’s Fate), but he didn’t dwell on it. At 6:45, it’s our old friend the country marching band!

Watchman tell us of the night

The recycling of musical motifs gives Ives’ music an interesting kaleidoscopic quality. The first movement of Symphony No. 4 closes with a solemn hymn (at 1:20):

which is adapted from the Watchman hymn:

Ives apparently liked it so much that it was also quoted in his first violin sonata (3:40):

Hello, My Baby

Here’s an example of Ives quoting popular music of his time. The 1906 orchestral composition Central Park in the Dark is a sonic painting of New York. At 4:07, you can hear the music coming from Broadway:

Many people probably recognize it as the show tune “Hello, My Baby”, but I only knew it as the song that the alien sings in Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs:

Jazz and rock ‘n’ roll

From time to time, I find tributes to Charles Ives in unexpected places. For example, the avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn experimented with jump-cuts and collages in the 90’s. The track Speedfreak from the Grand Guignol album is fragmented like County Band March, but at a much faster tempo:

There’s another gem in the same album. At 30:30, we have a spacey chord sequence that almost sounds like jazz guitarist Allan Holdsworth…

… but it’s actually a jazzed-up version of a piece of music called The Cage that Charles Ives wrote soon after Country Band March:

Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s 1922 album Have a Little Faith is a survey of American music. It’s only fitting that he recorded his own take on the first movement of Three Places in New England:

The part that Bill Frisell covered starts at around 3:30:

Finally, let’s not forget that Frank Zappa has a song called Charles Ives in his You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 5 album. This is more like a respectful parody:

Let’s see Weird Al Yankovic try to do a parody like that…

Reference: Charles Ives’s “Country Band” March: Its Appearance in Three of His Major Works by Bradley Ethington.