More on Ives, Thoughts on Revising

Another thought on Ives, if you can stand it, from reader Jacob Smullyan:

[W]hile the attempt to characterize Ives as fraudulent should be condemned outright, a related thesis is worth considering seriously, namely, that his later revisions may not be
entirely satisfactory. He had grown distant from the roots of his inspiration, and wanting to get re-involved, gilded the lily a bit (perhaps gold is too trite a mineral — mica?). Some of the thickenings (I’m thinking of Concord here) are inspired, and some are merely
uniformly thick. I liked Kirkpatrick’s way of picking and choosing those variants. I think of the 1947 Concord as being a bit like Wordsworth’s rewrite of The Prelude; each line is strengthened, and the whole is weakened (although 1947 Ives is a lot better than 1805 Wordsworth).

There’s a lot of sense to this. One of the satisfying but perhaps dangerous things about being a composer is that, while you can’t change notes in Mozart, you can change notes in your own music whenever you want. I’ve been inputting into computer notation music I wrote 20, 25 years ago, and I can rarely resist the temptation to change a few notes here and there to accord with my present taste. If I make a major change I’ll mark it “revised version,” but otherwise I’ll leave it. And I would hate to think of some student whom I’ve trustingly taken under my wing watching me make these changes and later putting the most malevolent possible construction on them, implying that I was trying to lie about my place in history – as Elliott Carter did to the man who helped him get into Harvard, Charles Ives. Many interconnected and contradictory impulses, good and bad, go into revising a piece of music, and it shows a paucity of psycholgical insight to isolate just one and claim it’s THE one. Nor, as Smullyan notes, did even Ives’ revisions always improve. I’ve always wanted to hear one recording of Ives’ Second Symphony without the final Bronx cheer, the closing 12-pitch chord, that Ives added decades later as a way of expressing disdain for his own work for being too conservative. That’s a noble, if fun, work, and it deserves to end unironically.

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