My mom got her master’s in music ed when I was a kid. Afterward I inherited (in the same sense that my son “inherits” books and CDs from me now – Mom’s still around) her heavily underlined copies of Joseph Machlis’s Introduction to Contemporary Music and Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the books from which I first learned about new music. When I was 12, already heavily into classical music, I asked Mom one day why there were no American composers. She said she thought there were, and gave me two names: Charles Ives and Roy Harris. I sprinted out and bought John Kirkpatrick’s recording of Ives’s Concord Sonata, which somehow looked to be his most celebrated work – perhaps Machlis had said as much. Once home, I had no idea what to think of it. It seemed a towering mess. I had already partly digested The Rite of Spring, which was bizarre enough, but at least its comparative repetitiveness made its oddities stick in my head. The Concord Sonata was just a mass of notes with, here and there, a tune, even a quotation I recognized. But I listened over and over and over, struggling to make sense of it. And gradually, inevitably, I fell absolutely in love. It became my favorite piece of music, and remains so to this day.
In retrospect, it’s odd that that piece should have become so central to my life. As devoted as I am to every note Ives wrote, he and I are not similar creative types. He was an early bloomer; my style, despite my precocious interests, didn’t really coalesce until I was 38. His pieces are omnivorous; mine rather finely focused. He was the most wildly intuitive and improvisatory of composers; I delight in the minute logic of voice-leading within well-defined postminimalist limits. (Satie, my other great love, is a more congenial model.) Still, Ives and I do have in common, or perhaps I picked up from him, that we both like to start with tonality and then muck it up. Certain Ivesian effects in my music have been pointed out to me; the ostinato-based, diminuendoing final section of my Desert Sonata is an homage to the endings of both of Ives’s sonatas, and in the first movement of Custer and Sitting Bull I build up Custer’s tune “Garry Owen” in much the same gradual way Ives, in his second symphony, builds up “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.” Much of my creative life has suggested a child trying alternately to imitate, and to separate from, a father he very little resembles.
All along the Concord has remained the piece I’m most obsessed with. I own three copies of the score; one (delapidated and heavily marked) for home, one for the office, and a small Kalmus copy for travel. In college I learned to play the last two movements quite well; I’ve never worked up even the first page of “Emerson,” while the pianism that “Hawthorne” requires is beyond my kinetic imagination. Still, a like-minded composer friend and I once agreed that if someone got a note wrong in the middle of one of those big tone clusters, we’d hear it, because everything in that piece is so calculatedly transparent. I could write a panegyric to the Concord as effusive as Kierkegaard’s over-the-top essay on Don Giovanni in Either/Or, similarly demanding that everyone in the world acknowledge it as the one perfect composition.
All this prologue is to set up how excited I was to receive in the mail this weekend the Innova recording of the Concord Sonata – orchestrated by Henry Brant. In addition to being the leading composer for spatially separated ensembles, Brant has always had a reputation (furthered by Virgil Thomson’s writings from way back) as one of the greatest orchestrators ever. I heard his orchestration of the Concord, quite aptly retitled A Concord Symphony, at its New York premiere back in 1996, and was blown away then. This live recording by Dennis Russell Davies and Holland’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra makes it even more exquisite.
To imagine, in one’s head, the Concord orchestrated evokes chaos: how could that mammoth opening page be transferred to 80 musicians and still remain coherent at all? But Brant does it, lovingly bringing out every line with a clarity achievable only by someone who worships the piece. One doesn’t exactly think of the Concord as a polyphonic work, but Brant finds its polyphony and accentuates it. Despite the complexity, grandeur, and mass dissonances, the lightness of his scoring, its almost chamber character, is the dominant impression. Many, many passages are handed to instruments I would never have thought of. The tranquil melody in the middle of “Alcotts” is played by a trumpet – perfectly so, thus tieing into a 19th-century parlor use of the instrument that died out in the 20th. The harmonic series arpeggios in the long prose section of the middle of “Emerson” first appear in the harp, logically enough, and then in the cellos, somehow managing to retain the feeling of piano pedalling. The ultrapianistic opening of “Hawthorne” flits mercurially between winds and percussion, changing some of the arpeggios into impressionistic chords.
Indeed, the character of the piece is somewhat changed; the climax of “Alcotts,” for instance, set in the brass, is rather toned down from the original, because trying to play the entire piano at once and playing the entire orchestra at once do not have the same effect; what sounds like incredible yearning on the piano would turn to facile bombast in the orchestra, which Brant tastefully avoids. This is not merely a Concord transferred to orchestra, and Brant was wise to give it a separate name. There are passages I might not necessarily have recognized, so changed is the music’s texture – but the spirit is devoutly maintained. It’s a new work, a new Ives symphony, with far more chamber-like orchestration than his other symphonies, as was necessary to bring the pianistic content across. It is unheard before, and yet strangely familiar. It is faithful to the original with a devotion and intelligence that go beyond mere transcription. I look forward to falling in love with it all over again.