The Greatest Symphony Ever (Re-)Written

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.

Brant-Ives.jpgAll 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.


  1. mclaren says

    Fantastic news! I was thinking of doing a similar orchestration myself for electronic orchestra and releasing it on the net…but the goddamn copyright laws prevented me. If I had done it, I could be thrown in jail for a felony and fined a quarter million dollars.
    This offers a vile and exemplary case of exactly how today’s deeply evil “forever and a day” composer’s-lifetime-plus-80-years insane copyright laws stifle not only creativity and the arts… They help keep obscure masterpieces which should be resplendently popular courtesy of transcrptions and new versions.
    Tragically, Charles Ives’ compositions won’t be open to the public domain until 19 July 2034. Until then, anyone who releases a re-orchestration without explicit written permission from Ives’ estate can be thrown in prison and have their life savings confiscated.

  2. says

    Thanks for sharing this, Kyle. I look forward to hearing the Brant orchestration. Your post brings back a lot of personal memories for me, as Ives was one of the first composers (and with Copland, one of the first American composers) I knew of growing up. Turns out my father was a huge Ives fanatic; he went to the premiere of the 4th Symphony, had tons of the scores and records, etc. We made our pilgrimages to Danbury (where to the chagrin of the caretaker, I touched a key on Ives’ piano). And yes, I own the John Kirkpatrick recording of Concord, along with the score, and recently digitized it because the other recordings I have of it just can’t come close.

    I’d be curious how Brant decided to orchestrate Concord, and how long it took him to do so. Unlike many other piano works, even some by Alkan or John Adams, Concord seems so inseparably written for the piano that I wouldn’t have thought it feasible or worthwhile. Glad Brant pulled it off, since as you indicate, there are a lot of risks. Copland’s Piano Variations, for example, still sounds like a half-ass student orchestration exercise when Copland transformed it into the Variations for Orchestra. That would have been a shame had it happened to Concord.
    KG replies: Wow, imagine having a father who was an Ives nut. I did drag my dad (and mom) to Danbury once, but Dad thought a little less of Ives for using other people’s tunes instead of coming up with his own. Which I think is kind of hysterical, but my dad was a funny guy.
    It’s a national crime, of course, that Sony won’t rerelease that Kirkpatrick recording. Someone should go to prison for that, for a long, long time.

  3. says

    i found machlis’ “introduction to contemporary music,” david ewen’s “composers of tomorrow’s music,” and “schoenberg and his school” by rene leibowitz in my high school’s music department and read the crap out of them. they were my first introduction to 20th century music and ives in particular along with a norton lp with “general william booth enters into heaven” on it. i completely fell in love with ives’ music at that point and i still listen to something by him at least a few times a week. i think he probably would have wanted to kick my ass, though. can’t wait to pick up that record. have you heard tom plaunt’s recording of the concord? it’s quite good.

  4. Katherine Gann says

    Moms now rank with apple pie and Chopin? Thank you for the plug.
    KG replies: No no, thank *you*.

  5. says

    This may then well be the recording of the performance that I heard some years ago here at the Concertgebouw. Indeed, it was absolutely fantastic. I also remember some philosophical discussions I had afterwards with a composer friend about what exactly was gained and what was lost. His claim was that some of the, let’s say, ruminative quality was lost through the brilliance and clarity of orchestration.
    Indeed, you write “One doesn’t exactly think of the Concord as a polyphonic work, but Brant finds its polyphony and accentuates it.” – and in a sense the fact that its polyphony is hidden in the texture, under-the-surface, is in fact a very particular aspect of piano music that makes it such an illusionistic instrument, very well suited to a complex meditative argument. Some of this indeed seemed to disappear with Brant’s clarity. For my friend, this was a problem – but I think I prefered hearing in it the obvious declaration of love by one brilliant orchestrator to one brilliant piano (and then some) piece.
    Think I’ll pick up this disc soon!
    KG replies: Indeed, I couldn’t like A Concord Symphony as well as the Concord Sonata – but I could prefer it to 99 percent of all other music! And there is something wonderful about Ives wrestling with the piano, slapping down all those big rolled chords, and trying to get it to do things it was never meant to do, struggling poignantly to transcend the instrument – that just can’t be captured with a huge group of smooth professionals guided by a conductor. I think maybe there *is* music that tries to transcend the orchestra that way, and I first think of certain movements of Turangalila. But there’s a certain ensemble concept built in there, with lots of percussion and quickly contrasting meters, that is foreign to the Concord. It’s an amazing new locus classicus for transference of medium. Now imagine a piano solo version of Turangalila!
    And by the way, since you were there – what’s that official-sounding little encore they played, which is preserved on the disc?

  6. Samuel Vriezen says

    Actually, Kyle, I remember nothing about what else was on the program. I’m not even sure there was an encore, so though I’m quite sure I heard the KCO perform, the recording may of course also have been in another hall. Does the disc say it’s in the Concertgebouw itself? If so, it must have been the performance I heard, because I don’t think it was done more than once.
    KG replies: Mystery solved. It was a traditional birthday song played for Brant.

  7. Daniel Wolf says

    We disagree on many things Mr Gann, but perhaps we do agree on Brant’s brilliance as an orchestrator, not only in his own works but also in his orchestrations for film (especially the scores of the great Alex North).
    Brant has been working on an orchestration textbook for many years. Let’s hope he finishes it soon. I’ve already placed a large brick in my shelf of instrumentation/orchestration texts to reserve a place for the Brant; I’m sure it will be the rare orchestration book which I return to often.

  8. Jeffrey Sultanof says

    The thought of the Concord orchestrated by one of my favorite 20th Century composers whose orchestrations are models of clarity and beauty is too much. Money is tight right now, but this is something I will run out and buy. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.
    I had no idea that Brant was working on an orchestration book. I swore off buying more texts of this type years ago (I have two shelves filled with composition, arranging and orchestration books), but I will gladly buy this one when it comes out.

  9. says

    I agree with Mr. Vriezen. It takes some work to get through the surface, but the Concord is a really polyphonic work (not unlike simultaneous marching bands being a form of polyphony). To me, Ives is just like Bach, insofar as it’s essential to preserve the independence of the lines. They pull against each other in ways that lead to and away from different rhetorical junctures. Even with the “impressionistic” Thoreau, there’s a lot of contrapuntal activity. Just look at the first page. It’s all there in the beaming!
    One thing I’m curious about is whether Ives’s sense of physical gesture got “orchestrated” by Brant. Again with the opening of “Thoreau,” your hands are forced into all these interesting gestures in order to play the notes… grand, open, hesitant, sensual. To me, anyway, getting into these gestures makes for a richer performance. The gestures don’t fall under the hand like say, Chopin, but they’re definitely meant for hands to play. Would it be fair to Emerson if you didn’t have to work for that music?

  10. says

    Hey Kyle,
    Thanks for the heads up on this recording. Can’t wait to hear it. I’m glad Ives is still important to so many composers. It was because of Ives that I decided to become a composer. When I was in elementary school, I heard his 3rd Symphony during a school field trip to the local symphony. I didn’t know what to make of it. It didn’t sound like any music I had ever heard before (it certainly didn’t sound like the Beatles). I remember thinking that it sounded like a rainstorm, like weather, and if that was something a person could create, I wanted to do that. It was probably the fact of hearing it live that made such an impression on me. A recording wouldn’t have grabbed me like that, at least not at that age. It certainly did open my ears, and goes a long way in explaining my life’s trajectory. Anyway, thanks for the heads up on the Brant recording. Perhaps it will bring bring back more Ives memories.
    By the way, the orchestra I heard way back then was the Norwalk Symphony (CT), which was, just a few years later, Dennis Russell Davies’ first conducting post.

  11. milton parker says

    thanks for alerting me to this. I have a 90’s CBC recording of this on a cassette which I’ve enjoyed for a while — it’s very, very different, just as much of a Henry Brant piece as it is an Ives one, at least on that recording, particularly in his approach to rhythm, which is often much more toe-tappin’ and straightforward. I can hardly wait to hear this new one.

    and yes, I’d be up for many people at Columbia losing their jobs over keeping both the original mono and the later stereo Kirkpatrick recordings out of print. the stereo remains my favorite recording of the piece bar none.

  12. Daniel Wolf says

    I just emailed Mr. Brant about his orchestration book. His assistant responded with the good news that “Henry Brant is indeed writing his Textures & Timbres. He just finished up the final edits this week. It will be published next year by Carl Fischer, LLC (NYC). I don’t know exactly when next year it will be available. By spring, we hope.”

  13. says

    I orchestrated about a minute and a half of The Alcotts movement for my grad orchestration class with David Del Tredici at BU in 1984. We had a read-through with the university orchestra. I remember David being excited hearing the piece, – you could hear that the movement transferred to the orchestra nicely. He was also a little disappointed that I had only managed about 90 seconds of it (copying all those parts slowed me down). It’s hard to imagine how the other movements would work for orchestra though. I’ll definitely look for this recording – thanks for posting this Kyle. I’ve been a reader of your columns in the Voice for some years.

  14. says

    No Ives symphony is the symphony Ives composed. They are all reconstructions, every one, & “real” Ives musical history, the only one that matters, is the history of performances & recordings of Ives’ music, a history of revisions, “improved” editions, & a growing consensus on how Ives ought to sound (generally less dense or muddied than had been earlier assumed), as created by professional musicians who, since the Ives centennial awakening, were increasingly capable of achieving that sound, until some of the finest Ives recordings were made by second tier American & European orchestras.