…of the Things Our Musicologists Loved

Blogging the Ives Vocal Marathon, day two:

1. Bill Brooks, whom I could follow around and write a fascinating blog titled “Blogging Bill Brooks,” gave a presentation on three of Ives’s war songs, “Tom Sails Away,” “He Is There,” and “In Flanders Fields.” However extraordinary Ives was in a lot of ways, Bill contextualized these three songs as a fairly normal attempt to be a good American in war time. Of the 36,000 songs written about World War I (geez, he actually counted – the most musical war America’s ever had, he claimed, and proved it), it was typical to use Tom as the ethnically neutral name for the soldier who went overseas. “In Flanders Fields” was a runaway smash hit poem, that got set to music more than 65 times, including a modernist setting by one Susan Wier Hubbard, socialite, that Bill claimed was as good and forward-looking as Ives’s. Most impressively, it turns out that mixing political tunes collage-style was a popular marching band ploy of the day, and Bill played some sound bites, notably “General Mixup” by the Arthur Pryor Band, to demonstrate that the juxtaposition of the Star-Spangled Banner, “Marching Through Georgia,” “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” and so on, in Ives’s “He Is There” wasn’t a startlingly unusual idea. It doesn’t take away anything from Ives’s genius, but does show that in 1917 he was more typically responsive to the music around  him than one tends to assume. Then Judith Tick talked about how “They Are There,” the 1943 update of that song, was one of 16 commissions for political pieces given by the League of Composers. She ended with a YouTube video of the song played by a ’90s punk duo.
2. Ken Steen, electronic composer at Hartt School of Music, took scans of Ives’s sketches, and wrote out, as best he could using computer-altered visuals to make the dim notes clear, all the bits of songs that Ives worked on and never finished. Bill Brooks then sang the song fragments, with Neely Bruce at the piano. Some were fairly complete as to vocal line, with only sketchy piano parts; some proceeded fully for a few measures before trailing off; some were college songs, some late experimental sketches, and some just dissonant arpeggios with a vague vocal line. It was strange listening to sparse fragments of songs, but along with the 185 songs being performed on concert, we certainly feel like we’ve heard every song impulse Ives ever got so far as to commit to paper. As a composer, I recoil from the idea that anyone might ever perform publicly the sketches I abandoned, which were usually abandoned for good reason. As a voyeuristic Ives buff, though, I couldn’t help relishing these little song skeletons whose outlines I could only reconstruct in my imagination. 
3. I’ve heard a half dozen or more Ives songs I’d never heard before, most of them early, but the largest and latest by far was the seldom-recorded “Aeschylus and Sophocles,” for singer and two pianos with optional string quartet (both versions performed tonight). Strange, amazing piece in Ives’s dissonantly introspective, classical-text vein (see also “August,” “September,” “December”), decrescendoing to spare octaves for the line “But where kings honour better men than they, / Let kings be honoured too.” Elizabeth Saunders sang, and all the singers – David Barron, Johana Arnold, Gary Harger – have greatly internalized these songs, and are doing a dynamite job. Tomorrow morning, if I can wake up in time, we have an Ivesian church service at the local Congregationalist church.


  1. says

    Perhaps some of the forthcoming stimulus money could be “earmarked” for grants for “stalking and blogging”? Sounds like a sub-category of oral history, (stalking history, history’s talking maybe?) Stalking and blogging about Bill Brooks would be a great first excursion into the artform: Terry Riley, others…
    Last night’s performance of “They Are There” was absolutely brilliant and a fitting follow-up to the panel discussions earlier in the day by Brooks and Tick. The inclusion of the Chamber Choir of Middletown High School was an excellent touch, and from the comments from various kids in the choir – who seemed to thoroughly enjoy performing this piece – it was truly an “Ives Rocks!” moment for them AND the rest of the audience. What a great way to introduce Ives to a new generation – first hand experience!
    Oh, and Kyle, perhaps we should all be giving greater consideration to the immediate destruction of both physical and virtual copies of those unfinished and abandoned-for-good-reason pieces. On the other hand, it may be nice to leave a few crumbs behind for those voyeurs or complete-ists of the future.

  2. says

    Did Helen Boatwright give a pre-concert talk? What did she have to say? How was it?
    KG replies: I regret to say that I missed most of Helen’s preconcert talk, but we heard plenty from her all week, feisty and contrarian.

  3. Todd says

    Re: #1 above – it’s true that Ives’ debt to ragtime novelty songs is overlooked. Irving Berlin combined vernacular musics all the time in his works and often with the same sorts of symbolic resonances – two examples: the Trio of the International Rag March and Twostep which begins by alternating fragments of the Marseilleise and Yankee Doodle later follwed by the Star Spangled Banner among others or the self-referential Alexander’s Ragtime Bagpipe Band which uses Swanee River, Alexander’s Ragtime Band and a Scottish jig whose name escapes me.

  4. says

    A few followup comments about the comments. Yes, Dean, Helen Boatwright talked virtually non-stop for about forty minutes. She said, among other things, that she liked the Ives Vocal Marathon, that teachers should not be easy on their students, and that the secret to successful singing is good consonants. (At the age of 92 she still sings like an angel, and has the best diction I have ever heard.)
    There are lots of comments about Helen, and also about ragtime elements in the Ives songs, on the IVM website. Go to:
    and click on “Interactive Ives.”