Second-Guessing Chuck

NEW HAVEN – I played the last two movements of the Concord Sonata in high school, and the final four articulated notes of “Thoreau” – G# Bb G C# – have always bothered me. I remember arguing with my piano teacher about them. They don’t seem to have much motivic resonance with the rest of the movement, and the final ambiguous tritone always struck me as un-Ivesian. So now I’m at Yale library looking through the Ives archive, and I’m finding that Ives’s original manuscript presented a different picture. The original ending, which was followed in the 1920 edition but was dropped for the Arrow Press Edition, followed that C# with a dotted-rhythmed A:

This makes perfect sense, and connects the ending with several other points in the piece:
It also brings back at the final moment the wedge motive – notes moving outward or inward chromatically around a center note – that recurs many times, notably in the opening measures, and also closes the piece on a more conclusive-seeming D-A sonority. (In one sketch, Ives even suggests that the last six notes could be played an octave higher by, not the piano, but the flute that barges in on the preceding page.) And yet in the 15 copies of the published version that Ives went through and altered to create several possible readings of the piece, he several times crossed out the A and made the C# a half-note. I think doing so was a mistake, and not the only one Ives made in belatedly revising his works. (I also never liked the 12-tone chord that he puts at the end to make fun of his Second Symphony.) 
Likewise, I’ve always wondered about the beginning. The first five notes of the Concord in the left hand descend B A Ab F D#. Everyone analyzes this as a skewed version of the “pentatonic theme” that will recur so often, E D C A G. But it’s not pentatonic! And lo and behold in the first ink copy of the piece, the left hand descended B A Ab F# F D#, with two quarter notes:
It’s octatonic! And with a whole-tone scale in the right hand and octatonic in the left, perhaps he was spelling out a larger-scale wedge motive. But he crossed out the second quarter-note and put a half-note. The realization that his original idea was not thematic but scalar gives me something new to look for in the piece. 
I’m considering teaching a Concord Sonata course next spring, and I’ve always suspected that if I could look at the sketches I could clear up, at least in my own mind, some mysteries about how Ives composed. And I’m grateful to the librarians here for allowing me to gaze my fill at these precious manuscripts. 


  1. says

    Have you considered doing a duo blog on this piece with Jeremy Denk (who has recorded both the Ives sonatas, and may be the foremost interpreter of them these days)?
    KG replies: I’m not sure what Mr. Denk would get from doubling up with a scurrilous reprobate like me.

  2. Ken Fasano says

    Actually, I prefer the C# half note at the end of Thoreau. It seems to end the movement with a question, and not an affirmation.
    KG replies: I think with the A it still sounds like a question, but a question left over from the previous discussion.

  3. says

    Thanks so much for this post, a real eye-opener.
    It is a shame most scholars seem uninterested in doing critical editions of scores anymore; a genuine critical edition of the most important American composition for the piano would seem to me to be a pretty important thing, more important than discussions about whether Ives back-dated his manuscripts, or was homophobic or whatever. Obviously it would be a massive undertaking to compile and organize the variants, but it would be so valuable.
    It seems to me a four-hand blog on Ives with you and Jeremy Denk – or maybe with Marilyn Nonken (another extremely smart performer of this piece) – would be pretty fantastic.
    KG replies: In my official capacity as Vice President of the Charles Ives Society, let me say that the Society has an impressive number of critical editions in process at the moment, and some of them take forever because the textual issues in Ives are so difficult to untangle. The amount of devotion going into these projects on the part not only of scholars but performers and publishers is just phenomenal. I’ll look into the Concord Sonata issue. I’ve just learned there is an unpublished annotated version by John Kirkpatrick, and I want to do some work comparing the various versions myself.

  4. says

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to overlook or disrespect the work of the Ives Society. I’ve studied a few of those editions myself and am grateful they exist. And I understand how huge a project preparing a variorum edition of the Concord would be.
    However, I do think that, in general, musicologists today see the preparation of editions as sort of an old-fashioned pursuit, less fashionable than doing critical theory, and the result is that there is less work done on preparing editions of 20th century repertoire than there should be. A critical edition of La Mer was prepared by the librarian of the Philadelphia Orchestra a few years ago, not by an academic scholar. And I have heard that Boulez has a list of errata for the score of Miraculous Mandarin that he supplies when he comes in to conduct it. He shouldn’t have to do that. So, bravo to the folks working on Ives scores for bucking the trend.
    Thank you again for this post.
    KG replies: Oh, I know what you mean. I think Ives inspires more loyalty than most other composers ever get. To repeat a story I tell frequently, Larry Polansky and I were once talking about the musicological and restorative work he was doing on music by Johanna Beyer and Harry Partch and I was doing on Conlon Nancarrow and Mikel Rouse, and Larry said, “Composers are now doing the work that musicologists used to do, while the musicologists are all off doing gender studies.”

  5. says

    For a nice coincidence, here is a footnote to the Aug. 6 posting on entitled “To Publish = To Make Public:”
    * Need I note that the long-overdue production of an edition of the works of Johanna Beyer has come about by the volunteer work of a consortium of composers and the Frog Peak Press cooperative, not by musicologists and a University press?
    The posting as a whole is also relevant to this discussion.