In anticipation of a seminar I’m teaching on the Concord Sonata next spring, I’m finally reading through the selected Ives correspondence published a few years ago by Tom C. Owens (U. of California Press). I feel a little guilty reading the sweetie-pie letters between Ives and Harmony during their engagement, never meant for my prying eyes, but I’m fascinated by the responses he received to the Concord itself when he mailed out privately published copies to total strangers in 1921. This one was from John Spencer Camp, a Hartford music critic:
…You have evidently aimed at impressionistic word pictures, striving to avoid the commonplace and trivial. Whether your musical inspiration has been able to meet the demands you have placed upon it is an open question, and one I should like to defer until I hear your sonata adequately performed. My present impression is that, in spite of the great amount of work you have put into this composition, the fundamental inspiration and glow are lacking. It is, however, a very interesting work. I question whether in the interest of musical beauty such an effect as you call for in page 25 [clusters played with a stick of wood] is good. A “strip of board” does not appeal to my sense of artistic piano music….
…As for the “music,” I confess with thousands of others who have seen it, that it is incomprehensible to me. I do not ridicule you, I do not criticize you, philistine-like, because it would do no good anyway, so all I venture to say at this time is that I hope you will find pleasure in the satisfaction of understanding what you yourself have set down in the seventy pages of your work! No doubt it took a great deal of time to prepare all that notation… Were you not, perhaps, trying to put into “form,” expressions that were entirely (to use a term of our Theosophical friends) ASTRAL – with a modus operandi that granted only PHYSICAL possibilities? This is not sarcasm because I do not mean it as that….
I wish you to know that I do not take your work lightly. I say, frankly, that I do not like this manner of sound-association, for I am too fully grounded in the habits (I admit that they are, to some extent “habits”) of the classic methods. To my mind, these classic methods are correct ones for I find them, in every detail, confirming the eternal physical laws which govern tone as well as stone. But I am not, in conviction, a heartless and brainless conservative, who recognizes the “Last Word” in anything that Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms have said in tone – no, nor Ives. And therefore these newer methods, or experiments, interest me keenly. And, since I am absolutely convinced of your sincerity, and see many admirable evidences of that logic, which is a part of my pet physical law, in your work – note that I hesitate to call it “music,” for I believe in accurate definition – I declare that these experiments of yours interest me particularly….
As for the accompanying book Essays Before a Sonata, composer Henry F. Gilbert commented:
I was very surprised to receive such a book from a musical composer. I showed it to a friend of mine (one of the Boston critics) and called his attention to certain striking passages. He was most interested and enthusiastic but said: “Depend upon it, this fellow is a bad composer – good composers are usually non compos mentis on every other subject.”