Birthplace of a Sonata

ELK LAKE, NEW YORK – Charles Ives wrote in his Memos that he got the idea for the Concord Sonata in the summer of 1911 at Pell’s. Pell was Henry Pelletier Jones, a friend of Ives’s father-in-law Joseph Twichell, his establishment more formally known as Pell Jones’s Cabin. The Twichell family used to spend a few weeks in August or September there, and Ives and his wife joined them in 1909, 1910, and 1911. Ives suffered from what was then called neurasthenia, kind of a tendency toward nervous breakdowns (and his first heart attack came in 1906, when he was only 31); he needed lengthy getaways.

In the 1950s, Pell’s got more officially renamed the Elk Lake Lodge, and it’s still as much in business as ever, so Nancy and I have come here to see the landscape in which the Concord Sonata was born. Nothing like taking a vacation and writing it off as a research expense. I thought no one here would have any idea about Ives, but actually the welcome information packet in the rooms has this in the last paragraph: “It [Elk Lake] looks much the same as it did when Charles Ives composed parts of his symphonies No. 3 and No. 4 there between 1909-1911.” And the manager, when he finds out guests are classical music fans, enjoys telling them that Ives stayed here.

There’s a photo of Ives, with his wife Harmony almost hidden behind him, sitting at the beach downhill from Pell’s lodge in 1909: working on his music, smoking, wearing a hat and shielding himself from the sun with an umbrella:

And a hundred and three years later, possibly to the week, on that very spot, SO WAS I!!

The log wall just behind Ives remained there for a century after his last visit, but was finally destroyed by the six-foot high flood caused by Hurricane Irene, so it was replaced just last year with the rock wall behind me. And here’s the view Ives and I both had from this spot:

There’s also a photo of Ives getting out of or into a rowboat, so for the first time in my life I got in a rowboat, and rowed around the islands out in the middle. (We did use to go canoeing a little around the Susquehannah years ago, but physical activity has never really been my thing.)

I took the photo at top from our lovely little private balcony at the Emerson cabin, where we stayed the first night. It would be so fitting to think Ives had worked on the Concord in the Emerson cabin, but actually that property wasn’t acquired until 1919. Things change a lot in a hundred years, even if Elk Lake itself has been kept in pristine condition.




  1. Joseph says

    I hate to be the naysayer here, but that cigar is not actually lit.

    But those socks sort of make up for it.

    Very much looking forward to the book.


    KG replies: Well, the cigar was lit an hour later. And as I figured, we’re not really sure Ives’s pipe was lit at the moment either, are we?

  2. Jim Dalton says

    I like the juxtaposition of pipe vs. cigar and paper vs. laptop.

    I’m feeling a kinship to both you and Mr. Ives right now. This week I’m in Amherst MA composing at a B&B, sitting outside our room by a Zen rock garden and fountain. Being a non-smoker there’s neither cigar nor pipe but plenty of coffee. I’ve been working the paper AND the laptop and getting more composing done than I have in years.

    I’m looking forward to the book too.