Poisoned Musicology

I’m on spring break, and finishing up the obligatory chapter for my Concord Sonata book in which I compare the 1920 and 1947 editions. The research is drawing me into an argument that I had hoped to avoid altogether (and I hate to even call it an argument, because only one side makes sense): namely, whether Ives later added dissonances to his music in order to make it look as though he had written highly dissonant music earlier than the other famous modernist composers, as charged by Elliott Carter and later Maynard Solomon. To me, this is a totally bogus charge and I consider it time to move past it. I still intend to make this the first Ives book in 25 years in which the name Maynard Solomon does not appear. What’s muddied the waters, and made it impossible for me to abstain, is that pianist John Kirkpatrick made a parallel statement in justification of his refusing to help Ives prepare the 1947 edition, and of his preference for the 1920 version. Since I’m eager to let this dumb argument die down, I actually feel like airing more of my thoughts on the matter here, and fewer of them in the book.

What Kirkpatrick said is milder than Carter’s charge. He thought that Ives added dissonances not in order to claim priority, but to thumb his nose, to keep “pride of place” with other composers of the 1920s who were writing dissonant music. His specific complaint is that Ives went through the Concord adding accidentals to turn octaves into “denatured octaves” (major 7ths, minor 9ths), ruining the work’s lyricism. But I’ve gone through both Concords with a fine-tooth comb, and I can’t find more than a dozen instances where he did this. I literally can’t see what Kirkpatrick was talking about, and I suspect he was reacting to Ives’s occasionally truculent personality, and possibly even taking Carter’s charge for more than it was worth, rather than looking at the notes.

You will tell me, if you’re in the know, that Geoffrey Block’s article “Remembrance of Dissonances Past,” in Lambert’s Ives Studies, disposes of this matter with regard to the Concord, and to a certain extent it does. Block compares the sketches for the Emerson Concerto (which are such a jumble I quickly get tired just trying to pore over them) with the Four Transcriptions from Emerson, which we know were completed and well-copied by 1926. Some of the added dissonance (or, one should say, texture) came from the concerto, which no one doubts was sketched out between 1907 and 1913, as Gayle Sherwood Magee’s studies of the ms. paper have convinced everyone. Therefore, we can prove that Ives’s most radical changes in Emerson were made by 1926, and that many of them (not quite all, apparently, and who cares?) stemmed from music he had written more than a decade earlier. But Ives made changes on every page of the sonata, and Block hardly mentions Alcotts and Thoreau, and doesn’t deal with Hawthorne in any detail.

And if you go through the entire sonata without an axe to grind, it’s very apparent that Ives’s number-one concern, in all movements, was to thicken the texture, make the sonata more dramatic and virtuosic, and to make more powerful passages whose counterpoint was a little too thin to be effective. There are a handful of “denatured octaves” and quite a few added 7ths and 9ths, but vastly more octaves added to lines in the bass and treble, and also internal 5ths added to octaves in the bass and 3rds added to octaves in the treble. The pianistic virtuosity is  noticeably upgraded, but the dissonance level could hardly be raised from what it already was in many places. The point, to me, is that the 1920 version, for whatever reason, was left a little timid and at times non-pianistic. It was Ives’s first mature and experimental work to be published, it was a quixotic venture in self-publishing, and it came out with a lot of flaws, which Ives very reasonably worked to correct in his second edition. More power to him.

The main points as I see them are these:

1. Every composer who ever lived has possessed the legal, moral, and de facto right to revise his or her own music, for whatever reason, Ives included. Ives himself said that every time he looked at the Concord, he wanted to change something. I’m like Ives insofar as I rarely prepare an old score for a new performance without tinkering with it. I just added several measures to a piece I wrote in 1987; am I therefore mendacious? If, in that revision, I chanced to do something no one had done before, will the history books take me to task for not having done it earlier? Can I have revised my music without an ulterior motive beyond making it better?

2. Carter’s insistence that Ives had some self-serving ulterior motive for the kinds of changes he made was ungenerous, arbitrary, and without evidence. (Carter had a definite bug up his ass about Ives. A close friend of mine who met with Carter only a few years ago tells me he went into an unprovoked tirade about how lousy Ives’s songs were.) If one could find a single place in Ives’s writings or recorded utterances in which he had claimed to be the first to do anything, then one might have to partly concede Carter’s point. But all Ives ever said was that he had not been influenced by Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or Hindemith. Critics had confidently accused him of such influence, and since Ives hadn’t heard the music they referred to, he, very naturally, indignantly denied the possibility.

3. If Carter, as he said, was miffed because Ives was being accorded priority, then his anger was rightly directed at those who were doing the according, and not at Ives. As it has happened, musicologists have done a pretty damn good job of figuring out who did what when, and I don’t see any early 20th-century composer getting any credit he didn’t deserve.

4. Those many scholars who have looked at the issue have found that, while Ives’s dating was erratic, every piece was written within five years, and more often two years, of when he said it was, sometimes after and occasionally before. This level of imprecision is hardly unusual. I’ve gone through John Cage’s writings and works, and his dates are notoriously unreliable. For instance, when was the prepared piano invented, 1938 or 1940? The evidence suggests the latter date, but there is a hand-written score of Bacchanale, the first prepared-piano piece, with the date 1938 inscribed neatly at the top. Well, then, let’s charge Cage with mendacity! Cage says he studied with Suzuki in “the late ’40s,” but Suzuki’s first return to the U.S. since 1911 was in 1951, when he started teaching at Columbia. Well, what a liar that John Cage was! But the Cage people just shrug and correct the record, knowing that writing music is a composer’s job and writing history a musicologist’s. Cage often admitted he was terrible with dates. Personally, I’ve always scrupulously dated my scores upon completing them, and since they’re all laid out on the worklist at my web site, I see the dates often and rarely make such errors, but ask me about some event in my life not related to an official calendar, and I’m as likely as anyone to misplace it by a few years. Unlike Ives’s, my pieces usually got played soon after I wrote them, and my manuscripts have not spent decades getting stacked in a barn.

5. Amadeo Roldan wrote the first pieces for percussion ensemble. That bought him a footnote in a few history books. Any worthwhile composer cares far more about the quality of his music than about whether he was the first to try some technical device. That Carter could concoct such a charge, I’ve always thought, says infinitely more about him than it does about Ives. That Solomon fell for it tells me everything I need to know about his grasp of composer psychology. That two such men working in tandem and alone could besmirch the reputation of a composer widely known for his generosity, self-effacement, humility, and spirituality is a tragedy of music history.

6. What does it matter? Was an Ives piece fabulous if he finished it in 1915, but only so-so if he really worked on it until 1919? What happened in the world in those four years that would have made the Concord easier to write? We possess a datable Ives note from 1913 mentioning having played the Concord for a friend the year before. Can anything in the manuscripts contradict that? There are piano pieces that Leo Ornstein performed in the 19-teens, confirmed by printed programs, that he didn’t write down until the 1930s. Occasionally a student will play me a piece of his, and I’ll ask to see the score, only to be told, “Oh, I haven’t written it down yet.” According to Lou Harrison, Ives had virtual total recall for every note in his music. He was certainly capable, as many people have been,  of composing a piece without writing it down. Not all of history shows up on manuscript paper fifty years later.

It’s easy to see why I don’t want to put all of this in the book. That I have had the chance to spend years studying the manuscripts of the Ives piano sonatas has been one of the great joys of my life, and it’s a crying shame that the world of Ives scholarship has been poisoned by these imputations of motivation for which there could never be definitive proof on either side – since, lacking a textual confession, the private motivations of a man dead for six decades can never be absolutely known. The original charge remains far better circulated than the myriad scholarly refutations of it now buried in JSTOR, and so we all continue to tiptoe around it. I had intended, in my book, to treat the matter as settled, but I find that I cannot do so and engage adequately with the current literature.

Here is the conclusion of what I say in the book about the Concord‘s two editions:

“It is worth restating, I think, that the sum of all of these changes does not at all add up to a picture of an ambitious modernist trying to ‘jack up’ dissonance in order to keep current in the avant-garde, but something else entirely different: an amateur, so to speak, someone who had spent decades alone with his scores and was not used to scrutiny by objective eyes, trying to professionalize the appearance of his score and make it more pianistic, more dramatic, more effective and defensible. It may well have been that in 1921 when he sent those scores out, Ives expected to receive little attention, and let himself be satisfied with notational and textural solutions that didn’t bother him when he was playing the piece alone in his study. The 1920 score is something of a homemade job, and looks like it in places (for instance, I direct your attention to the sketchy-looking top staves of page 33). But in the 1920s and especially after 1939, with the ears of the world suddenly turned toward him in amazement, the Concord score had to be held to a new standard. There may be Ives lovers uncomfortable with the idea that such a genius could produce, in 1920, a score brilliant but still so riddled with imperfections as the 1920 Concord seems to me now. But I far prefer it to Kirkpatrick’s picture of an arrogant careerist who, having produced a wonderful sonata, let himself get carried away and introduced flaws into it in order to show off his modernisms. And I think the reception history of the two scores, with every pianist’s perennial reliance on the 1947 edition, abundantly proves that Ives, by and large, made exactly the right move. The Concord, had it been limited to its 1920 incarnation, would not be what it is today.”

Now, having that off my chest, perhaps I can finish my chapter.



  1. kirkmc says

    Interesting post. The Concord Sonata is one of my favorite pieces of music. I have more than a dozen recordings, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a recording of the 1920 version. Are there any?

    I’m interested to know that you’re writing a book about the Concord Sonata. Is this destined just for pianists, or will the general music listener benefit from it. I’d love to find out more.

    As for Cage, he started studying with Suzuki in 1950, but probably read his books a couple of years before that. I recently reviewed a book about Cage and Buddhism, Where the Heart Beats, on my website: http://www.mcelhearn.com/book-review-where-the-heart-beats-john-cage-zen-buddhism-and-the-inner-life-of-artists/

    In this book, the author goes into great detail about Cage and Suzuki. I think if the dates are off by a couple of years, it’s no big deal. This said, I’m certainly not a Cage apologist.

    Finally, it sounds like Carter was just jealous that Ives wrote such astounding music, and that Carter’s music is sterile.

    KG replies: There is apparently no recording of the 1920 version, as far as I can find. Kirkpatrick relied on it in places, and more than anyone else. And I read your article and found it interesting: Cage critiqued by an I Ching expert.

  2. Rodney Lister says

    It’s always seemed to me that what Carter said is a more or less innocuous, jokey comment, and it never seemed to me to be intended by Carter to denigrate Ives. But even if Ives did what Carter said and for the reasons that seem to be imputed to him for doing it, it doesn’t in any way diminish any of his music. And that seems to be the important thing.

  3. says

    I’m not sure it was innocuous, Rodney. Any more than John Adams’ public dissing of Carolyn Shaw was innocuous. I’ve always been struck by how many composers are petty and quite willing to knock down other composers, and this is not just true of the academic crowd but also, sadly, true of the downtowners.

    I was not aware of this “controversy” until Kyle’s post. It doesn’t surprise me, however. My attitude is essentially “BFD.”

    In terms of Kirkpatrick, I know his original LP recording very well (i was raised on it; my father was an Ives fanatic and we made pilgrimages to Danbury every now and then). There is at least one place in the second movement where he added in some high chords/clusters that are not in the score. Whenever I hear someone else’s performance, which of course lacks those notes, my mind fills them in. I think he was adding in some things from prior versions to which he was privy.

    KG replies: David, then I think you know JK’s 1968 recording, and not the 1945. Those treble harmonics in Hawthorne are a tragic sticking point in Ives scholarship. The sketches show that Ives toyed with the idea, decided against them, but added some of them into The Celestial Railroad based on the same material, and more into the Fourth Symphony scherzo based on the CRR. Kirkpatrick liked them and some other pianists have adopted them to various degrees. I think that passage really benefits from them, and it kills me that Ives considered adding them to the 1947 edition and didn’t.

  4. Rhys Chatham says

    I love your articles, Kyle! And this one has a moral that applies to certain downtowners that I know, and NOT just me and that certain other unpleasant person! 😉

    KG replies: Rhys, what a pleasure to hear from you. And I can spend the rest of my spring break trying to think whom you’re referring to.

  5. says

    Interesting article Kyle, certainly it is difficult to believe that such exceptional composers would revise works just to falsify history or to become more fashionable.

    It was in the 1970’s, I think, when Boulez would conduct the earlier versions of certain works by Bartok and Stravinsky, claiming they were better than the revised versions. I had always assumed it was him as a composer seeing an element in the original the originals that had been lost in the newer versions. Certainly with certain punk and synth band music, the earlier songs are usually better than the later ones because they are rougher.

    KG replies: I followed Boulez as a critic in the ’80s, and I always got the impression that he would program the weakest works of Bartok and Stravinsky next to his own music – presumably so his would sound better by comparison.

  6. says

    It’s such a shame when charges like this, even once refuted, just don’t die. Partly, it’s the “juicy” sensationalism that must keep it going, though in this case, the charge just seem silly, for all the reasons you note.

  7. my says

    Can’t wait to read this book! This whole argument just seems like musicologist armchair quarterbacking- those folks seem to forget that there are actual, untrained LISTENERS in the world whose initial contact/romance with the music was based, you know, on how it sounded and nothing else. As a listener, I personally wouldn’t care if Ives wrote all of his music a year before his death and just backdated it all- it’d sound no less wonderful to me. The fact that people still trot out this tired argument is embarrassing, and the regard that Carter had for himself is similarly so. I mean, Wagner was pretty much a nazi before there was a word for it, and he certainly got a lifetime pass, no? So who cares if a brilliant composer threw a few 9ths into a REVISED score, which sound wonderful btw? The fact that so many people take stuff like this so seriously is why classical music seems so intimidating to outsiders who’d otherwise like the music itself. It’d be like casually getting interested in football but then having John Madden explain it to you.

    KG replies: I agree completely, except that I don’t know who John Madden is.

  8. says

    It seems to me that constant revision was simply part of Ives’s personality and aesthetic. Even when he sent that crate of music to the young Lou Harrison, he had to scribbles changes on the photostats. That’s just the way he worked.

    Of course, as time passes, the question of historicity becomes less important. I’m less interested in who wrote dissonances first, and more in what they did with them.