The Missteps of Genius

God knows I think Charles Ives is god – or rather, Charlie knows I worship him – and I bristle like hell when he’s called an amateur, but I have to admit his rhythmic notation makes me tear what’s left of my hair at moments. Below are mm. 84-86 as taken from the second movement of the Piano Sonata No. 1, and below that the corrected rhythmic notation as I feel sure he intended it:



In the original, the first half of the first measure has only seven 32nds duration in the right hand, and the second half of the second measure has twelve 32nds instead of eight. Now, poor Lou Harrison edited this from the manuscript, and perhaps the mistake is his addition. But Ives does seem to get befuddled when he starts using 32nd-notes and 64th-notes, and I’m not convinced that his conception of a double-dotted note matches what most of us think it is. I’ve made my alterations based on how the rhythmic motive plays out in the rest of the passage, and on how the two hands are laid out relative to each other. The point is to show how Ives used ragtime rhythms and motives to create static textures of phrases going out of phase with each other.

I’m analyzing the First Sonata to have something to use as a contrast to the Concord, and that chapter is threatening to become an entire second book. I have to guiltily admit, too – I think I slightly prefer the First Sonata to the far more celebrated Second. Jeremy Denk tells me that the First is harder to play. And there are many places in it where I recoil from what’s on the page and think Ives clearly meant something else. We’ve never had a clear, fully professionally engraved score of either work, nor are likely to in the forseeable future.




  1. says

    In case you haven’t seen it, Ives made the NY Times crossword puzzle today.

    KG replies: Aaa! Tried to look, they wanted me to subscribe. I’ll check with my wife, she does ’em.

  2. Joe Kubera says

    Yep, I’ve always played that just as you’ve re-written it.

    KG replies: Glad for the confirmation. While you’re here, there are two identical systems at the bottom of page 44, only one is missing the dynamics. I have a suspicion that the same two measures accidentally got printed twice. Any thoughts?

    • kea says

      I’m about 98% sure that’s what happened—those two bars would make musical nonsense if repeated. However I don’t have a recording of the 1st sonata to check against (and only the score from IMSLP, which is not in the best of shape). No idea why it’s so much less played, apart from the difficulty of course.

      KG replies: The two recordings I’ve checked follow the score as printed.

    • Joe Kubera says

      I haven’t played that movement (with the repeated bars); I’ve played the “In the Inn” mvt. and the slow movement following, as contrast in Ives song recitals. My first thought would probably have been to play the repeated bars, since I’m usually such a slave to what’s on the page (not that I’m proud of that).

      KG replies: I haven’t looked at the PSon 1 ms since analyzing the piece, and I’ll be doing that at Yale again in late May. I’ll post what I learn about it then. The second and fourth movement mss are apparently a real mess. It’s a tragedy that the finished score Ives made and sent to Dr. Griggs got lost.

  3. David Goodine says

    Hi Kyle,
    I agree the First Piano Sonata is as much a conundrum as the Concord and, in many ways, just as awe-inspiring. And there seems to be at least 3 versions out there- the one Lou Harrison helped whip into shape in the 40’s from the original rough manuscript after Ives’ own completed version was lost; the one presented by John Kirkpatrick to William Masselos with Ives’ revisions (after the lost version but pre-Harrison), as described in the LP liner notes of Masselos’ re-recording from the mid-Sixties; and the one performed by Donna Coleman that was ‘deriv(ed) from the 1910 ink copy in Ives’ hand.’
    Have you put together a list of recordings like the Concord?

    KG replies: I’m not, yet. I didn’t plan to go that deep into it, but my Scorpio nature always manages to drive me deeper. And while I’ve studied the ms., I need to get a copy of it.

  4. Aaron Likness says


    I am actually in the early stages of dissertation research on this sonata, building on work I did while preparing it for performance a few years ago. I think you might be looking at an outdated edition of the sonata; after the first printing, it was revised in 1979 by Paul Echols, and again in 1990 with corrections added by John Buchanan and Jerry Bramblett. There are still a few errors here and there, unfortunately.

    In my score, the first eighth value in the RH of the bars you include above agrees with your correction; the second eighth, though, is not syncopated, but matches the first eighth (i.e., two 32nds followed by a 16th, the first note of which is tied over from the B natural). This matches the copy by Emil Hanke which was included in Harrison’s bound score (as well as, I’m quite sure, the New Music Edition publication of Set for Theatre Orchestra), so perhaps the error crept in for the 1954 printing. That last B-flat in the second bar is corrected in my 1990 ed. to a double-dotted sixteenth (which reads as a double-dotted eighth in the Hanke copy). I do play this as you have it, though, a single-dotted sixteenth.

    Regarding your point above, about p. 44— I think this must be an error in an earlier edition. From the p. 44 I’m looking at (which includes mm. 129-133 of mvt V) there are no repetitions.

    KG replies: Thanks for letting me know, Aaron, I’ve still got the score I bought in high school in the 19th century. Page 44 in it is mm. 129-136. I just ordered a new one, and I hope it’s updated – it’s listed as 56 pp., instead of the old 50, so although the year isn’t given I hope it’s the newer one.

  5. Peter Mueller says

    One difference between the two excerpts you haven’t mentioned is the pitches in the left hand in measure 86, specifically the bass clef E- C# in the older excerpt contrasted with the treble C# – F in the newer. I realize you’re writing about the rhythms, but I’m curious as to why the pitches are different.

    KG replies: The resolution on these jpegs is a little fuzzy on the screen, but you’ll get a sharper version by clicking on them. The second is just my rewriting of the published notation. They’re both C#-F.

    • Peter Mueller says

      Are we talking about the same place – 3rd eighth of the third bar of the excerpts, i.e last 8th of your left hand 5/8?

      KG replies: Oh, I see. That’s my mistake, from cutting and pasting without making all the changes. The lower example is mine, not Ives’s. Don’t have energy to fix it.