On hearing all four Ives symphonies on a single concert (Spring for Music, May 10, the Detroit Symphony, Leonard Slatkin):
The fourth, despite its bristling reputation — so much dissonance! needs more than one conductor! full of wild collages! — is the easiest to hear. Maybe some people in the old-line classical audience would find it difficult, but for anyone who swims in contemporary culture, it’s a rapt and sometimes romping soundscape. You just sit back, and let it flow. The other symphonies, by contrast, will make most sense if you follow their symphonic form, their unfolding of musical themes and motifs.
Which makes the third symphony the hardest to follow, because its symphonic form is attenuated, introverted, hard to hear.
The most astonishing of these pieces is the first, though it’s also the most traditional. It’s astounding because Ives wrote it when he was in college! And already was just about a master of German symphonic form.
The most impressive — and the most deeply fulfilling (for me, at least) — movement in these symphonies is the third movement of the second. Because, written at a time when classical music was an European art, and “American composer” was an oxymoron, it conjures a perfect fusion of Europe and America. As if the two traditions had always been the same.
More on all of this:
The fourth symphony comes with a backstory, almost a mythology. It seemed too difficult to ever be performed. And then, when Leopold Stokowski conducted the first complete performance in 1965, many people couldn’t understand it. (Leonard Slatkin himself had been there, as he said at the Detroit concert, and couldn’t comprehend the piece.)
But those days have — or by now should have — vanished into the past. As perhaps should another trope in the symphony’s mythology (and, more generally, the Ives mythology), which is to marvel at how Ives wrote modernist music before Schoenberg and the other European modernists.
Which is true, but misleading, because Ives was doing something very different. The plainest mark of Schoenberg’s modernism is how dissonant his music grew. At first, in Schoenberg’s free atonal music, this dissonance was searing, angst-filled. Later, in his 12-tone works, the dissonance supposedly was neutral. The 12 tones of the chromatic scale were equal. End of story.
For Ives, too, the most obvious modern trait was dissonance. But it had a different meaning, an American meaning, which isn’t well remembered now, but which we also find in other American modernist composers (Dane Rudhyar, for instance). Dissonance, in its American construction, suggests huge and universal things, democracy, masses of people. And, for Ives, manliness. “Stand up,” he’d shout at concerts, “and take your dissonance like a man!”
So we can hail him as a pioneer, and patriotically praise him for being first. But he was doing something different. Linking him to Schoenberg doesn’t quite make sense. What Ives most anticipated, in my view, was postmodernism. Just look at the third movement of the fourth symphony, a deeply peaceful fugue, wholly tonal, glowing comfortably next to all the modernist collage.
No European modernist would have done anything like that. It’s as if Kandinsky, on fire with his first abstractions, had made a large, realistic, reverent painting of people worshipping in church. Unthinkable. But for Ives it’s simply what he did.
I think I’ve gone on long enough for now. I’ll continue this post next week. Tomorrow I’ll unveil something new in the blog, the Friday Post, in which, each week, I’ll share things that have come my way, and which you might like to know about.