Leonard Bernstein did Charles Ives an incomparable service when in the 1950s he premiered and recorded Ives’s Second Symphony. But Bernstein did Ives a disservice when in a program note for that work – a compromised encomium not unlike the back-handed compliments Bernstein would dole out to George Gershwin – he called Ives an inspired “primitive” and compared him to the painter Grandma Moses.
A recent Ives festival at the University of Washington – a week packed with concerts, lectures, panels, classes, a lecture/recital, a master class, all under the aegis of Larry Starr of the School of Music — feasted upon Ives’s largesse of scope and spirit. The absurdity of Bernstein’s words haunted me throughout.
An orchestral program, kicking off the UW festival, offered three Ives works. But the main offering was a European masterwork: Sibelius’s Second Symphony. The Sibelius (strongly conducted by a graduate student), whatever else one makes of it, is a symphony saturated with cliché, clinched by a tub-thumping finale. It occurred to me, experiencing this movement’s banal trumpet fanfares, that Ives is a composer who never succumbs to the banal. His endings, in particular, are immune to the predictable or formulaic. A case in point: “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” (sung UW by the baritone William Sharp, a peerless Ives interpreter), with an ending so surprising, original, and right that it never fails to stun the awaiting listener.
In fact, a signature Ives trait is his way of recontextualizing cliché with irony; his music of course abounds in clichés, but every one of them is enclosed by quotation marks. How he acquired this habit – so precisely in parallel with Gustav Mahler an ocean away – I cannot say. The cranky example of his father, tweaking the Connecticut bourgeoisie, must have something to do with it. Or perhaps this is an instance of Ives’s fear of sentimentality and the genteel, a strategy for dealing with his own susceptibility to high but conventional feeling.
Bernstein’s characterization of Ives as a primitive also masks Ives’s compositional sophistication. Proof of that, if proof were needed, is a German song Ives set at Yale: “Feldeinsamkeit,” composed alongside Brahms’s famous setting of the same Hermann Allmers poem. Sharp, at UW, sang (sublimely) the two Feldeinsamkeits in tandem. And he reminded us that George Chadwick told Horatio Parker, Ives’s Yale teacher, “That’s as good a song as you could write.” It’s more than that: as several audience members felt impelled to remark at UW, it’s as good a song as the Brahms.
Sibelius of course went on to far greater things than his Second Symphony. He composed it in 1902 when he was 37.
Ives composed “Feldeinsamkeit” in 1897 at the age of 23.