Keeping Score | Charles Ives: Holidays Symphony (FULL DOCUMENTARY AND CONCERT)

This is music by Charles Ives America’s contrary musical pioneer and prophet It’s music that veers between tender sentiment and savage chaos Ives’ music is multidimensional -Very complex -Unexpected It kind of reminds me of a three-ring circus All three rings were active at the same time Church music, march music Sounds coming from left, right, up, down, middle All over the place All thrown together in a wonderful meal Ives totally succeeds in shocking people Very on-the-edge music He’s not out there looking for public acceptance He kind of creates a different world in each piece He just wanted to express himself In this New England house, Charles Ives lived and composed during the early decades of the 20th century We’re here in this small narrow room, his study in Redding, Connecticut And from this small room with its tiny piano he unleashed the furious forces that are still challenging our ideas of what music can be even today When I first heard his music, I was about 13 and I didn’t know what to make of it I thought, it’s so contrary and confusing It’s like first, he lulls me with the most beautiful melodies like: And then he jabs at me with musical uppercuts like: What’s he trying to do? Does he wanna provoke me into standing up and kind of slugging it out with him for truth, beauty, and the American way? And certainly, one of the things Ives wants to do is to provoke us To challenge us to think about music in ways we never have And this is so unusual for a composer of his generation an American composer, especially In fact, nothing about his life would lead us to suspect that he would have such ideas Charlie Ives was a totally regular guy As a lad, he was a star baseball player He went to Yale, where he wrote for the glee club and marching band He played piano in vaudeville houses and wrote lullabies and campaign songs He became a very successful businessman owning and managing an insurance company He was a loyal husband, regular churchgoer and contributor to high-minded causes If he were alive today, they’d run him for president But when it came to music, Ives was a total original Utterly uncompromising and way ahead of his time Yet tellingly, most of the raw material for his forward-looking music came from his past Charlie loved his small-town New England upbringing His music was a distillation of cherished memories

which began in this house in Danbury, Connecticut His “Holidays Symphony” recalls lots of the boyhood he experienced right here in this house and even more, it enshrined the world of his father, George Ives George Ives had been a bandmaster in the Civil War and he later devoted himself to his son’s musical education One of the things he asked the young Charlie to do was to sing very famous melodies while he accompanied him in a totally different key He had to hold his own Jack Morris, a distant relative of Ives, helped us re-create the experiment George Ives was Danbury’s bandmaster and he was always trying new quirky musical ideas One of the most famous was an extreme version of his piano experiment He had two bands march toward each other playing different songs in different keys and tempos just so he could hear what would happen when they collided The second source of Ives’ inspiration was his family’s long appreciation of the writings of great American transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau, the defiant nonconformist who communed with nature at Walden Pond And Ralph Waldo Emerson, who urged young artists to go it alone, refuse models even those most sacred in the imagination of men That’s just what Ives did He was the first American composer brave enough to follow Emerson’s advice Like the transcendentalists Ives wanted to express his experience and relationship to the natural world He thought of his pieces as worlds of sound with independent streams flowing through them expressing the wonder and the riddle of life Ives worried that Americans were losing touch with those essential qualities under the relentless assault of prosperity Most of his music was written between 1900 and 1920 the years when America became a world power But, Ives wondered, at what cost to its soul? These bygone ideals were symbolized for him by old sounds The sounds of familiar hymns and folk songs The wonderful racket of marching bands Country fiddlers and smithies Church bells and explosions of fireworks on the green They were all there in his music part of a kind of design of sound whose haunted quality witnessed the sorrow that these things were disappearing and his defiance of the forces that were causing that disappearance To preserve the essence of the America he loved Ives created mementos of four perfect childhood days one from each of the four seasons These musical pictures became his symphony: “Holidays in a Connecticut Country Town.” The first movement of “Holidays” is “George Washington’s Birthday.”

It’s February 22nd, so it’s right in the dead of winter And Ives uses this opportunity to explore the loneliness, the isolation the snowed-in claustrophobia of the season Here’s how Ives described the scene: There is, at times, a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter which settles down grimly in a quiet but restless monotony The piece begins in a typical wistful mood Ives recalling some utterly commonplace memory like someone whistling or singing mindlessly to himself Something like this: But Ives transforms this simple memory into something dark, mournful, mysterious by harmonizing it with this chord: Sustained by trembling strings and then just giving us a couple of notes of the tune which seems to drift between different keys And there’s a sense of uneasiness provided by the moaning accompaniment of second violins and violas The music comes to us mostly in slow waves of sound but then the strings all line up and whip themselves into a frenzy that recalls the howling of snowstorms The music gradually calms down And then Ives cuts away from the bleak, snowy moodscape to the sweaty bustle of a barn dance Barn dances and village celebrations meant a lot to Ives Fragments of the tunes he heard would later find their way into his music Ives’ legacy was celebrated by San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival when a group of symphony musicians created their own down-home medley of tunes Ives quoted in his “Holidays Symphony.” When you’re playing Bach you’re constantly worried about making mistakes Well, in fiddle mode, anything you do is fine There’s no mistakes Other composers before Ives had used folk music in their pieces but they mostly had “corrected” the so-called mistakes of the folk performers Not Ives The more quirky, the more idiomatic, the more wrong notes and shoves and pokes there were, the better he liked it That was what he wanted to bring to his barn dance To get this kind of effect, Ives had to go way out on a compositional limb

He had to imagine how to notate all these quirky improvisations of these musicians in such a way that members of an orchestra could also play them That was tough Ives ramps up the quirkiness of the scene with the sudden arrival of the so-called jew’s harp a folk instrument you normally wouldn’t see in a concert hall The music gets wilder and crazier until, as is so frequent in Ives’ pieces it comes to a complete confrontational crunch And then out of the chaos floats a serene melody as the dancers take their leave The music’s almost too beautiful like an affectionate takeoff of sentimental parlor music of the day But here’s what makes it Ivesian At the same time, there’s a completely independent and unrelated strand of other music going on It’s the music the guy on the porch plays Ives tells us that in the old days, the musicians would go out to the porch and take a break, and out there, they could play whatever they wanted In “Washington’s Birthday” the part I’m playing is the part of a fiddler who’s done for the evening and is sitting out on the porch outside practicing a fiddle part that has nothing whatsoever to do with what’s going on on-stage The last music at the barn dance is “Good night, Ladies” but Ives brings back those sad harmonies from the beginning of the piece to suggest just how sad and far away the memory now is In 1894, Ives went to study music at Yale He threw himself into student life, composing music of every kind from glee-club songs to marches In fact, he became known as “Dasher” Ives, a big man on campus It was here at Yale that Ives came into focus as a composer partially from what he learned here and very much because he had to defend his ever more original ideas against the tut-tuts of the conservative crowd All original artists need to do that From my perspective, the American original whose life and work closely parallel what Ives set out to do was the transcendentalist Walt Whitman

Whitman, 50 years before Ives, had blazed an original artistic trail when he took matters into his own hands and set some of the type for the first edition of his epic work ‘Leaves of Grass,’ a work that he spent his entire life on There are so many Whitman-Ives parallels Whitman was obsessed with memories And like Ives, he was particularly obsessed with memories of childhood “There was a child went forth every day And the first object he look’d upon That object he became And that object became part of him For the day Or for many cycles of years.” Like Ives, Whitman loved music and sounds of all kinds He loved work songs and folk dances and grand opera and blacksmiths screaming away And he loved squeals of streetcar brakes and cracking of horsewhips It’s all there, references to sound and music abound in his poems And he even thought of writing a grand poem about the power of music But I think Ives’ vision went beyond Whitman’s I think Ives was imagining all the songs of the people of the earth seemingly in conflict with one another yet from a greater perspective, all merging into one vast song of mankind The second movement of “Holidays” is “Decoration Day.” It’s now known as “Memorial Day” and honors the sacrifice of soldiers who’ve been lost in America’s many wars But originally, it was to honor and remember the dead of the Civil War It was a very personal holiday Every little town across New England and all the Union states people had lost folks near and dear to them So the sadness was very real Ives’ father, George, told his son of his personal experiences as the Union’s youngest bandmaster But for him, there was little sense of exultant victory in this war The saddest thing about it was the loss of the ideals of the innocence of the young republic That was the enduring tragedy And that’s the sadness that echoes in the opening pages of “Decoration Day” and indeed in all of the “Holidays Symphony.” “Decoration Day” is a springtime holiday, when flowers are blossoming For Ives, flowers were also symbols of sacrifice especially the savagely overgrown lilacs that marked the doorways of the abandoned homesteads of soldiers killed in the Civil War It’s these associations which set the mood for the opening of “Decoration Day.” Musically, “Decoration Day” begins much as “Washington’s Birthday” did in quiet dreamscape Ives drops in a few little motives like secrets to the mystery The first is the first four notes of “Adeste Fideles” “Come, All Ye Faithful.” O come, all ye faithful This drifts into a small fragment of a tune we don’t know anymore but Ives called “Flower Music.” It’s played by the English horn And then that drifts to a special Ivesian secret

It’s a motive he used in many pieces that he said represented the big question of the universe: Why do we exist? And it goes like this: But here, he’s rather trickily divided it between the violins So here’s the stream of clues as Ives presents it to us There then follows a truly beautiful and original rhapsody the rises and falls of the music perhaps representing the different currents of emotions in the mourners as they gather the flowers In the early morning, the garden and woods about the village are the meeting places of those who with tender memories and devoted hands gather the flowers for the day’s memorial After the town hall is filled with the spring’s harvest of lilacs the parade is slowly formed on Main Street The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets This is what Ives is trying to preserve, music and memory The band didn’t know any real funeral marches so they took a song they did know, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and played the tune like a dirge But in “Decoration Day,” Ives takes it all a step further to a new level of strangeness and sadness Ives completes the mysterious mood by using one of his favorite tricks, shadow instruments Shadow instruments play little bits of tunes that mournfully meander the musical landscape Sometimes they play so quietly it’s almost impossible to hear them Are you ready to give us some sounds, Tom? Yeah, whenever you’d like Okay, what do the hand bells sound like? Little harder? Softer is better, I think In “Decoration Day” when I’m playing in unison with a second violin player and the mood, I really think, is sort of a weeping type of sound It’s just two notes, but it’s over and over again And it has to be shaped just right A little bit of diminuendo on each two notes and kind of laid back and just calm This thing keeps going sort of not really wanting to be woken from its slumber Now Ives turns his attention to the day’s closing ceremonies

After the last grave is decorated taps sounds out through the pines and hickories Taps is almost expressionless although there is the human element of vibrato to express sentiment and, in this case, sorrow, a loss of a loved one Ives asks for the trumpet to be in the distance as far as possible or as quiet as possible Then the ranks are formed again and we all march back to town to a Yankee stimulant Reeves’ inspiring “Second Regimental Quickstep.” There’s another confrontational crunch Suddenly cuts off, revealing the English horn and its “Flower Music” leading to our old question, the meaning of existence Which this time is answered with the chords that we know mean, “amen.” And in the far distance, just a little shadow of taps When Ives graduated from Yale, he continued with his music But professionally, he launched himself into the world of New York City business Those early years of the 20th century were a golden age for commerce and Ives made the most of it But music remained the focus of his spirit Ives conceived most of “Holidays” between 1897 and 1913 but it took him almost another 20 years to finally finish it and let go of it He worked away quite furiously but on evenings, on weekends and on the odd spare day The rest of the time, he was here in New York’s financial district on Wall Street where he had become the co-founder and head executive of a major insurance company, Ives & Myrick Wall Street supported Ives’ art, but it didn’t nurture his soul It was out here in nature that he gathered inspiration for his music Unlike many successful businessmen, he used his wealth to simplify his life building his own Walden-like retreat in the countryside

At first, it was just a place to camp out on the weekends But gradually, it became his primary residence And here in the silence of the country he was able to withdraw from the world and focus more and more on his inner vision Ives’ “Fourth of July” captures the essence of a boy’s most exciting summer day That day begins in the quiet of the midnight before and grows raucous with the sun Everybody knows what it’s like And if anybody doesn’t, it’s a village band on Main Street Church bells, fifes, clam chowder a prizefight, burnt shins, a baseball game Danbury All-Stars vs. Beaver Brook Boys Red, white and blue Parades in and out of step Musically, “The Fourth of July” is a remembrance of marching bands playing “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” surrounded by the gorgeous chaos of the day It starts again in dreamscape where we hear the tune played in mournful harmonies against a kind of shadowed parody of itself Then the double basses begin to try out a phrase or two of “Columbia” with haunting harmonies, typical Ives stuff And then the whole rest of the orchestra kind of raggedly falls in playing bits and pieces of all kinds of familiar tunes including an Ivesian version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He preserves all the American tunes These were like sound images of his world I got the trombones behind me playing “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” It’s just one big bash, one big party, and And then around the corner comes a fife-and-drum corps and wouldn’t you know it, they’re out of sync with the rest of the orchestra and in a different key Fife-and-drum corps, marching bands Ives captures all the energy and chaos of a New England Fourth in music so complex it needs a second conductor But remember, this piece is a lot more than just an arrangement of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” It’s an evocation of the whole wild hoopla of the occasion And to create that kind of joyous chaos Ives divides the orchestra into many different groups The brass are playing “Columbia” but everybody else practically is playing something completely different And inside of the wild noise, people are playing things like this: And this: And how about this: And craziest of all:

And when it’s all played together with the brass it makes what we call a sensory overload and what Ives would have called the whole shebang There’s a sudden silence And then the first rocket arches its way up into the sky Followed by a burst of fireworks It all comes to a typical Ivesian crunch And then, things fall back into silence as the last few glimmers of sparks disappear into the night The musical roots of Ives’ “Thanksgiving” can be traced to his college days back in New Haven He never expected most of his compositions to be played in public But he did have experience as a practical musician particularly during those years when he played right here in Center Church in New Haven as the organist He liked the experience of the Sunday services the sense of communion and contemplation of the eternal And this was a great spot for him Hidden away here at the organ, an instrument of enormous power he could unleash his fantastic new experiments on the audience below Imagine their reaction when in November, 1897 he played them this: From this music grew the last movement of “Holidays,” “Thanksgiving.” It was the first to be imagined and the last to be completed All in all, he worked on it for over 30 years Essentially, “Thanksgiving” is a procession It’s a procession through time And it shows us the changes in people’s spirit that occur when different ideas confront one another and test one another Ives represents this right at the beginning of the piece when the orchestra is divided into groups playing hymns in two opposing keys He thought that this music might represent the sternness of character of the Puritans Most prominent is the traditional Thanksgiving hymn tune: “The Shining Shore.” The bits of hymn tunes strive with one another becoming more violent and agitated And then suddenly, the whole bottom drops out We hear this amazing music

that Ives tells us represents the swing of a scythe But is it the farmer’s scythe harvesting his crops or is it death mowing down generations of men? And did you notice the big outline of the music is another version of Ives’ question-of-the-universe motive? The music quiets down And then, little by little, a group of bells enter They’re all intoning minor thirds To me, these motives sound like people calling to one another in a big wilderness Maybe calling people’s names, like: Charlie Anna Or maybe it’s something as simple as, “Yoo-hoo, anybody there?” Whatever, it makes a landscape of loneliness And then, one last bell ushers in a whole new world It’s like a warm memory you’d have of sitting around your own Thanksgiving table And in it, Ives seems to anticipate the world of Copland and Gershwin although being Ives, there’s always that little “Yoo-hoo” off somewhere And then the music chugs its way towards some kind of celebration Maybe a revivalist meeting, with lots of shouting and stomping We come back to the quiet “Shining Shore” and then the procession resumes It seems as if the music is headed for one of those inevitable Ivesian confrontational crunches But just when the tension seems unbearable Ives has a surprise for us The Thanksgiving hymn “Duke Street” sounds out

surrounded by an abundance of marches, tolling bells It’s cosmic The choir begins a little round on the words: “Worship thee, worship thee.” And the whole procession passes into the distance the songs merging into one universal hymn of mankind Still getting quieter and quieter we come to one last “amen” with, wouldn’t you know it the bells playing that remaining question Recognition came late to Ives In 1951, on live radio Leonard Bernstein premiered Ives’ “Second Symphony” 50 years after it was written The story goes that Ives listened to the performance here on a radio in West Redding When he was finished, he went for a walk in the woods For most of his life, those who’d even heard of Ives considered him a mad eccentric But he had his champions like the young Aaron Copland and Lou Harrison His work was honored with a Pulitzer Prize “Prizes are badges of mediocrity,” he told The Bridgeport Herald But he knew that the message of his music was getting through Over the years, people began to understand that it wasn’t about his being modern anymore It was about what he expressed in his music What his music was all about were those reminiscences which were the starting points on his voyage into the unconscious For Ives, songs were memories And memories were the keys that unlocked his art and shaped his whole life This bulletin board, in fact, this whole inner sanctum tells the story It’s like one big scrapbook Everything’s here His father’s cornet Poster of his first organ recital They’re all witness to those moments when he felt the urge to play ball the urge to make music, the urge to do business the urge to get at the truth Do it all generously and pass it on Thank you, Charlie At the beginning of the 20th century Charles Ives saw honored traditions being swept away by the relentless power of prosperity and standardization He recalled the values of his youth in familiar marches, hymns, and folk songs but created a sound distinctively his own that would transform the course of American music Hello, I’m Michael Tilson Thomas here in Davies Symphony Hall

for a specially conceived video presentation of Charles Ives’ symphony, “Holidays in a Connecticut Country Town.” Ives was a contrary musical pioneer, a prophet And he still challenges us to experience music in a different way The San Francisco Symphony and I will be playing this visionary piece a sonic montage that is unmistakably American As a guide to listeners, Ives provided the following notes Washington’s Birthday “‘Cold and solitude,’ says Thoreau, ‘are friends of mine.’ Now is the time, before the wind rises, to go forth and see the snow on the trees And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating in a New England midwinter which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken hills In such a scene, it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in this somber landscape in the quiet, but restless monotony.” The older folks sit The clean-winged hearth about Shut in from all the world without Content to let the north wind roar In baffled rage at pane and door So writes Whittier “But to the younger generation, a winter holiday means action And down through Swamp Hollow and over the hill road they go afoot or in sleighs, through the drifting snow to the barn dance at the Center The village band of fiddles, fife and horn keeps up an unending breakdown medley the young folks salute their partners and balance corners till midnight As the party breaks up the sentimental songs of those days are sung while out on the porch, a lone fiddler keeps playing away at his favorite fling At last, with the inevitable ‘adieu’ to the ladies the social gives way to the gray bleakness of the February night.” Decoration Day

“In the early morning, the garden and woods about the village

are the meeting places of those who with tender memories and devoted hands gather the flowers for the day’s memorial During the forenoon, as the people join each other on the green there is felt at times a fervency and intensity a shadow, perhaps, of the fanatical harshness reflecting the old abolitionist days It is a day, Thoreau suggests when there is a pervading consciousness of nature’s kinship with the lower-order man After the town hall is filled with the spring’s harvest of lilacs, daisies and peonies the parade is slowly formed on Main Street First come the three marshals on plow horses going sideways and then the warden and burgesses in carriages then the village cornet band of the militia, Company G while the volunteer fire brigade drawing the decorated hose cart with its jangling bells brings up the rear the inevitable swarm of small boys following The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets The roll of muffled drums and ‘Adestes Fideles’ answer for the dirge A little girl on a fence post waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg After the last grave is decorated taps sounds out through the pines and hickories while a last hymn is sung And then the ranks are formed again, and we all march back to town to a Yankee stimulant Reeves’ inspiring Second Regimental Quickstep though to many a soldier the somber thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band The march stops and in the silence, the shadow of the early-morning flower song rises over the town and the sunset behind West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the day.” The Fourth of July

“It’s a boy’s 4th

No historical orations, no patriotic grandiloquence by grown-ups no program in his yard But that boy knows what he’s celebrating better than some of the county politicians And he celebrates it in his own way with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism It starts in the quiet midnight before and grows raucous with the sun Everybody knows what it’s like If everybody doesn’t it’s cannon onto the green, village band on Main Street firecrackers under tin cans cornets, torpedoes, church bells, fifes clam chowder, a prize fight, skinned shins parades, in and out of step saloons all closed and more drunks on the street than usual A baseball game, the Danbury All-Stars versus the Beaver Brook Boys

‘Kill the umpire,’ red, white and blue, a runaway horse And the day ends with the skyrocket over the church steeple just after the annual explosion sets the town hall on fire.” Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day

“The Pilgrims took the measure of the promised shore The land was vast, needing to be tamed Nothing given, nothing easy With stern resolve, they set about their task The soil was thin, the days short the seas came up a scraggly tangle with its thriving weeds They worked the land, they worked their souls Hymns sung by untutored voices proclaimed the ardor of their exclusive creed Conflict grew, and drums and shouts made ragged counterpoint with the clashing anthems offering praise for home and harvest The scythes swung and cut the grain as a greater reaper moved amongst the mowers The seasons turned passing bells rang and voices called out and echoed and asked why And centuries later, the families gather in warmth and comfort Pungent scents, rich flavors lull them to mellowness And across town, revivalists are shouting and stomping And at the end of the day almost nobody hears the little bell that still rings on coming from very far away, or perhaps from very close inside In the tolling, the old questions remain But the land has space for many visions And all at once, many voices acclaim the promise that still remains And the sacrifice of those who trod the wintry strand ‘In praise and prayer, they worship thee,’ sing the voices through the chaos of hymns and marches all vanishing in the distance all seemingly in conflict yet, perhaps, from another perspective merging into one universal song of mankind A last amen is murmured and the little bell has its final say.” Ives was after recovering a lost world

which, even in his time, he mourned greatly

Like many of the post-transcendentalist thinkers in the United States

he, his father, regarded the Civil War in America

as really the death of the American Republic and all of its ideals And so he was trying to preserve, while he still could remember it the feeling of these smaller towns in America where some of the original spirit of the democratic experiment existed with all of their little rituals, the dances, the barn raisings the different occasions of life It was very meaningful for him It was very mournful in a way, which is I would say, the overriding mood of his music He says at the beginning, slowly and expressively And then you’ve got, whatever, a hundred and something bars of very intricate, complexly-voiced music with no other instruction, except maybe a few sforzandi three or four of them, and possibly a couple of sketchy dynamics And so that’s a real problem as a musician to say, “What am I to do with this great mass of terrain?” And I asked John Kirkpatrick– Who was a major scholar and friend of Ives –about that once And he said, “Oh, well, that’s Charlie You know, he just expects you to dope the whole thing out by yourself You’re gonna have to live through the same process he did to write it And that’s why there are no clues there You’re just gonna have to play it note by note chord by chord, dissonance succeeding dissonance until it makes sense to you.” He is certainly our most important composer and he’s become a much more influential composer internationally I mean, composers even like Stockhausen and his electronic pieces in the ’70s were really doing things that Ives had done many, many years before 50 years before It’s kind of, how would one say a kind of approach to sound design really The borderline between musical forms and kind of musical situations acoustic situations, which have a kind of expressive meaning But I think what’s happening now with his music particularly in the United States is that the issue of how far ahead of his time he may have been is becoming less and less important as performances are gradually really dealing with the expressive message of his pieces You know, it’s a big 20th-century struggle What’s more important the exact position of a particular note in time or a sense of the stream of thought that motivates a particular musical line? And it seems that for Ives, probably, the idea of these separate streams all being independently operative, pulling at one another, was the idea I think now people are getting freer at accepting that really what they’re doing is playing “Turkey in the Straw” or “Just As I Am” or something that comes from this vernacular tradition But it happens to be in a particularly out of sync place inside the music And you can just kind of launch yourself into that place and then kind of hold your own against the rest And that’s much more exciting to do