Charles Ives' Prescient Impressions in Hi-Rez

Judging from Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot's latest recording of the orchestral works of Charles Ives (1874–1954), much of his totally iconoclastic oeuvre sounds as if it could have been inspired by present day events. Ninety-one years since Ives ceased composing, his anything but conventional music continues to cast light on the contrasting and conflicting elements that make America the current meltdown melting pot that it is.

Take, for example, the four pieces of A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904–13), which is also known as the Holidays Symphony. An American Four Seasons of sorts, its movements (which can be performed separately) begin with "Washington's Birthday" and "Decoration Day" (now called Memorial Day), and extend through "The Fourth of July" and "Thanksgiving and Forefather's Day." In each movement, Ives weaves threads of sometimes barely recognizable patriotic, folk, and hymn tunes, along with representations of nature and reflections on current and past events, into a uniquely American patchwork quilt.

The symphony's deeply moving "Decoration Day" conveys Ives' thoughts about a holiday that was initially intended to honor those killed in the Civil War (1861–1865). According to Ives' detailed program notes, "Decoration Day" begins in the early morning, when the gardens and woods around the village serve as meeting places for those who, "with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day's Memorial."

As the music builds, and people gather on the Village Green, Ives strives to convey "a fervency and intensity—a shadow perhaps of the fanatic harshness-reflecting old Abolitionist days." Eventually, in a movement that lasts 9:38 under Morlot's baton, the music morphs into a fabulous march to Wooster Cemetery that includes the Village Cornet Band, Militia, volunteer Fire Brigade, and a swarm of boys following a decorated horse-cart. "A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father, and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg," writes Ives. After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds in the distance, and a final hymn is sung. The music of "Decoration Day" grows increasingly raucous as people march to town "to a Yankee stimulant-Reeves inspiring Second Regiment Quickstep," while some in the crowd, instead of marching in step, dwell in unresolved feelings about the Civil War.

Unresolved feelings? As in the terrible confrontation that recently took place in Charlottesville, VA over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee? Over 100 years after Ives wrote the piece, we're still wrestling with the same feelings.

That's just one of the movements. In "The Fourth of July," which Ives once called "the best thing I've written," music that starts sad and murky gives way to the somewhat off-pitch strains of "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." (Imagine a small-town volunteer band composed of octogenarians bravely blasting away under the gazebo.) Snatches of other tunes soon come together in a huge assault where fife and drums played by everyone and their mother compete with a prize-fight, drunks, a baseball game, sky rockets, and yes, the annual explosion that literally sets the Town Hall on fire.

All of these events and feelings Ives conveys in astounding pastiches in which conventional rhythmic structure and harmonies teeter, totter, and fall by the wayside. This is ultimate stream-of-consciousness music, where thoughts of sadness and regret weave in, out and through mindless celebration and military displays of might as Ives' ever-perceptive ears and eyes unfailingly illustrate the mental, emotional, and spiritual questioning and chaos that lurk under seemingly ordered displays of patriotic devotion.

You simply must hear this symphony, especially in Seattle's 24/96 stereo or surround versions. I heard one of the live performances where the recording was made, and confess that, on a good system, it is actually easier to comprehend the music's different threads and themes than it was from a prime seat in Seattle's Benaroya Hall.

In some ways, the other two works on the program—the far more famous Three Places in New England (aka Orchestral Set No.1) and Orchestral Set No.2—evolve along the same lines. Yet each has its own unique text and texture, some of which include the occasional voices of the Seattle Symphony Chorus.

It's hard to imagine that, while Orchestral Set No.2 was assembled circa 1919 from material composed over a 10-year period, it took until 1967 for it to receive its premiere in Chicago from Morton Gould. The long delay has a lot to do with the negative reactions of conservative critics to the notion that these unabashedly maverick, against-the-grain compositions came from the pen of an insurance salesman/composer whose populist proposals for democratic government went unheeded.

Orchestral Set No.2's last movement, "From Hanover Square North . . .", quotes bits of "Massa's in de Cold Ground," "Ewing," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Sweet Bye and Bye," and someone's "Te Deum." While Ives' early 20th version of a contemporary DJ mix may sound like lots of fun, "From Hanover Square North . . ." it actually has an incredibly profound conclusion. As the piece ends, all the different thoughts and feelings that swirled through Ives' mind as he reflected on the thousand lives lost in the 1915 sinking of British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine mystically come together into a unified whole.

I shall leave it to readers to compare Morlot's performances of Three Places in New England, Orchestral Set No.2, and New England Holidays with other accounts. It seems that Ives' great modern-day champion, Leonard Bernstein, only recorded one of these works, Holidays Symphony. Whether it will receive a digital remastering in hi-rez during the Bernstein Centennial, which is fast upon us, I do not know.

While another great Ives champion, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), discusses New England Holidays in his San Francisco Symphony "Keeping Score" series, he recorded it, Three Places in New England, and Orchestral Set No.2 decades ago. I can't speak for the vinyl originals, but many of the CD transfers of these performances are from the harsh-sounding early digital era.

The only other hi-rez versions of these indispensable works that I can find are Sir Andrew Davis's Melbourne Symphony Chandos recordings of Orchestra Set No.2 and New England Holidays. Regardless, for those who are surround-equipped, Morlot's versions are the only way to go.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Too bad that one of the all-time great performances of Orchestra Set # 2 on record—Stokowski, LSO—didn't make its way into the boxed collections of Stokowski on Decca/London. There's a half-assed transfer of the Phase 4 recording [originally coupled on LP with an equally great performance of Messiaen's l'ascension] with Bernard Hermann's terrible version of Ives' Symphony #2 on the budget "Weekend Classics" series. I think the Dohnanyi/Cleveland recordings of Orchestra Set # 2 are excellent and exceptionally well-recorded. There's a Decca twofer where it's coupled with the Symphonies and other works. Ives Orchestra Set # 2 is as amazing as you describe, scary, prescient and almost post-modern in sensibility.