Symphony Study No. 30 of 118: Charles Ives | Symphony No. 4

by Glenn on February 7, 2016

Charles Ives (1874–1954)
Symphony No. 4
fp: 26 April 1965 | Leopold Stokowski | American Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall

If Antonin Dvořák in his Sixth Symphony was trying to write a Beethoven symphony (see post), at first listen it would appear that Charles Ives in his Fourth Symphony was most decidedly not. In terms of sound world, Ives is light years away from Beethoven, Dvořák, you name him. But if not aurally, then perhaps philosophically he is close to Beethoven who introduced (or at least made explicit) the idea of a symphony carrying meaning in the music (i.e. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony clearly is about something, though what that meaning is, whether “the brotherhood of mankind” or something else—see here for examples—is open to debate).

What is this symphony about? According to someone who spoke with Charles Ives about his Symphony No. 4,

“The aesthetic program of the work is . . . the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life.”*

In other words, Charles Ives in his Symphony No. 4 was trying to answer the question of the meaning of life. Not sure how coherent or compelling his answer is, though. It’s definitely not explicit. Music may not be the best way to deal with the existential and questions like Why I am here? and What is the meaning of life?

In my discussion about Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony I noted that symphonies require advocates and acceptance (by both musicians and audience members). Michael Steinberg lists some serious advocates of  Ives, including Leopold Stokowski (who, four days after he turned 83 premiered the work), Seiji Ozawa, and Michael Tilson Thomas (who conducted the recording I listened to). The advocacy process for this symphony took some time and it’s unclear to me how well accepted Ives is. I’ve heard Ives in concert just once that I recall—it was his Three Places in New England. The middle movement of that work, “Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut,” I’ve often used as an example (whether appropriate or not) of programmatic music because the picture he paints in sound—multiple bands (some better than others) on a July 4 celebration all heard at the same time because of the location of the listener—is readily intelligible.

The recording of Ives’s Symphony No. 4 I listened to was by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Ives spent seven years creating his Symphony No. 4. Eight years after he stopped working on it he gave up composing entirely and went on to make a fortune in the insurance industry. He only heard three of the movements performed in his lifetime. It was after his death that the symphony was finally performed. (Which makes it seem like Ives’s advocates cared more about having his music performed than Ives did.) The mix of meters and instrumentation in this composition was so challenging there were actually three conductors at the premiere. Later, a single-conductor edition was prepared, which is the version that has been used since, although I’ve read that Michael Tilson Thomas had a second conductor to assist in his performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Charles Ives.002

Ives was a strange bird. But the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. His father, George, was an “unconventional” musician, to quote Steinberg, who relates one story where “he accompanied his family in C while they sang Old Folks at Home in E-flat.” Among the quirky characteristics of Charles’s music is a propensity for mixing meters and melodies in unconventional ways. He grew up with a wide variety of music and all of these kinds found a home in his compositions, often several at once. Steinberg says,

“[B]lending and colliding … determined the sound of his compositions. He loved musical collage and gave new meaning to the notion of polyphony: in his scores it is not just the counterpoint of individual musical strands but the coming together of whole different musics. He shocked his listeners by blurring the hallowed line between the cultivated and the popular.”

According to Steinberg, Ives believed,

“any sound is potential music, that a stylistically neat and consistent articulation of musical materials is not a necessary part of the musical experience, and that a work need not be ‘fixed,’ but might be work-in-progress as long as its creator lived.”

I don’t think I’ve ever had such complicated feelings about a symphony. As I listened I had two strong and opposite reactions. On the one hand I was put off by the cacophony of it all. The chaotic juxtaposition of sounds—so much and for so long—is off-putting. It’s “real” in the sense that there are moments in life that are often that way. And it’s an effect that had precedent. Gustav Mahler used competing instruments and tunes about two thirds of the way through the opening movement of his Third Symphony. Here is the way that sounds (Riccardo Chailly | Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra):

I always think of Ives when I hear that section, but Ives goes exponentially beyond what Mahler was doing there (Mahler’s Third Symphony premiered in 1902). Here is a section from the second movement of Ives’s Symphony No. 4 (Michael Tilson Thomas | Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus):

It goes on and on and is wearying. You wonder to what extent Ives has embraced the devil’s doctrine of “We can, therefore we should.” Can you have multiple melodies in various keys and tempos all running at the same time? Sure. Should you? And should that become a guiding aesthetic for composing?

Interesting how many melodies Ives appropriates for this symphony, including (according to Steinberg):
Nearer, My God, to Thee
In the Sweet By-and-By
Watchman, Tell Us of the Night
Proprietor Deo (Arthur Sullivan)
Something for Thee, I Hear Thy Welcome Voice (Henry Southwick Perkins)
The Red, White, and Blue
Beulah Land
Yankee Doodle
Marching Through Georgia
Turkey in the Straw
Long, Long Ago
The Irish Washerwoman
From Greenland’s Icy Mountains
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
Joy to the World
Ye Christian Heralds
Jesus, Lover of My Soul

Yet at the same time that I am put off by the music I am also overwhelmed by a mixture of nostalgia and sentimentality I feel throughout the performance. Especially, I am moved by the hymns that Ives includes. The third movement in particular is just lovely (and tonal). The Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus recording includes separate tracks with some of the key hymns in the composition, which is helpful.

When I listened to each of the previous 29 symphonies in this little study I am doing, my reaction was typically one of two:
“I’d like to hear that again” or
“I don’t care to hear that again.”

I’ve tended to put the music I’ve heard into a couple of categories.

Category No. 1 is: I love it/it feeds me. The work is sublime or fits the traditional labels of True, Beautiful, and Good. It falls into the Apostle Paul’s admonition of Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

One of the pleasures along the way has been finding symphonies that I’d avoided for one reason or another and expanding my list of music I want to hear again, Sibelius’s 2nd and 5th Symphonies for example.

Category No. 2 is: It’s not for me. Sometimes it’s a judgement—like I have with Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique—sometimes it’s a rejection of the aesthetic—with a couple of Sibelius’s symphonies where the music felt more like an idea or experimentbut mostly I just don’t like what I’m hearing and would like to spend precious listening time with works that inspire and ennoble.

With Ives, I’ve had to create a third category:
“Well, that was interesting, but …”

This is an odd symphony. I leave some symphony experiences humming a tune. Others shaking my head. The Ives symphony has me thinking about what is art. There is an interesting idea here, but I wouldn’t come back to this work for pleasure. But I don’t reject it out of hand, either:
“Well, that was interesting, but it’s so different from ‘normal’ symphonies—was that music?”
“Well, that was interesting, but how would we know how well it was performed?”
“Well, that was interesting, but there are so many tunes that Ives didn’t write—shouldn’t this symphony be footnoted?”
“Well, that was interesting, but why evoke all that religious nostalgia with those hymns—is this a religious experience or a kind of nihilism?”

Ives seems to violate a major rule, although the rule comes from literature so perhaps it doesn’t apply. It’s the idea that there should be unity in a work—unity of time, place, etc. A work that is about everything is a work that is about nothing. This symphony is strange because you get the sense that there is unity of place—all the sounds you are hearing could be heard in one place—but the place is so chaotic and lacking in unity that it’s not one you want to stay in for too long.

Steinberg describes this symphony more generally than he does others where he often waxes on about key relationships and how a tune is developed and this or that development in harmony. With Symphony No. 4 by Ives, he offers a more general view of the landscape—very much more forest than trees. This isn’t criticism as much as an indicator of how unusual this symphony is.

Andrew Clements in an article for The Guardian wrote (see article here),

“Though this work was not performed in a complete version until almost 50 years after most of it was written, Charles Ives’s Fourth was the first symphonic masterpiece by an American composer.”

I am stunned by the last part of that statement. Obviously it’s just an opinion, but it’s a truth claim. I’m looking forward to hearing some other American symphonies to have some way to evaluate that statement for my own.




*The quote is from program notes written by Henry Ballamann which can be found on p. 270 of Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony. Steinberg says Ballamann is “generally recognized as Ives’s first real champion.”


Works consulted:

Clements, Andrew. “Ives: Symphony No. 4.” The Guardian. Friday 28 July 2000.

Steinberg, Michael. The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Thomas, Michael Tilson and Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Charles Ives: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4. Sony Classical.