Sunday, 6 February 2011

Essays Before A Sonata

Charles Ives in 1913

I feel a bit diffident writing about something I know little about. However, recent posts on Transit Notes and Turnstone got me thinking about the Transcendentalists. Emerson and Thoreau have always been there on a sort of mental must-read list, but I've never got round to them. I may, now.

This post is more-or-less an extended comment on these series of posts and, if Walden Pond and all that is not your thing, please feel free to go to my very recent previous post if you've not read it, about strange goings-on in Yorkshire!

What I do know, a little, is Charles Ives' piano work, the Concord Sonata and the "Essays Before A Sonata" which Ives wrote to accompany it. It occurred to me that anyone who had read (or written) the above-mentioned blog-posts might be interested in these - if, indeed, they didn't know about them already. They may well know more than me: as I said, I don't know a great deal. As a result, what follows reads more as a series of notes than as a fully-fledged article.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was perhaps the first American composer to gain an international reputation (although he made his living working in insurance). His father, George Ives, had been a bandmaster who was prone to musical experiments such as sending different bands marching into the same square playing different tunes simply to experience the effect, or playing pieces simultaneously in different keys. His son aquired his taste for musical experimentation.

Ives evolved a style famous not only for its use of dissonance but also for its use of quotation - the classical flow of his music can suddenly find itself interrupted by snatches of "The Star Spangled Banner" or Sousa's "Washington Post". Anything can happen in a piece by Ives.

The Concord Sonata and the essays that accompany it reflect his interest in the Transcendentalists. He described the piece as an

"...impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago... undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne."

The Sonata is in four movements, all titled: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, Thoreau.

Of Emerson, he says:
Though a great poet and prophet, he is greater,
possibly, as an invader of the unknown,--America's deepest
explorer of the spiritual immensities,--a seer painting his
discoveries in masses and with any color that may lie at hand--
cosmic, religious, human, even sensuous; a recorder, freely
describing the inevitable struggle in the soul's uprise--
perceiving from this inward source alone, that every "ultimate
fact is only the first of a new series"; a discoverer, whose
heart knows, with Voltaire, "that man seriously reflects when
left alone," and would then discover, if he can, that "wondrous
chain which links the heavens with earth--the world of beings
subject to one law." In his reflections Emerson, unlike Plato, is
not afraid to ride Arion's Dolphin, and to go wherever he is
carried--to Parnassus or to "Musketaquid."

We see him standing on a summit, at the door of the infinite
where many men do not care to climb, peering into the mysteries
of life, contemplating the eternities, hurling back whatever he
discovers there,--now, thunderbolts for us to grasp, if we can,
and translate--now placing quietly, even tenderly, in our hands,
things that we may see without effort--if we won't see them, so
much the worse for us.

Of Thoreau:

Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but
because he did not have to go to Boston to hear "the Symphony."
The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine
his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the
enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony
of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission
to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of
simplicity--a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of
Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism
which teaches slavery.

The musical example I've chosen is not from the Emerson or Thoreau movements, though, but from The Alcotts (after Bronson and Louisa May Alcott). Not only is it the most approachable of the movements -the music has a warm, homely quality to it- but also a unique recording exists of Ives himself playing this movement.

Of The Alcotts Ives said:

We dare not attempt to follow the philosophic raptures of Bronson
Alcott--unless you will assume that his apotheosis will show how
"practical" his vision in this world would be in the next. And so
we won't try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with
much besides the memory of that home under the elms--the Scotch
songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each
day--though there may be an attempt to catch something of that
common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above)-a
strength of hope that never gives way to despair--a conviction in
the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done,
may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its

If you think you hear the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in this movement, you'd be right. Ives quotes it in every movement. Beethoven, along with the Transcendentalists, was a major figure among his personal influences. As he puts it, "the Concord bards... pound away at the immensities with a Beethoven-like sublimity".


The Weaver of Grass said...

I think I have got Thoreau somewhere on my bookshelves. If you wish to borrow it, come round and look for it. We visited that area on one of our trips to the US.

the watercats said...

been listening to your beautiful recording whilst catching up on your posts, I always leave here feeling very intellectualised ;-) I'm afraid I can't make any deep comments, apart from, you make some fantastic sounds and write some very interesting posts! Thank you :-)

the watercats said...


Kat Mortensen said...

I certainly like the idea of a poet being equated with good music. The sonata was quite enjoyable. I really like it when you delve into the musical end of things.


Titus said...

Fascinating post, Dominic. I read Walden years ago, and I'm very fond of Emerson still.

Knew nothing of Ives, so thank you for the introduction.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments. I take heart from them: I was a bit worried that there was too much music here recently - that it was becoming "made out of notes" instead of "made out of words". However, on the strength of these comments I'll just keep posting what I feel like posting!

As for feeling intellectualised (I like that idea!), I think that "intellectualising" upto (and a bit beyond) one's limit stimulates creativity - even if it doesn't figure consciously or visibly in the end product.

Dominic Rivron said...

And I would add, thinking about it, that all the intellectualising Charles Ives did around this music in one sense clarifies what it's about but in another can distract us from the fact that this is music to enjoy, to be thrilled by and and even dance to if you want!

If one is looking for a way to open one's ears to 20th century classical music a good starting point is usually to ditch any idea that something clever is going on, and that this is music like any other: passionately made, impossible to put into words, visceral at the very least, and at best hinting at things beyond us.

George said...

Very interesting, Dominic. I really enjoyed this posting, and I especially enjoyed the music! Very lovely!

A Cuban In London said...

It wasn't so much Beethoven the youtube clip reminded me of, but Chopin. I loved your explanation about a movement that had never crossed my radar. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Rachel Fenton said...

Excellent post, Dominic - like JoAnne, I hadn't heard of Ives, so thank you!

Toyin O. said...

Very informative, love the video.

swiss said...

i remain too buried in montaigne this weather to be thinking about emerson that much tho i have a feeling i'll be back to him later this year if only to compare and contrast.

when i'm doing the creative writing thing at school i like to kick off with emerson. i use this quote -

'The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.'

now to check out this ives...