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Wednesday, May 11, 2005


I realize I’ve posted on going to the symphony to hear Ives’ 3rd Symphony a few times now, and I haven’t said much about the actual music.

It’s a programmatic piece in 3 movements, with scene-setting subtitles, like Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral.” Ives called his 3rd “The Camp Meeting,” referring to religious revival meetings of his youth, where his father’s brass band would sometimes play. The music has a prevailing mood, or mood-mix -- sweetness, nostalgia, wonder, awe. It feels shallow to speak of mood, but mood is part of the experience. The awe in the music feels larger than mere mood. As any great music, the forces it harnesses are at once human-to-the-core and more-than-human.

Ives’s “maverick” reputation is based on his innovations in polyrhythms, polytonality, and collage, and the dissonance that often attends these techniques. His 3rd Symphony goes light on the “poly”s and sticks to mostly sweet harmonies; I often think of it in connection to Aaron Copland’s “social realist” move in the 1930s away from his own dissonant modernism and towards more conventionally tuneful music. With a big difference. When Ives sought a simpler music “of the people,” the people he borrowed from were his family and his hometown neighbors -- his own deepest memories. Copland played the unintentionally condescending anthropologist, taking a Shaker hymn here, some Mexican rhythms here, some cowboy tunes there. I love “Appalachian Spring,” until we get to the cover of the (in itself lovely) Shaker tune. Then it loses me. Ives’s handling of the “source” materials strikes me as more sophisticated than Copland’s too; he alters and collages the hymn tunes he quotes to enlivening effect, while Copland tends to mount his “find” like a big game hunter and stick it in the middle of his piece’s living room, so to speak. (Though I love the most social of Copland’s “social realist” pieces, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” maybe because its source is old Europe -- the historic past, rather than the anthropological “folk” present -- and it truly is grand and accessible [“common”]. Ives’s use of his own “folk” culture as his stylistic ground and source brings him closer to Gershwin than to Copland, as hints of the rhythms and harmonic tints of the Eastern European Jewish klezmir that Gershwin would have heard as a kid pervade his songs as well as his concert music.)

The 3 movements of Ives’s 3rd echoes standard symphonic superstructure, minus the 4th movement finale. The first movement, “Old Folks Gatherin’,” sets the tone. The 2nd movement, “Children’s Day,” is more playful, as a “scherzo” movement might be. (The root of the word “scherzo” is “joke.”) “Children’s Day” has delightful start-and-stop rhythms, suggestive of children playing. Ives closes with the quietest, slowest movement, “Communion”; standard symphonic form puts the quietest movement 2nd of 4, with the Scherzo coming 3rd. Offstage bells at the movement’s close ring a communion with the more-than-human home. I’d heard recordings of the piece many times, and those bells still surprised the heck out of me, thrillingly. (According to conductor Gerard Schwarz in a panel discussion after the concert, composer Lou Harrison suggested putting the bells offstage before conducting the premiere of the piece decades after it was written, and Ives presumably agreed.)

The audience gave a standing “O” when the piece ended; I thought the performance was fair-to-middling, but I gladly stood for the piece itself and for Ives. As I said the other night, hearing it played less-than-great live blew away the greatest recordings.

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