An American modernist

In his lifetime Charles Ives was considered an eccentric, but nowadays he is deemed to be one of the most innovative and challenging composers of the 20th century, or to quote Michael Tilson Thomas, who has long been a champion of Ives, « America’s greatest composer, because he is more than a musician. He is a philosopher, a poet, and his work is right up there with Walt Whitman, Emerson and the Transcendentalists that he so admired ». In their recently released album, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony orchestra put in perspective some key aspects of Ives’s work as a composer, his use of collage and how rooted his music was in the American music, especially hymns, several of which are also performed in this album. As Michael Steinberg explains in his book The Symphony:a Listener’s Guide, Charles Ives knew a « wide repertoire of Protestant hymns » because all his life he worked « in Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Episcopalian churches », and a « good five dozen of these hymns found their way into his works, along with military marches, college songs, parlor songs, and tunes from the dance hall. Some of these were special favorites of his and occur over and over in his symphonies, sonatas, etc. »

According to Michael Tilson Thomas, Ives used popular and well-known « hymn tunes and folk songs because he thought it was a way that people could more easily follow his compositional process ». The insightful texts written by Peter Grunberg and James M. Keller for the booklet accompanying the disc are greatly helpful in order to understand this compositional process. Peter Grunberg analyses the use of hymns by Ives in both symphonies, first as « building blocks » in Symphony No. 3: The Camp Meeting, and as « vignettes » in Symphony No.4. In this album, the listener can first listen to the hymns that inspired Ives before listening to the symphonies, and we can therefore make the connection between these hymns and Ives’s compositional process, which enables us to enter more easily into these very complex symphonies.

Ives started writing sketches and partial scores Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting in 1901, while he was working as an organist at Central Presbyterian Church, but it took him ten years to complete the symphony. Gustav Mahler apparently intended to conduct the score but died before he could, and then Ives had to wait for twenty-five long years before his work was finally premiered by Lou Harrison and the New York Little Symphony Orchestra in 1946. This is a relatively « small-scale » symphony, which lasts only twenty minutes and requires a chamber orchestra. Inspired by well-known hymns, such as O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing », « What a Friend We Have in Jesus », « There is a Fountain Filled with Blood », « There is a Happy Land » and « Just as I am », Ives composed a celebration to the life of American small town communities, which he knew so intimately. It’s a deeply nostalgic and poetic work, which is beautifully performed by Michael Tilson Thomas and the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony orchestra. There is a tinge of sadness in this rendition, as if the musicians were aware that the world of Charles Ives has somewhat disappeared to be replaced by a much more individualistic and consumerist society.

Ives’s symphony n°4, composed between 1909 and 1916, is a work of such complexity that it requires 2, and sometimes even 3, conductors to lead the performance. It is divided in four mouvements, described by Henry Ballamann as « a prelude, a majestic fugue, a third movement in comedy vein, and a finale of transcendental spiritual content », the aesthetic program of this piece being « the searching question of What ? and Why ? which the spirit of man asks of life ». (Michael Steinberg, The Symphony:a Listener’s Guide, Oxford). Just like Ives’s third symphony, his fourth was first publicly performed long after he finished composing it. It was Leopold Stokowski, who premiered it in 1965, more than ten years after the death of the composer. If you listen to this symphony for the first time, you’ll likely be quite puzzled by what can sound very chaotic to innocent ears. As James M. Keller points out in the booklet, Ives’s symphony « is a complicated collage of a work, incorporating passages from his earlier compositions (some going all the way back to his school days) and a panoply of the popular music (broadly defined) that resounded in his world, including parlor songs, marching tunes, ragtime melodies, patriotic songs, and especially Protestant hymns. […] The result can be a crazy quilt of conflicting tempos, tonalities, melodies, and moods that seem to define chaos but then find their way back into some semblance of order. » Even today this symphony sounds incredibly challenging, and is a testimony of the modernity of Charles Ives as a composer.

Here Michael Tilson Thomas, with the help of Christian Reif as a second conductor, the pianist Peter Dugan, the musicians of the SFO and the members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, led by Ragnar Bohlin, give not only a carefully wrought performance, in which all the different orchestral lines are clearly discernible, which is no small feat, but they also manage to convey the philosophical questioning of this work, as well as a profound of anxiety, the anxiety of modern man in from a fast-changing and increasingly unsettling world, a world that was being torn apart by the horrors of World War I.

Tilson Thomas clearly loves Ives’s music and this album displays his strengths as a conductor, his sense of the orchestral lines and balance, his capacity to make even the most complex and sophisticated music sound natural and accessible to the listener, as well as a deeply intelligent and sensitive mind, all the qualities that are required to be a great conductor.

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