• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 33: The Alcotts

Three versions of the same piece this week! We’ve already covered the American modernist (and insurance salesman extraordinaire) Charles Ives way back in Music that doesn't suck, No. 6. Many composers reuse their own material and quote the works of others, but very few have done so as often and as blatantly as Ives. Take his Country Band March for example. That work shows up either in part or entirely in his Three Places in New England, the Fourth Symphony, and this week’s topic: the Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-60.”

So what’s with the subtitle? After all, Ives wasn’t born until 1874…in Connecticut. Well, Ives himself explained that the sonata was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is 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.” So, what’s transcendentalism? In a nutshell, it’s an early American philosophical movement, whose core belief was in the inherent goodness of people and nature…that people are at their best when self-reliant and independent, and free from societal and institutional corruption.

We’re focusing specifically on the third movement of the sonata, “The Alcotts.” Yes, those Alcotts—Louisa May of Little Women fame and her father Amos Bronson Alcott, a friend of Emerson and one of the major figures in American transcendentalism. The Alcotts movement is essentially the slow movement of the sonata, and moves from moments of simple, pastoral beauty to overwhelming, Beethovenian power. In his Essays Before a Sonata, published concurrently with the Concord Sonata, Ives wrote…

"And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the [Beethoven’s] Fifth Symphony…"

"…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 on 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 transcendentalists!"

The piano performance actually features Ives himself at the keyboard! The band version features the US Marine Band and Col. Timothy Foley, and the orchestra version features the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas. Enjoy! :)

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