• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 6: Charles Ives's America

This Memorial Day, we're talking Charles Ives! Ives is one of those composers whose music is instantly recognizable as, "oh, that's definitely Ives." For many listeners, that more honestly manifests itself as, "oh, that's...weird."

Ives had an "All-American" upbringing in New England. His father was a Civil War bandleader and music teacher, who encouraged him to experiment outside the boundaries of traditional harmony and form. Ives would also listen to the town bands -- one of which was his father's -- playing simultaneously from different parts of the town square. He played the organ for his church, and had an extensive knowledge of the hymn, patriotic, popular, and folk tunes of the time. At Yale, he excelled in sports, and studied composition with another renowned (but far more musically conservative) American composer, Horatio Parker. ALL of that plays a role in Ives's own music, often at the same time -- he was the first American modernist composer.

(Fun fact: composing was really just a very serious hobby for Ives. He actually made his "real" living as an insurance salesman!)

Ives composed what would become his Orchestral Set No. 2 between 1915 and 1919. It wasn't composed as a set, per se, but rather assembled into one from three separate pieces:

1) An Elegy to Our Forefathers

2) The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting

3) From Hanover Square North, At the End of a Tragic Day, The Voice of the People Again Arose

While I find the whole set to be wonderful -- and certainly under-appreciated -- the last movement is particularly touching. In 1915, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat. Over 100 of the Lusitania's passengers were US citizens, so this proved to be an inciting incident for the US' entry into the First World War. According to Ives's own memoirs, when the Lusitania news broke, he and a number of others were standing on New York's Hanover Square station platform. Gradually and spontaneously, the crowd began to sing "In the Sweet By and By." This solemn moment is reflected throughout the last movement.

The performance features the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Ludovic Morlot.

Happy listening!

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