Listen & Do #3: Historical Program

FirefoxScreenSnapz002This is a lot Ives – four symphonies one after another. But performing them in chronological order in one program (something that has never been done) becomes in many ways a short history of American music as seen through Ives’ unique perspective – from the first symphony so clearly dominated by Ives’ conservative and Euro-thinking teacher at Yale, to the joyous outbursts around Columbia in the Gem of the Ocean of the second symphony with its totally surprising last chord, to the serene calm of the third symphony, to the path breaking radicalism of the fourth symphony – replete with Ives unique American voice.

Even more astonishing, this last work, written in 1916, was forgotten and didn’t get its premiere until almost 50 years after it was written (and 11 years after Ives had died) at Carnegie Hall in 1965. That date in turn, is just short of 50 years before this upcoming Spring for Music performance in Carnegie. Leonard Slatkin has long been champion of Ives’ music and this is the first time the four symphonies have been performed together at a single concert.

You can listen to a short excerpt of each piece below for a flavor of the works. Unfortunately we can’t include full recordings of these pieces because of copyright, but we have included links to recordings you can purchase.

First Symphony
Firmly in the language of Romantic European symphonic music. Already though, I’ves was paraphrasing music that came before him, borrowing language from Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Schubert. [to hear the whole thing you can buy this recording]

Second Symphony
Still European-sounding, but in five movements rather than the typical four. And the references here are American rather than European – never direct quotes, but classical American tunes such as “Camptown Races”, “Long, Long Ago”, and “America the Beautiful” make their appearance. [to hear the whole thing you can buy this recording]

Third Symphony
The Third is called The Camp Meeting and is full of tunes. The piece is said to refer to Ives’ youth and community meetings that he attended. The harmonic language is more complex, and Ives evokes the din, hubbub and sounds of a noisy camp meeting. This piece won him the Pulitzer Prize. [to hear the whole thing you can buy this recording]

Fourth Symphony
From Wikipedia: The symphony is notable for its multi-layered complexity – usually necessitating two conductors in performance – and for its oversized orchestra. Combining elements and techniques of Ives’s previous compositional work, this has been called “one of his most definitive works”;[1] Ives’ biographer, Jan Swafford, has called it “Ives’s climactic masterpiece.” [You can access the whole symphony for free by going here]

More Information?
Want to add more information about any of the performers, composers or recordings related to this program? Add it to the S4MU wiki page.

Class Discussion Here
This program takes you through one composer’s personal journey through music. You can trace his musical evolution chronologically. The question is – does it work as a program? The connections between the pieces are obvious; one could think of this program as a kind of retrospective of an artist’s work. Ives was an original. But it took two of these symphonies 50 years before they got premieres. And Ives work much of his life in the insurance industry. So why was he not more widely celebrated and his work highly anticipated?


  1. As I commented for the last video, its a good idea but I feel that it may be too big for its own good. People at the time of the premieres did not anticipate hearing works with dissonance, but as time progressed, the norm changed. I guess thats why we appreciate it more now than before.

  2. Anthony L says:

    I think Ives wasn’t as well received as he should have been because of the familiarity problem. The audience wants to hear something they know because it’s pleasing to the ear. In the four pieces we listened to I was amazed at how much emotion was conveyed through sometimes simple (symphony #3) phrasing or complex string arangements weaving in and out causing tension or melodic pleasure. He can shift that emotion in a measure. Probably my favorite pieces of this class. So yes, it works for me.

  3. It just seems like it was about trends in music, as Slatkin said. A comment on the previous post said that his music can be better appreciated outside of the performance. I think he means that the history in these four symphonies are better felt when reflected upon and may not be as clear during the moments they are heard. Perhaps with the right program this would be a masterpiece concert, engaging the audience in such a way that they feel the history of his music evolve throughout the concert.

  4. What did Ives say himself or did he just give up? I just can’t hear the 4th symphony as music because I am not that well prepared to hear it. But if I were, wouldn’t that make me someone up to date on conceptual music (like conceptual art) and not an ordinary concert goer. I don’t know.

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