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Giving Thanks for an American Composer

Hopefully, everyone has arrived or on their way “over the hills and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” by the time this blog is posted, preparing to spend time with family and friends and give thanks on this special holiday, and one of my favorites.

I would like to give thanks to the idea that musical composition can come from anyone, any source and any background.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives, sitting and facing camera with a slight smile.

Charles Ives,  a dedicated New Englander, felt no constraints with his creativity. He composed what he wanted, and for that, I am thankful and consider it a very American trait. We have a number of titles from Ives in the NLS Music Section, and while preparing this blog post, I listened to some of them for the first time, and others I rediscovered with pleasure.

Variations on America for organ is an introduction to Ives for many music students. It starts out impressive enough, and then, well…things get interesting. The NLS Music Section has it for organ, BRM 22307, available on BARD and BRM 34489. There is also an orchestrated version which I’ve played as a band member, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The variations range from a Spanish march tempo to another sounding like a small calliope, then a bit of jazz and all around fun before concluding with a flourish.

There are a number of songs available from the NLS Music Section as well. Many of these songs reveal a personal side of Ives; he was reluctant to publish any of them until much later in life. One has an English and German title, In Summer Fields or Feldeinsamkeit and is a result of the practice of composition students composing in the style of the masters; in this case Brahms. By the way, a wonderful website dedicated to the song form is Song of America, thanks to American baritone Thomas Hampson and his love of the song form.

The piano sonata no. 2, also known as the Concord Sonata, BRM 26906, reflects Ives’s New England heritage with all four movements named for New England authors and transcendentalists. In order, the movements are Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. This work illustrates another reason why I like Ives; he salutes the western classical music tradition with quotes of Beethoven symphony no. 5 in every movement, yet his ears and mind were open enough to experiment with cluster chords and not having bar lines in the music.  No traditionalists here!

And, for this season especially, there is the Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day movement from A Symphony: New England Holidays. The symphony is in four movements, Washington’s Birthday, Decoration Day, The Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day with each movement recalling childhood memories of that holiday in a man’s youth. The subtlety of hearing familiar tunes while also hearing other tonal centers produces a very nice effect.

In audio format, we have DBM 01509, Fascination with what is difficult: Man in the Grey Velvet Suit, discussing influences on Ives.  DBM 00705 features Leonard Bernstein talking about Ives and his music. And here are some song titles by Ives in braille music format; When Stars are in the Quiet Skies, BRM 25948, Mists, BRM 25947, Ilmenau: Over the Treetops, BRM 25946, Two Little Flowers, BRM 25932, and Walking, BRM 25930.

If I were programming music for this special holiday, I might play the Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day during appetizers and before dinner as a nod to the solemnity of the occasion, and the Variations on America in the orchestrated version with coffee and dessert, for a lighter touch to conclude our feast.

Charles Ives-Rossiter text

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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