Saturday, December 1, 2007

Charles Ives in the World of "Nice Jewish Boys"

Back in June when I wrote that the Eusebius Duo "made such a bold move in coupling violin sonatas by Charles Ives and Johannes Brahms that it was a pity that they lacked the maturity to do justice to either composition," I accentuated the positive by concentrating on the relationship between Ives and Brahms, rather than picking on the problems with the performance. Suffice it to say that, where the Ives was concerned, much of the problem had to do with an understanding of his source material, which is why I really appreciated Michael Tilson Thomas' decision to have the San Francisco Symphony Chorus perform five instances of that source material in conjunction with his recent performance of Ives' music. This decision was probably based on a similar strategy he engaged for his recording of Ives' fourth symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This has led me to reflect on why Jews in their sixties should know more about the Christian hymns that were so important to Ives than current graduates of the San Francisco Conservatory appear to be!

Since I cannot speak for Thomas, I shall try to deal with my own case through a minor exercise in autobiography, which grew out of my discovering that one of my friends in the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, who shares my enthusiasm for Ives, was not familiar with the Essays Before a Sonata, that he had written in conjunction with the composition of his second ("Concord") piano sonata. I realized that I was first introduced to the Essays by Professor David Epstein in the first year that he took over teaching the twentieth-century music course at MIT. I dutifully read the collection and found it inspirational in many ways, but I suspect it is due for another reading in the context of the experiences I have now accumulated. Epstein died recently, and I think there is a lot to be said for the good taste of not speaking ill of the dead. Nevertheless, I had a lot on influences in my study of Ives, including my personal composition teacher; and I have to say that, in retrospect, Epstein never really "got" Ives, however many other things he did "get." One reason may be that Epstein was too obsessed with "the culture of a nice Jewish boy" during those turbulent Sixties when what Thoreau called the "incessant influx of novelty" ran the gamut from the provocative to the offensive. As a result Epstein's personal ethic sought refuge in an "incredible dullness," which Thoreau had attacked as the general reaction to novelty. In this respect I find it interesting that Epstein had studied conducting under George Szell, whose recordings I had devoured as a student; but today I find those recording to be the epitome of Thoreau's "incredible dullness." Ironically, I now have the opportunity to hear the work of another Szell student, George Cleve; but I have never found Cleve inclined to seek out "incredible dullness," particularly in his Midsummer Mozart offerings! (I had occasion to ask Cleve if he ever knew Epstein, but the two did not overlap.) I suspect that much of Epstein's interest in Ives was rooted in a famous note that Arnold Schoenberg had written in which he declared Ives to be the one truly original voice in American music. Whether or not Schoenberg "got" Ives (particularly in light of how little of that music was being performed in his day) is an open question; but, with his Princeton background, Epstein came from a culture that did not question Schoenberg!

Let me now set down that geisha from the famous Zen proverb and shift from an argument with an old professor that I never got to have to my personal experiences in trying to play Ives' music. My first serious experience came from a piano teacher I had in Santa Barbara. The most important thing she ever taught me was not to be afraid of anything, and to make her point she had me look at the fourth movement of Ives' first piano sonata. I still have my copy with all the marks I put in to try to figure out how to manage the polyrhythms, and to this day I continue to believe that she had me look at the music because she was also trying to figure out how to play it! However, she was basically right: Once I got beyond my fear, I was able to strategize; and the strategy was good enough to get me through the entire movement. (It also put enough strain on the used instrument I was playing at the time that my technician told me it was about time for me to exchange it for a "real" piano that would be up to such demands!)

My next experience came when I moved East to work in Connecticut and spend all of my spare time in New York. I decided to get to know "The Alcotts" from the "Concord" sonata. I was probably more afraid of the "Concord" than I was of the first sonata, just because Epstein had put so much time into it, which I had enhanced by reading the Essays; and I had emerged thoroughly intimidated. However, I had now been taught about overcoming fear; and "The Alcotts" was the most manageable movement of the sonata (by virtue of being the least representative of the four). What I had not anticipated as that this exercise would turn out to provide me with a good example of where Epstein had misled his students in his approach to Ives. He had been particularly taken with the appearance of the four-note motif from Beethoven's fifth in "Emerson" and saw "The Alcotts" as an expansion of that motif. On the other hand, if we listen to the "hymn sing" by the Chicago Symphony Chorus included on Thomas' recording of the Ives fourth symphony, we discover that "The Alcotts" actually begins with a direct citation of "Ye Christian heralds," known as the "Missionary Chant" in The New Harp of Columbia; and, if we then go back to "Emerson," we find that the hymn is already emerging there (although I cannot say as I ever thought of Emerson as a "Christian herald" missionary type)!

I suspect the lesson from all of this is that Ives is not the sort of composer who holds up well to "academic" methodologies. Ives was too much of a performer to lose himself in arguments over the logic that holds together the notes on the page, he was too scornful of all those traditions that had informed how we hear music at all, and his whole sense of music was just too intensely personal. When publishing a paper or even getting a conservatory degree is more important than getting inside the head of the composer and turning what you find into a performance, our understanding of Ives will inevitably be short-changed. Fortunately, Thomas does not have to worry about such academic priorities; and that is probably why we in San Francisco are just as lucky to have him for performances of Ives as we are for his performances of Mahler!

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