Friday, March 9, 2012

Singing Hymns with Charlie Ives

Every account I have read of last night’s performance by the San Francisco Symphony of Henry Brant’s “A Concord Symphony,” an orchestral rethinking of Charles Ives’ second piano sonata, has mentioned the recurring presence of the first four notes of Beethoven’s symphony in Ives’ score.  Actually, Ives himself may be included among those accounts, since he discusses Beethoven’s presence in his Essays Before a Sonata.  Fascinating as this may be, even more fascinating is the way in which Ives draws Beethoven into a good old-fashioned American hymn-sing.  As I observed back in the early days of this blog, those four notes also introduce “Ye Christian heroes” (my original post mistakenly called them “heralds”) from The New Harp of Columbia, where it is called the “Missionary Chant.”  This hymn is first referenced in the “Hawthorne” movement’  and then emerges in fuller form at the beginning of “The Alcotts.”  The original piano setting is already very hymn-like;  and Brant’s orchestration deliberately evokes a tired old pipe organ.  Ives may have talked up Beethoven, but his ultimate purpose may have been to draw him into the Congregationalist cause!

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