In his Memos, Charles Ives recounts instances where musician friends would criticise his more radical works. ‘I’d have periods of being good and nice … until I got so tired of it that I decided I’d either have to stop music or stop this.’ His sensitivity to criticism and almost neurotic self-doubt (contrary to the stubborn composer many portray him as) would temporarily push him towards becoming a more staid composer — or as he describes it, ‘being good and nice’. Years later, he entirely dismissed works written during these periods as ‘weak-minded’ and ‘retrogressive’, written in a ‘kind of slump’. He lists several such works; included in the list is Autumn. But reading Ives one soon realises that his unsettled character made him a poor judge of his own work (and indeed of others’). Regardless of what Ives said, Autumn is a sublime song.
It was most likely composed in 1907. Harmony Twitchell, later to become Harmony Ives, wrote a poem, ‘Autumn’, that she sent to Ives in October that year. Though they had known each other for years, their sensibilities meant that they had not yet expressed their love for each other until this point. When they finally did, what came was, to quote Ives biographer Jan Swafford, a ‘first flush of revealed love’ that would last for the rest of their lives.
Harmony was everything to Ives. His sensitivity, his bouts of creative uncertainty, his eventually crippling periods of ill-health — it is unlikely that he could have endured these without Harmony by his side. Mrs Ryder, a neighbour of the Ives’, recalled that
One time Mr. Ives called up here and this tiny little voice on the telephone wanted to know if Harmony was here. I said “no.” He said, “I’ve been to the dump and I’ve been up in the attic and I went down to the cellar and I can’t find her anywhere!” SO I said, ‘Well, perhaps she’s down at Mrs. Hill’s” And I went down to the Hill’s and she was just leaving. I said, ‘Your husband is looking for you and he’s very upset.’ Well, we went home and when she climbed out of the car, he put his arms around her and said, “Harmony, oh Harmony! I couldn’t find you!
The poem ‘Autumn’ is in free verse. In the letter which accompanied the poem, Harmony said that she ‘wrote these lines down just as they came’:
Earth rests! Her work is done,
her fields lie bare,
And ‘ere the night of winter comes
to hush her song and close her tired eyes,
She turns her face for the sun to smile upon
and radiantly, radiantly, thro’ Fall’s bright glow, he smiles,
and brings the Peace of God!
Swafford sees an analogy between ‘the face of the sun and the face of her lover, the earth and Harmony herself, redeemed from loneliness and labor and encroaching age.’ What’s more, the line ‘thro’ Fall’s bright glow’ likely references an Autumn walk the couple had taken a week earlier, and that was to become one of their most significant memories. Pianist John Kirkpatrick, who was one of Ives’ greatest and earliest supporters (and indeed the first to perform the song), lists Autumn as one of Harmony’s ‘courting songs’.
The song is in Db major, and though it modulates frequently, it never veers from tonality; by the final chord it has returned to Db major. The left-hand plays these earthy chords low down in the piano’s range. Mostly they are inverted triads, giving the piece a drifting, romantic feel. The chords are syncopated except for one impressive moment — the apex of the piece. The song begins quietly, but from ‘She turns her face’ onwards the volume swells. The right-hand, until now playing a sort of counterpoint to the voice, starts following the left-hand. It builds to a single glorious moment — ‘he smiles’ — in which the highest note in the piece is sung (F) and a root position Db major chord is played on the beat. If we go by Swafford’s very probable interpretation, this is the moment when Harmony turns her face for Ives to smile upon, and radiantly he smiles back.
Like most of Ives’ works, Autumn wasn’t performed for decades — its premiere was in 1939. Since then, however, Ives’s songs have been performed and recorded a great many times. There are several excellent recordings of Autumn, but my favourite is undoubtedly by soprano Roberta Alexander and pianist Tan Crone: