A Universe in Music

Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony brings us to a fundamental concern of Western classical music: the relationship between an idea, its written form and its performance. Over time the importance of each of these have changed relative to the others. In the last couple of centuries scores have become increasingly meticulous, more instruction than guide. Once, performers had liberties ranging from ornamental to instrumental choices. No dynamics were listed, instruments might not be specified, cadenzas were not scored, repeats allowed for improvisation, and so on.

As scores became less ambiguous performers had to suppress their personality. This led some composers in the nineteenth and, moreover, the twentieth century to believe that music could exist in its purist state outside performance — that is, transmitted straight from score to mind.

But Charles Ives went even further. He found purity in the musical idea not yet written or performed. In Essays before a Sonata he wrote:

The instrument! — there is the perennial difficulty — there is music’s limitation. . . . Is it the composer’s fault that man only has ten fingers? Why can’t a musical thought be presented as it is born — perchance a ‘bastard of the slums,’ or a ‘daughter of a bishop’ — and if it happens to go better later on a bass drum than upon a harp, get a good bass drummer. That music must be heard is not essential — what it sounds like may not be what it is

‘That music must be heard is not essential’. This would be true if music were a language. Language describes things, so voice or sign language can be equally effective. But music doesn’t describe anything. A tree exists before I use the word ‘tree’ to describe it, but music doesn’t exist until it is played. Or rather, music only exists as we play it, either on an instrument or by simulating those sounds in our mind. A language describes things which exist independently of whether or not they are communicated, while music cannot exist unless it is expressed.

Ives wanted the Universe Symphony to portray all the vastness of creation. He ideally wanted it performed by two enormous orchestras ‘across from each other on mountaintops overlooking a valley’. (Whether he meant this literally or not is unclear.) He never did complete the symphony, and many argue (including me) that it would have been impossible to do so. He had an idea so ambitious he could never properly articulate it. Biographer Jan Swafford observed that this problem only got worse: ‘Over the years, the less able he was actually to work on it, the grander the Universe became in his imagination’.

The incompleteness of the work was not altogether exceptional. Ives wrote of the ‘Emerson’ movement from his mammoth Concord Sonata, that ‘I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it’. He enjoyed the ‘daily pleasure’ of playing the music and seeing it grow. But the distinction between Concord and the Universe Symphony, besides one being less ambitious than the other — Concord’s movements represent different transcendentalist thinkers — is that Ives actually allowed the idea to be born. He played the sonata regularly and recorded it both on score and on tape. To the extent that he left it unfinished, it is because he delighted in the fluidity of the performance. One can almost view this nostalgically: a return to the primacy of the performance rather than the inviolability of the score.

Mendelssohn, in a conversation with a friend, once said that ‘When you first start a composition you have a lofty idea of what you can and will create this time! The ideas for which you search always appear more beautiful in their vague presentiment than they are later on paper. I have experienced similar things, but I soon got a grip on myself.’ Is this where Ives ultimately went wrong with the Universe Symphony?

Two ‘completions’ of the symphony exist, and I would say Johnny Reinhard’s is the superior, in that it sounds a bit more Ivesian. Though it’s still not at all like anything else Ives wrote. Even if I knew nothing about the history of the symphony, just listening to this I would get the impression that it was an impossible idea. The slow chaos of it is quite unconvincing:

Ives’ best ‘universe’ piece is The Unanswered Question. The appropriate reaction when faced with the question of the universe is humility. The Universe Symphony is one of the most ambitious musical ideas, an unwieldy monster that shows little restraint or ambiguity. The Unanswered Question is brief but challenging, simple but complex. It evokes the universe but doesn’t try to depict it.

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