What If Mahler Had Premiered Charles Ives’ Third Symphony?

This is a familiar daydream for us Charles Ives fans. Mahler is supposed to have seen the score of Ives’ Third Symphony and considered conducting the premiere himself. This would have been an enormous break for Ives. Most of his music had never been performed and seldom was for decades after. The source of the story is mainly Ives himself — certainly not a dishonest man, but neither is he a reliable source. In his Memos he wrote that ‘When this [Symphony No. 3] was being copied in, I think, Tam’s [Tam’s Copying] office, Gustav Mahler saw it and asked to have a copy–he was quite interested in it.’ None of the evidence rises above this level of hear-say.

One Ives biographer fell for this daydream and made it even more fantastic. David Wooldridge was convinced that a performance, or at least a reading, of the Third Symphony took place in Munich in 1910, with Mahler conducting. This is not a claim that’s been repeated in the decades since. All other sources have the date that Mahler saw the score as 1911, and Mahler’s copy of the score is either lost or non-existent. Wooldridge’s account is almost certainly a fabrication.

But what if Mahler had premiered the work in 1911 (despite his ill health) and brought Ives to the attention of the world?

Well, Ives was an awful professional musician. He was not merely forced to become a musical recluse but also partly chose that life. In 1899 his work The Celestial Country was premiered. It is an unremarkable cantata, and obviously a student work, a fact the reviews used as faint-ish praise. It wasn’t in any way a maverick work and Ives could have quite easily continued down this staid professional path. But he chose not to, expressing his contempt by scrawling ‘damn rot and worse’ across one of the favourable reviews. It is probable that he both couldn’t stand the critics — Ives was throughout his life remarkably sensitive to criticism of all kinds — and that he was ashamed to have written such a insipid concession to the ‘old ladies of both sexes’ who made up the American musical establishment. From then on, he lost all ambition to become a professional musician and instead ended up running a remarkably successful life insurance company. This was suited well to Ives: it fulfilled his sense of Christian duty and was in line with his individualist philosophy. He retired a very rich man.

Even though his work was seldom played, he still occasionally received criticism and it could severely disorientate him. In 1914 Ives got a world-class violinist to test out his Second Violin Sonata. He didn’t even make it through the first page. According to Ives, the ‘professor’, as Ives referred to him, put his hands over his ears and said, ‘When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears’! Ives submerged himself in doubt. It was when reflecting on this moment that Ives came out with one of his famous lines: ‘Are my ears on wrong? No one else seems to hear it the same way…’ The next violin sonata he wrote, the Third, was a musical compromise which he very much regretted. ‘The themes are well enough, but there is an attempt to please the soft-ears and be good. The sonata on the whole is a weak sister. But these depressions didn’t last long, I’m glad to say. I began more and more, after séances with nice musicians, that, if I wanted to write music that, to me, seemed worth while, I must keep away from musicians.’

Now imagine how Ives would have reacted to the unprecedented scrutiny of a Mahler-conducted premiere? Moreover, the premiere would have occurred during the most fruitful periods of his composing life, beginning round about 1907-1908 with his first series of heart-attacks and, a year later, his marriage to Harmony Twitchell. This creative outburst lasted about a decade. The Mahler premiere would have been right in the centre of this — a very disruptive turn of events. Much of the Fourth Symphony had yet to be composed, ditto the Concord Sonata and Three Places in New England — the works Ives is best known for. Who knows if these would still have been written? Time-travel fantasies always have a way of screwing everything up.

Ives finally got major premieres later in life, long after he had stopped composing new works. Oddly, the symphonies were premiered in the wrong order: 3 (1946), 2 (1951), 1 (1953), and 4 (1965). (The Holidays Symphony, chronologically his fifth, was premiered in 1954.) A year after the premiere of his Third Symphony, it won the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition. He dismissed the prize, as he always did composition prizes. Yet he nevertheless hung the certificate on his wall. Quietly, he was very proud.

On the 1952 premiere of his Second Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, we have no certain idea what he thought. Ives was not fond of the radio (he didn’t attend the premiere, and had to go to his neighbour’s house to hear the broadcast) and his hearing had become quite awful, this being two years before his death. Still, he probably came away happy. Ives biographer Jan Swafford tells the story:

He was dragged next door to the Ryders’ [Ives’ neighbours] to hear the broadcast and, unlike similar occasions, sat quietly through the whole thing. It was one of his soft pieces, as he called them; it was also perhaps the warmest audience reception of his whole life. As cheers broke out at the end everybody in the room looked his way. Ives got up, spat in the fireplace, and walked into the kitchen without a word. Nobody could figure out if he was too disgusted or too moved to talk. Likely it was the latter.

The Third Symphony is an Ives piece unlike any other, a waypoint between the oddball but quite traditional Second Symphony and the ambitious, celestial Fourth Symphony. In many ways it’s the Ives symphony for people who don’t like Ives. Enjoy:

Charles Ives: The Attacker of Beauty or Its Defender?

I’m reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, having seen it recommended too many times to count. And indeed it’s a very fun read, a real page-turner. But his section on Ives annoyed me enough to write this post. Some good stuff, but also many cliches and stereotypes. It made me then mentally run through the common stereotypes of Ives: the eccentric innovator or the serial fabricator of dates, the dogmatic stubborn visionary, the non-professional musical purist or the cranky amateur, an independent man isolated from the classical music world. All of these are at least partly wrong. Yet people keep coming back to them as they cast him in that much-desired heroic Romantic role.

However, my biggest bugbear is the portrayal of Ives as the attacker of beauty — far from it! Yes, Ives wrote for quarter tone pianos, he took polyrhythms to unheard levels, he was among the first to use tone clusters, he famously adored dissonance. But despite his oft-quoted phrases, he never rejected beauty — only the monopoly of beauty and the monopoly of tonality. His complaint was a just one considering those American composers that had preceded him, such as his teacher Horatio Parker, whose genteel ersatz European music will doubtless not be remembered. Yet he never seemed to have spoken ill of Parker, and indeed respected him. He wasn’t an iconoclast (another myth). In fact, he spoke somewhat disdainfully of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and admiringly of Brahms. But he was fed up of the stale ‘niceness’ of the music around him. Ives sums it up wonderfully:

Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.

His issue is the mis-identification of beauty, not beauty itself. I see him as fighting the corruption of beauty, how it was used as an excuse for stale thinking. One gets a sense from the quotation that he wanted to reclaim beauty from its idle captors. In fact, Ives knew there was nothing more beautiful than a hymn, so he ended his best work, the Fourth Symphony, with one. Skip to 31:40 to hear it, though to feel the full impact listen to the fourth movement in its entirety (25:20) or preferably the full symphony. The whole thing is one spectacular journey, an attempt to get, in the words of the hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee:

Few other ‘modernists’ (and I’m not sure he was a modernist, really) wrote or writes like Ives. He didn’t invent theories or schools of composition. He didn’t formalise his method; he tinkered around. He was a mischievous, playful chap, and thoroughly impassioned and excitable, someone who approached life with the utmost fury and levity in equal measure. He doesn’t belong the the dull world of the abstract modernists, so pure and detached from reality and their audience. Elliot Carter could not understand Ives’ music, for instance. He had no idea what the purpose of quoting Yankee Doodle in a piece was, and that would ruin it for him — I suspect he found it all too silly.

Ives did try to be more like his good friend and fellow composer Carl Ruggles — more wholly atonal, that is. But he admitted failure. Take the Robert Browning Overture. It’s one of his least interesting works (in a non-academic sense), and he admitted he could never realise it, though felt slightly more optimistic 20 years later (1930s), for reasons I’m not sure of (still, his judgement of the work is merely lukewarm). It certainly doesn’t hold up when I listen to it. From Ives’ Memos:

[The Robert Browning Overture] is a kind of transition piece, keeping perhaps too much (it seems to me) to the academic, classroom habits of inversion, augmentation, etc. etc., in the development of the first theme and related themes. … But it seemed (I remember when finishing it) somewhat too carefully made, technically–but looking at it now, most twenty years after, it seems natural and worth copying out.

One of the works Ives was most happy with was his setting of Psalm 90. It strikes that Ivesian balance between tonality and dissonance, and unfolds its beauty at the end, typical for Ives. He is of course drawing on his faith, which had been foremost in his life. (His wife, Harmony, was even the daughter of a pastor.) And he reaches for the celestial, that other side to Ives. He was at once the young boy from Danbury, Connecticut, relishing those memories, and the impassioned universalist eager for grand international projects and ecumenical faith. In his setting of Psalm 90 he gets perhaps the closest to the celestial, yet still grounded in his character as a ‘Yankee’ composer, though less so than than other works. This work strikes me as somewhere between the Fourth Symphony and his never-completed, insanely-ambitious Universe Symphony. But much more contained and focused than either of those works.

Ives is known, perhaps, for his love of dissonance — dissonance for its own sake. But he also loved folk melodies for their own sake. He didn’t disdain the surrounding popular culture as the Frankfurt School came to. He was fond of incorporating ragtime in his work, for example (and Alex Ross rightly points this out in his book). Look up his joyous Four Ragtime Dances to see this.

One of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in Ives’ music — and one which was apparently a great struggle to compose — comes in the form of a simple folk-like melody in ‘Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day’, the last movement of his Holidays Symphony. The section begins 7:20 until a bit after the 11 mark. Apologies for audio quality — it hardly does it justice — but it was the best I could find:

Ives would sometimes give the appearance of deferring to musical simplicity. He would make it so that his music resembled amateur bands — notes coming in late, or simply the wrong notes, for instance. Ives wrote about his friend: ‘Keyes says these notes are O.K. –he is the best critic, for he doesn’t know one note from another’. Biographer Jan Swafford suggested that ‘failing to find he approval of the sophisticated, Ives settled for that of the tone-deaf. So far, he seemed to find it funny.’ He certainly did, but as much as it was a reactionary posture in terms of the classical music world, he really did have a strong democratic sense.

What I’m trying to say, is that Ives was far from the stubborn modernist people portray him as. He didn’t resent beauty or simplicity. At one point Alex Ross described him as ‘uncompromising’, and at another time a ‘stubborn youth’ — which is total nonsense, as he was a terribly shy boy and his early works were quite conventional, with a couple of fun lighter works written mostly for his peers. Maybe what Ives really was was a Romantic with a mischievous bent. I don’t know — and it’s not as if music is one linear, easily-categorised progression. Ives was unusual though, for sure, just not in the way so many think.

I’d like to end with Feldeinsamkeit, what Jan Swafford has called ‘one of the most beautiful songs an American has created’. Ives wrote it in 1897, a sort of memorial for a Dr. Griggs, a choirmaster Ives was close to. This is my favourite recording:

Ted Puffer: An Unsung Hero

Ted Puffer is someone who achieved incredible things, but who always lay on the outskirts of public recognition. He was an American classical singer, the founder of a small but prolific opera company, Nevada Opera, as well as a university professor and even a translator. Yet I doubt the name Ted Puffer is at all familiar to anyone reading this.

85293634_132987596931Born in 1928, Merle E. ‘Ted’ Puffer was a man clearly phenomenal in his musical talents, but also evangelical in his belief in classical music’s universal accessibility. Under his leadership Nevada Opera performed many operas with English translations, adamantly opposing the cultural elitism he thought too prevalent. Indeed, opera companies throughout the Untied States have used the English translations Puffer and his wife made. I think he was onto something, understanding that opera’s roots were not in elitism but in populism. ‘For too long, opera has been a status event where patrons could sleep’, he said. ‘I want people to come to the opera because they like it’. He apparently liked to tell his audiences this: ‘Leave the costumes to us. You don’t have to dress up.’ Puffer exemplified the best of egalitarianism.

His legacy lives on through the Nevada Opera, which is still active, as well as through those he mentored, notably Dolora Zajick. She is a mezzo famed for her Verdi performances and as someone who has sung many times for the Metropolitan Opera. She described him as ‘a quirky influence’, but ‘an excellent voice teacher ‘who proved crucial in her learning’. He taught me how to sing’, she said in 1991, while Puffer was still alive. ‘I’m still working with him. The more I got out in the wide world, the more I’ve learned and have to compare with, the more I appreciate what he has to offer. I had no concept in the beginning the level he was at.’

On 23 October 2003 Puffer died after a year-long fight with cancer. He is survived by his daughter Monica Harte, a successful musician in her own right. News of his death spread fast, she recalls. ‘[From] all over the world we’re getting calls … A couple of different people have said, “You know, I have the life I have because of your parents and because of the opera or because your dad taught me how to sing”.’

There is one other area through which Puffer is immortalised, and this is how I discovered him. In 1965 he recorded two volumes of Charles Ives’ songs. These are the only two recordings he ever made, and they are astonishingly unique. They sound ‘American’ — authentically down-to-earth and sung without European affectations. Of all those who have recorded Ives’ songs, Puffer is the one who comes closest to understanding that Ivesian blend of a free, humble, but proud America combined with the artistic complexity and expressiveness of classical music. Unusually for those singing Ives, he is a tenor, and his voice has clarity and a character you’ll find nowhere else.

Included below is Puffer’s version of Ives’ song West London, the first Ives piece I ever heard. (Feel free to skip ahead and listen if you don’t want the blurb.) Originally a sonnet by Matthew Arnold, West London depicts a tramp with her baby and young daughter begging on the streets of London. Ives sets this to music in ingenious ways. The song travels from the musical anxiety of the young daughter begging for money, to more confident chords when she comes back satisfied, money in hand. But then there’s a frosty chromatic descent sung by Puffer as the tramp follows the rich passers-by with a ‘frozen stare’; she knows that the rich men will not give her money as they do not empathise with her the way that working men do. ‘She will not ask of aliens [the rich], but of friends [the working men], Of sharers in a common human fate.’ Though not too long after, the song passes back into optimism, with these majestic chords  — almost anthemic — while the vocalist sings triumphantly, ‘And points us to a better time than ours’. That same chord sequence is then repeated at a whisper, and in a higher key, until ending on a plagal half-cadence — the opposite of the ‘Amen’ cadence, as it’s more commonly known. I’m not exactly sure what Ives meant in this musical addendum to the text, but it’s certainly evocative.

And Ted Puffer’s version is masterly — dare I say the definitive version. Please do listen (underneath are the words):

Crouch’d on the pavement close by Belgrave Square
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.
Some labouring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Pass’d opposite; she touch’d her girl, who hied
Across, and begg’d and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.
Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.
She turns from that cold succour, which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.