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.


Charles Ives — Autumn

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:

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. 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.