Ives / Brant: The Alcotts, from A Concord Symphony

The Alcotts, from A Concord Symphony (Charles Ives’s Sonata No. 2 for Piano: Concord, Mass., 1840-60, orchestrated by Henry Brant)

Charles Edward Ives was born October 20, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut, and died May 19, 1954, in New York City. He composed his Sonata No. 2 for Piano, subtitled “Concord, Mass., 1840-60,”—widely known as the Concord Sonata—principally from 1916 to 1919, though drawing on works sketched as early as 1904. Ives published the piece in 1920 but then effected further revisions in preparation for a second edition, which appeared in 1947. This sonata, in its original piano version, was doled out to the public piecemeal. The Alcotts was first programmed on August 3, 1921, in an unidentified location, in a lecture-recital by Clifton Furness. The work was first given in its entirety in a public concert on November 28, 1938, at The Old House in Cos Cob, Connecticut, played (from memory!) by John Kirkpatrick; he had previously presented the piece in a private lecture/recital in Stamford, Connecticut, on June 21, 1938. Ives’s often conflicting and sometimes misleading Memos make reference to an earlier, private performance of the sonata he gave in 1912 in Hartsdale, New York.

Henry Brant was born September 15, 1913, in Montréal, Québec, Canada, and died April 26, 2008, in Santa Barbara, California. He created his orchestration of Ives’s Concord Sonata from 1958 through 1994, and it was premiered June 16, 1995, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, with Brant conducting the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The United States premiere took place February 25, 1996, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, with Brant conducting the American Composers Orchestra. Brant’s score calls for an orchestra of three flutes (second and third doubling piccolos), three oboes (third doubling English horn), three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, chimes, vibraphone, cymbals, bass drum, jazz drum-set, piano (doubling celesta), harp, and strings. Performance time: about six minutes.

Anyone who enters the universe of Charles Ives must be prepared for frustrations and contradictions, but those inconveniences do not go unrewarded. A piece by Ives always promises payback, most reliably a sense of the extraordinary, an unexpected juxtaposition of ideas, a compelling momentum, a deeply-rooted Americanism, and often an abundance of fun.

Ives was strictly sui generis. He had the advantage of growing up surrounded by musical open-mindedness. His father, George Ives, was a Connecticut bandmaster who for unexplained reasons took enormous pleasure from musical coincidences that most people found revolting—playing the melody of a tune in one key and its harmony in another, for example, or savoring the overlapping sounds of separate bands playing simultaneously on a parade ground. Charlie grew up with the resultant polytonality sounding logical to his ears. He went to college at Yale where he held on with a D-plus grade point average and managed to graduate in 1898, after which he sensibly took a position with an insurance firm. He proved exceptionally adept in that field and in 1906 began planning the creation of his own company—the eventual Ives & Myrick—in New York City. He would enter the annals of insurance for his groundbreaking ideas about the recruitment and training of insurance agents and his pioneering concept of estate planning.

His success as a millionaire businessman, combined with chronic but not entirely debilitating health concerns, led him to spend much of his adulthood pursuing his passion for composition in private. He was not particularly pleased that most of his pieces went unperformed, but at least his finances were such that he could go on composing whether people were interested in his work or not. One of the downsides to this is that he was not strongly compelled to finish many of his pieces; since they weren’t likely to be performed (and in many cases not even published), he could go on adjusting them ad infinitum. Of the major composers, there is surely none whose scores so often exist in a state of flux.

True to form, the Concord Sonata traces its ancestry to numerous earlier projects, with the third movement deriving from a lost Alcott Overture and/or something he identified as his Orchard House Overture. This being Ives, the Concord score is also riddled with references to pre-existent music from the broader sonic environment, ranging from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (very prominent) and Hammerklavier Sonata to such icons of Americana as “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” and Stephen Foster’s song “Massa’s in de Cold Ground.”

As Ives proclaimed at the outset, he intended that his Concord Sonata should have a great deal to do with the American Transcendentalists, the mid-nineteenth-century thinkers who aspired to a spiritual state that entirely “transcended” the constraints of the physical world and that might be achieved not through the graces of any established religion but rather through the insights of an individual’s intuitions. In the end however, this is a work of music rather than a tract of theology or metaphysics. From a musical standpoint it is extraordinary by any standard and unimaginably eccentric in the context of its time. Much of it is written without bar lines, so free is its rhythmic behavior; and the parts that are barred include such odd metric signatures as 4 ½ / 4, encountered in the third movement, “The Alcotts.”

Henry Brant was three years old when Ives got down to serious work on the Concord Sonata, and he was on the verge of displaying Ivesian inclinations of his own. As a child he created homemade instruments and composed works for them. He received a thorough musical education at the Montreal Conservatory, the Institute of Musical Arts in New York, and the Juilliard Graduate School, all the while continuing his experiments with unusual or “found-object” instruments and with deploying multiple members of the same instrumental family in a single piece. He found himself drawn increasingly to the role that space can play in composition and performance. Although he also continued working in a conventionally “non-spatial” idiom, he became famous as the kingpin of spatial music, creating about 115 works in which space was an essential part of the musical idea. Among his inspirations in this endeavor was none other than Charles Ives.

“However,” Brant reported, “it was some time before I saw a copy of the Concord Sonata, and I did not hear Kirkpatrick’s New York premiere in 1939.” Not until the late 1950s did he acquire a copy of the score and begin to practice it himself. He picks up the tale:

In choosing the Concord Sonata for orchestral treatment I felt, above all, that here Ives had achieved his most complete and comprehensive expression, and that of all his works, this was the one with the most immediate audience appeal. . . . In undertaking this project, my intention was not to achieve a characteristically complex Ives orchestral texture (which in any case, only he could produce), but rather to create a symphonic idiom which would ride in the orchestra with athletic surefootedness and present Ives’s astounding music in clear, vivid and intense sonorities.

Exploring the possibilities of an orchestral setting appropriate to the Concord Sonata, and devising workable solutions to the many technical problems involved—these things have been exhilarating experiences for me.

Adapted from notes by James M. Keller