Ives: Psalm 90

Psalm 90

BORN: October 20, 1874. Danbury, Connecticut
DIED: May 19, 1954. New York City

COMPOSED: Some ideas may go back to about 1894, some to around 1897-98; he then re-composed the piece in 1923-24

WORLD PREMIERE: April 18, 1966. Gregg Smith conducted the Gregg Smith Singers at the Leo S. Bing Center of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1990. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, with the SFS Chorus. MOST RECENT—November 2007. MTT conducted, again with the SFS Chorus

INSTRUMENTATION: Mixed chorus with organ and bells (or, in the edition used here, bells and a gong)

DURATION: About 11 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Charles Ives grew up surrounded by musical open-mindedness or, better put, open-earedness. His father was a Connecticut bandmaster who delighted in musical coincidences that most people found revolting—playing a melody in one key and its harmony in another, for example, or savoring the overlapping sounds of separate bands playing on a parade ground. The resultant asynchronism of musical information accordingly sounded logical to young Ives’s ears.

This proved exasperating to his professors at Yale, where Ives graduated with a D-plus grade-point average. After college, he sensibly took a position with an insurance firm and prospered as a businessman, finding time to write music on the side. He was not particularly pleased that most of his works went unperformed, but his finances were such that he could go on composing whether people were interested in his work or not. He ceased composing in 1927 and retired from the insurance business on New Year’s Day of 1930. At about that time, some of his works began to be performed, thanks to the advocacy of such admirers as the composers Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, and Bernard Herrmann, the pianist John Kirkpatrick, and the musical factotum Nicolas Slonimsky. In the 1930s, a number of his songs were premiered in American and European music capitals; the composer Olivier Messiaen served as accompanist when some were premiered in Paris. A handful of his major scores were appearing in print; his Three Places in New England, for example, was published in 1935, when its composer was sixty. Further touchstone pieces were premiered in the 1940s after languishing unheard for decades. In 1946, for example, audiences got their first taste of his String Quartet No. 2 and his Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, both of which he had completed more than thirty years before. Recognition had been a long time coming, but when it finally arrived it did so decisively. In 1945, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1946, the New York Music Critics’ Circle gave a special citation to his Symphony No. 3; and in 1947, he was given the Pulitzer Prize for that work. These were the only musical awards he received in his lifetime. “Awards and prizes are for schoolchildren, and I’m no longer a school boy,” he harrumphed, keeping up appearances as the cranky Yankee he often was; but his friends recounted that, deep down, he seemed pleased and sincerely honored by this turning of the tide.

Establishing the chronology of Ives’s compositions is usually a complicated matter. Given the unlikelihood of a performance, he was not under a composer’s usual pressure to finish anything. As a result, he could go on tinkering with a piece over years or even decades, setting it aside for a while and returning to it with no particular sense of urgency. He might include some relevant dates on a manuscript score. He might write out a piece afresh at different times, often incorporating alterations—with dates appended or not. He might jot down something relevant on the slips of paper he called “memos,” notes he wrote to himself to capture thoughts on his music, his intended projects, his experiences, or other topics. From time to time he would go through these memos to pluck out items appropriate to some current enterprise, with the result that many became misplaced. After the composer’s death, his acolyte John Kirkpatrick managed to reassemble a great many of the memos, and he published them in 1972. Though that volume can prove frustrating—its very nature is to be fragmentary and desultory—it is packed with flashes of reminiscence and insight for anyone interested in the composer and his works.

THE MUSIC  Ives’s choral setting of Psalm 90 is typical. He apparently composed it—and recomposed it—over a span of some thirty years. A memo mentions “some pieces . . . that father let me work over, and some he tried in the choirs—but had a hard time. The 150th Psalm was one, part of the 90th, and the 67th.” From 1878 to 1888, George Ives conducted the choir at Danbury Methodist Church, so that would suggest that some aspect of young Charlie’s setting was germinating by the latter year. In another memo, Ives says he wrote his Psalm 90 in 1894, which is the year his father died. There are also references to a version he wrote for the choir he himself directed at New York’s Central Presbyterian Church from 1900 to 1902. He left various manuscripts behind when he resigned—this piece among them—and later learned that when the church moved to a new location, in 1915, they were consigned to the garbage. In 1923 and 1924, he set about reconstructing his Psalm setting, but as best anyone can tell from the extant sources from that time, he ended up pretty much recomposing it from the ground up.

We hear the piece in an edition put together by Kirkpatrick and the choral conductor Gregg Smith, published in 1966. The piece is scored for four-part mixed chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) with considerable division of parts to expand the texture, sometimes even into what practically qualify as tone clusters. The forces are eked out by organ and optional bells and gong. The organ begins on its own with a series of none-too-related chords, all sounded above a low-C drone. Above five of these chords, Ives inscribes ideas they symbolize: The Eternities, Creation, God’s wrath against sin, Prayer and Humility, and Rejoicing in Beauty and Work. After the last of the chords is sounded, three bells and a gong enter, marked “distant,” suggesting tolling church-bells. The text involves the measuring of human life against the infinity of time. The harmonies from the organ’s introduction come back to flavor ensuing sections of the Psalm setting. The verse “Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts into wisdom” is set to a chord sequence that had appeared in Ives’s Symphony No. 1, which he had written while a student at Yale, just months after his father died; after that section, a solo soprano utters a line, the lone voice intensifying a personal feeling. The final pages unroll placidly over the long-held drone of low C, with bells again ringing in the distance. This ending conveys profound comfort, and it effectively brought to a close his work as a composer. He went on to sketch two songs after that but completed neither. In the preface to the published score, Kirkpatrick wrote that Psalm 90, in its final version, “combines the fresh melodic directness of his early anthems, the visionary daring of his harmonic revolt, and the mature transcendence of the Fourth Symphony”—to which he added, “Mrs. Ives recalled his saying that it was the only one of his works that he was satisfied with.”

University of Texas Chamber Singers and Chamber Orchestra with James Morrow conducting (Naxos)  |  The Westminster Choir, with Joseph Flummerfelt conducting (Avie)

Online: Keeping Score: Ives Holidays Symphony, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at keepingscore.org and on iTunes and Amazon)

Reading: Charles Ives: A Life with Music, by Jan Swafford (Norton)  |  Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music, by J. Peter Burkholder (Yale University Press)  |  Charles Ives Reconsidered, by Gayle Sherwood Magee (University of Illinois Press)  |  The Music of Charles Ives, by Philip Lambert (Yale University Press)  |  Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History, by Vivian Perlis (University of Illinois Press)  |  The Charles Ives Tunebook (second edition), by Clayton W. Henderson (Indiana University Press)  |  Memos, by Charles Ives, edited by John Kirkpatrick (Norton) 

(November 2017)