Ives: Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting

Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting

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

COMPOSED: Some of the material dates from around 1900, but the piece was largely assembled in 1904 and then revised and completed in about 1909-11, with final work possibly continuing into 1912

WORLD PREMIERE: April 5, 1946, in Carnegie Chamber Music Hall (now Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall) in New York City, with Lou Harrison conducting the New York Little Symphony Orchestra

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 1952. Pierre Monteux conducted. MOST RECENT—September 2007. MTT led performances on the SFS European Tour

INSTRUMENTATION: A small orchestra of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trombone, and strings, with optional bells and gong

DURATION: About 19 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  For many music lovers, the mention of Charles Ives summons up a riot of musical cacophony, of more things going on than we can keep track of in a single sonic landscape. That is one of Ives’s hallmarks, and such pages—remnants of those bands competing on the parade ground—can be thrilling. Not all of Ives is like that, though, as his setting of Psalm 90 will have made clear. His Symphony No. 3 is not that sort of piece, either. It is not surprising that this should have been the work that earned Ives his Pulitzer Prize; for all its originality, it is entirely manageable for any listener. It does draw on a multiplicity of material, but it mostly presents its elements sequentially rather than superimposing them into a mass of complexity.

As with Psalm 90, this work’s genealogy reaches back to Ives’s years at Central Presbyterian Church (1900-02). Various memos and other source material attach all manner of dates to sketches and partial scores for the piece, but several cite the year 1901 and none suggest anything earlier. One says the first and third movements derived from organ pieces written in 1901. He seems to have worked on the symphony in more-or-less concentrated fashion in 1904 and then completed it in the period 1909-11. After that, it sat mute for twenty-five years.  

Two copies of the full score seem to have been made in 1911, one at the Tams copying shop in New York. That is apparently where Gustav Mahler, then the music director of the New York Philharmonic, happened to pick up the copy and found it interesting enough to take along on his imminent voyage to Europe. Details are a bit sketchy, but at least Ives seems to have thought that Mahler intended to conduct it. Mahler died shortly thereafter, and that was then end of that intriguing possibility. Mahler and Ives might seem a surpassingly odd couple. And yet, on reflection, one can appreciate at least one reason this score would have piqued Mahler’s interest. As the Ives biographer Jan Swafford put it, “He saw a composer placing, as he did, the commonplace, the humble, the shopworn in a symphonic context, and in the process renewing both the material and the symphonic genre.”

In Ives’s case, these materials are American popular music, understood in the broadest sense: hymns, patriotic music, military marches, college tunes, salon melodies, vaudeville songs, stretching even to widely represented concert-hall classics that the man in the street would have recognized. Composers use certain basic materials as the building blocks of their compositions—melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, repetition. To these, Ives adds quotation. It is a fundamental aspect of his language, where allusions to pre-existing music spur the listener to make associations from the music to the larger world beyond.

The subtitle of his Symphony No. 3 is The Camp Meeting, and this ostensible evocation of a religious-social assembly in nineteenth-century America accordingly draws liberally on Protestant hymnody. In the first movement, “Old Folks Gatherin’,” and again in the finale, “Communion,” we hear quotations from the familiar hymn-tunes “Erie” (widely known by its opening words, “What a friend we have in Jesus”), “Azmon” (“O for a thousand tongues to sing”), and “Woodworth” (“Just as I am, without one plea”). The second movement, “Children’s Day,” focuses less on the religious celebration for the adults than on the children who keep happily occupied on the periphery. Here we find further hymn-tunes—“Naomi” (“Now from the alter of my heart”), “Fountain” (“There is a fountain filled with blood”), “There is a happy land,” “Blessed Assurance”—as well as the nineteenth-century popular song “There’s Music in the Air.”

By affixing evocative titles to the movements, Ives invites us to approach them as if they were tone poems. We would not be wrong to receive them in that spirit, but somehow that seems not to be Ives’s ultimate goal. He did compose overtly descriptive pieces on quite a few occasions, illustrating narratives with concentrated precision. Here his purpose seems descriptive in a more incidental way; we can’t point to a moment in the score where the preacher takes to the pulpit or a worshiper falls to her knees, which is the sort of thing he might have made clear in a tone poem of more focused intent. Instead, his drama seems more purely musical. He is building a symphony, neither more nor less. He does this through three movements that, in their totality, hardly resemble a typical symphonic progression. The opening Andante maestoso has the solid character of a first movement, with some contrapuntal complexity at the center and a revisiting of the opening theme to add cohesion for its conclusion.  The second movement, Allegro, is the symphony’s scherzo; Ives told the composer Bernard Herrmann that it was in fact meant “to represent the games which the little children played while their elders listened to the Lord’s word”—and of the three movements, this probably comes closest to conveying an actual narrative. The third movement, Largo, corresponds to the slow movement one would expect to find in a standard symphony, but here it also serves as finale. For a while, Ives seemed to entertain the idea of having a fourth movement, apparently adapted from a section from his Orchestral Set No. 3, but he decided to do without it. Instead, the piece ends in fervent quietude and, like his Psalm 90, with the distant ringing of church bells. “The bells appear in the manuscript only as a faint outline,” reads a footnote in the published score—and that is precisely how Ives surely wanted them to sound.

James M. Keller

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Sony; currently out of print but available through online sources)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (Sony)  |  Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony (Hyperion)  |  Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony (RCA Victor Red Seal)

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)