Program Notes

Symphony No. 4

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

COMPOSED: Ives composed his Symphony No. 4 through many decades: the Prelude ca.1916-17 and revised ca.1923-24; the Allegretto ca.1916-18 and revised 1923-25; the Fugue ca.1912-13 and revised 1923-24 (it builds on the fugue from Ives’s Organ Quartet [String Quartet No. 1] of ca.1897-ca.1900, which was revised ca.1909); the Largo ca.1915-16 and revised 1921-24. Establishing precise chronology in Ives’s music is difficult, not made easier by his penchant for revision and by inconsistencies in his own reminiscences over the years

WORLD PREMIERES: The work was first performed in its entirety on April 26, 1965, in New York’s Carnegie Hall, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the American Symphony Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum, with two further conductors, José Serebrier and David Katz, assisting in some of the polymetric portions. That was the first time the Largo movement was played, but the other three movements had been given previously—the Prelude and Allegretto on January 29, 1927, in New York, with Eugene Goossens conducting the Pro Musica Society (consisting mostly of New York Philharmonic musicians), and the Fugue (in an arrangement by Bernard Herrmann) on May 10, 1933, in New York, with Herrmann conducting the Columbia Concert Orchestra on a WABC radio broadcast

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1968. Seiji Ozawa conducted. MOST RECENT—February 2002. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, pianist Christopher Oldfather, and organist Charles Rus, and additional conductor Edwin Outwater

INSTRUMENTATION: This performance uses the Ives Society Performance Edition, prepared by Thomas M. Brodhead, based on the 2011 Ives Society Critical Edition. It calls for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, tenor and baritone saxophones, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 6 trumpets (1 doubling cornet), 4 trombones, tuba, celesta, organ, optional “ether organ” (a keyboard harmonium whose keys operate a set of independent theremins—early electronic instruments; in modern practice, a synthesizer might do the job), quarter-tone piano and orchestral piano 4-hands, timpani, xylophone, high and low bells (2 players), triangle, Indian drum, piccolo tympano, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, 2 gongs (1 light, 1 heavy), solo piano, and strings, plus a mixed chorus; also “distant choirs” consisting of harp and 4 or 5 violins (in the 1st and 4th movements respectively) separated from the orchestra, and of snare drum, Indian drum, bass drum, cymbals, and gong (in the 4th movement)

DURATION: About 31 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 polytonality and asynchronism accordingly sounded logical to young Ives’s ears.

This proved exasperating to his professors at Yale, where he graduated with a D-plus grade-point average. After college, he sensibly took a position with an insurance firm and prospered as a businessman, writing 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. In the final years before he ceased composing in 1927, Ives completed a handful of astonishing avant-garde pieces, including his Three Quarter-tone Pieces for Piano and his Fourth Symphony. On New Year’s Day of 1930 he retired from the insurance business, and at about that time several 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 1940s belated honors came his way. 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 school children, 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.

His Fourth Symphony took a long time to reach the concert hall, and it did so piecemeal. The first two movements, in a simplified edition, were first played in 1927, more than a decade after the music was written. The third movement was performed on its own in 1933, and the complete symphony was finally heard in 1965. The fact that Leopold Stokowski, who presided over the 1965 premiere, enlisted the aid of two further conductors to keep things together says something about the piece’s complexity. Stokowski, eighty-three years old at the time, had been serving as one of new music’s chief midwives for many decades, and he did not shy away from complicated scores. That he felt uneasy about “going it alone” in Ives’s Fourth was quite a statement. Before long a new generation of conductors (beginning with Gunther Schuller) figured out how to bring the piece under the management of a single baton, which is how it is often presented today, although there is nothing objectionable about a modern conductor choosing to divide the labors among multiple podiums.

THE MUSIC  No listener is likely to follow every strand of Ives’s Symphony No. 4. It is a complicated collage of a work, incorporating passages from his earlier compositions (some going all the way back to his school days) and a panoply of the popular music (broadly defined) that resounded in his world, including parlor songs, marching tunes, ragtime melodies, patriotic songs, and, especially, Protestant hymns. Some thirty such “quoted sources” have been identified; some stick around long enough to make themselves indubitably recognized, while others may be glimpsed only fleetingly, leaving listeners wondering if the citation was really intended or if they are imposing on the piece something from the depths of their own memory. A program note accompanying the premiere of the first two movements in 1927 stated: “The texture of this symphony is threaded through with strands based on old hymns—not quotation from them, but thematic material derived from them.” The most prominent allusions are to hymns that were enormously popular in their day and continue to find a place in Gospel-oriented Protestant churches: “Sweet By and By,” “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” “Beulah Land,” “Throw Out the Lifeline,” “From Greenland’s Icy Mountain,” “Ye Christian Heralds,” and “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.” “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” is sung in the first movement by the chorus, which also intones “Nearer My God to Thee” wordlessly in the last. Oddly, Ives marks their first-movement portion “preferably without chorus,” implying that the orchestra should simply suggest the idea of a choir; and yet, using an actual chorus there makes good musical sense, the more so since it balances the choral writing of the fourth movement. Elsewhere, however, the hymns are rendered by instrumental forces. Ives penned a reminiscence of hearing such songs in his youth:

I remember when, I was a boy—at the outdoor Camp Meeting services in Redding [Connecticut], all the farmers, their families and field hands, for miles around, would come afoot or in their farm wagons. I remember how the great waves of sound used to come through the trees—when the things like Beulah Land, Woodworth, Nearer My God to Thee, The Shining Shore, Nettleton, In the Sweet Bye and Bye, and the like were sung by thousands of “let out” souls. The music notes and words on the paper were about as much like what they “were” (at those moments) as the monograms on a man’s necktie may be like his face. . . . Father, who led the singing, sometimes with his cornet or his voice, sometimes with both voice and arms, and sometimes in the quieter hymns with French horn or violin, would always encourage the people to sing their own way. Most of them knew the words and music (theirs) by heart, and sang it that way . . . Here was a power and exultation in these great conclaves of sound from humanity.

Ives weaves all of this, together with entirely new material, into a dense tapestry in which the orchestra often divides into multiple sub-ensembles that proceed as if oblivious to each other. The result can be a crazy quilt of conflicting tempos, tonalities, melodies, and moods that seem to define chaos but then find their way back into some semblance of order.

A program note by Henry Ballaman, based on his conversations with the composer (some suspect Ives actually wrote it himself), was provided for the 1927 concert at which the first two movements of Ives’s Fourth Symphony were premiered. It does a fine job of describing the general contours, though we should be aware that the order of the fugue and the “movement in comedy vein” were later flipped to the order in which they are performed today:

This symphony . . . consists of four movements—a prelude, a majestic fugue, a third movement in comedy vein, and a finale of transcendental spiritual content.

The aesthetic program of the work is . . . the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life. This is particularly the sense of the prelude. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies. … The prelude is brief, and its brooding introspective measures have a searching wistful quality. The Fugue . . . is an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism.

The succeeding movement . . . is not a scherzo in any accepted sense of the word; but it is a comedy. It is a comedy in the sense that Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad is comedy. Indeed this work of Hawthorne’s may be considered as a sort of incidental program in which an exciting, easy, and worldly progress through life is contrasted with the trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through the swamp. The occasional slow episodes—Pilgrims’ hymns—are constantly crowded out and overwhelmed by the former. The dream, or fantasy, ends with an interruption of reality—the Fourth of July in Concord—brass bands, drum corps, etc. . . .

Ives would later add a comment of his own about the finale: “The last movement (which seems to me the best, compared with the other movements, or for that matter with any other thing I’ve done) . . . covers a good many years. . . . In a way [it] is an apotheosis of the preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience.”

James M. Keller

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Sony)  |  Andrew Litton conducting the Dallas Symphony (Hyperion)  |  Of historical and musical interest, Leopold Stokowski conducting the American Symphony Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum New York on April 29, 1965, three days after they premiered the complete symphony (Sony)

Online: Keeping Score: Ives Holidays Symphony, with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (available from SFS Media at 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)

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