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I Hear America Singing: Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2

by John Bloner, Jr.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else - Walt Whitman

I'd wanted to like the music of American composer Charles Ives for a long time and listened intently to the few records that our local library possessed in its collection. I knew of the great European composers, but wanted to embrace an American classical music composer. Surely, one continent or country couldn't have an exclusive claim on greatness. I hoped that Ives would fit the bill.

No matter how many times I turned my ears to Ives, they were not ready to receive, as conductor Michael Tilson Thomas describes it in the video below; the "savage chaos" served up in his music. I was not prepared, as Ives himself once said, to "stand up and take [my] dissonance like a man." Charles liked to quote his father, George, a Civil War-era bandleader, who told his son:

"You won't get a wild, heroic trip to heaven on pretty little sounds."

I wanted those "pretty little sounds" though. I did not want to be savaged by dissonance.

I've known plenty of dissonance in my day-to-day. I wanted to relax into music; instead, Ives kicked the back of my chair each time I found a small slip of comfort. I told myself that I would take a "wild, heroic trip to heaven" but only if I could do it in a first-class seat, with fair skies and a pretty flight attendant plumping my pillow.

I was like a Christian neophyte who had begun his Bible education by reading The Book of Revelation. I wanted an Eden before the Fall and to know Noah before the Flood. The storms in Ives' later work needed to wait. My ears were not ready to receive them.

I'd confessed all of this to a friend, who, by providence, had established a kinship with an Ives' admirer. She shared my interest in the composer with him.

"Listen to the Second Symphony, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra," was his advice. I've been in his debt ever since. (Thanks, Martin.)

Bernstein had recorded this piece of music three times, first with the Philharmonic in 1958, then with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1987, and finally in 1988. Whereas the inaugural recording was taken at a brisk tempo, Bernstein's final outing with Ives' Second clocked in several minutes slower. What the '58 version lacks in audio quality, it makes up for energy, particularly in the final movement.

Conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein
It's fitting that Bernstein's name is synonymous with this work. In 1951, he and the Philharmonic were the first to perform it, even though Ives had written it 50 years earlier. Other works by the composer had also taken decades to be heard.

The Second Symphony is an autobiography, told with notes instead of words, of a young Charles Ives, who's sharing the sounds of the marching bands, collegiate anthems, barn dances, parlor pianos, Stephen Foster songs, and church hymns that stirred his senses when he was a boy in Connecticut, and he's combining them with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

The result is much, much more than the sum of its parts. Its breadth is like an evening walk with a friend, where you're exposed to many sounds such as the neighbor's girl practicing the piano, boys at play in the park, a mother calling for her child to come home, or a baseball game just getting underway.

Charles Ives (left), captain of the Hopkins
Grammar School baseball team
"Listen, closely," you might say to your companion. "Can't you hear the high school marching band practicing for the July 4th parade?" To which, she could reply, "I was listening to the church bells. Their sound always brings me peace."  

When you're listening to Charles Ives, you're not hearing Bach, even though his music is contained within his score. You're not hearing a fiddle tune or a hymn, even though those are there, too. You're hearing the world of Charles Ives made manifest in music.

The first 15 minutes of this symphony, ending abruptly in the video with "Bringing In The Sheaves," appears directly below. The remaining 30 minutes may also be seen and heard in separate segments in this article.

Irena Grafenauer
Haunting the hills, the stream, the wild,
Swallow and aster, lake and pine,
To him grew human or divine --
Fit mates for this large-hearted child.
Thoreau's Flute by Louisa May Alcott

Charles Ives was drawn to Henry David Thoreau, the writer and the man, beginning in his youth and continuing through his life. New England as seen through Thoreau's eyes was a canvas on which he could paint his thoughts on nature and the conduct of life.

Henry David Thoreau
In his solitude, Thoreau played a wooden flute. This fact and its relevance to Ives' Second Symphony only occurred to me after viewing the video of Bernstein's concert several times, fascinated, as the camera appears to be equally fascinated with the ethereal quality of the silver flute, as played in that performance by Slovenian flutist Irena Grafenauer.

Amidst the blare of the brass, the pounding of the tympani, the lowing of the cello, Grafenauer's flute weaves through it all, as a quiet man (or woman) would finding their way through a forest. A good example of this is seen just before the thirty second mark in the video below, when the orchestra is hushed so Grafenauer may introduce a sea shanty, "What Shall We Do With A Drunken Soldier," before handing it off to the oboist beside her.

Another example occurs in the third movement, starting at the four minute mark, when Bernstein slowly unveils the musical line--O, beautiful, for spacious skies--from "America The Beautiful." There is a tremendous ache in this music. For me, it washes away all cynicism, just as viewing "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" can renew hope for humanity. There is a sacred shiver to it.

Have you ever run down a hill and felt both the terror and the thrill when your momentum takes over and you cannot stop running, even if you tried? That sensation describes the final moments of the Second Symphony, when the score seems to gathers up almost everything that has come before and takes the listener on a fast gallop, while Reveille calls from the horns, "Columbia" is reprised, the minstrel tune, "Wake Nicodemus," comes to the fore, and if a thousand horses rushed the aisles in this moment, you would not be surprised at all.

Witness the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, beginning at the 10 minute mark of the video below, as the music evokes a late summer's afternoon on the veranda before the tempo abruptly changes and a sonic goulash is created.

My favorite part occurs at about the 11:30 mark when a grin stretches over the conductor's face and he pumps his arms to the beat of the music.

Also, no matter how many times I've listened to this symphony, I'm forever surprised by its final note--as if a painter had finished his masterpiece by snapping his wrist to see all of the oil that had collected in the bristles of his brush cast onto his canvas.

Charles Ives added this ending to his symphony many years after he had originally composed the work. Some critics refer to it as a "raspberry," as if Ives is sticking out his tongue at his audience. Others have referred to it as akin to the end of a fiddle tune, when the fiddler draws up the bow. I think of it as a comment by Ives on the industrial age with its noise and dirt. In his book, "Mad Music," author Stephen Budiansky writes that Ives "was never truly at home in the twentieth century. He hated airplanes, was suspicious of telephones, went for years without reading newspapers." That final blat from the orchestra could be the blare of a car horn or any other vulgar sound that shakes you from your bliss.

Charles Bernstein's production became my gateway into the world of Charles Ives, one that I celebrate each year as spring turns into summer, the high school bands rehearse for the big parade and neighbors unfurl the Stars and Stripes.

I hear America singing in his music; I've come to love his dissonances, too. I feel like Leonard Bernstein when I listen to the Second and his other symphonies, string quartets, songs and piano sonatas. Through his work, he can remind us of where we've been, who we are, and what can be possible for the human spirit. I'm fortunate to have finally found my way into his music and invite you to spend some time with it, too. Find out more about the composer at the Charles Ives Society here.