Thursday, 10 September 2015

Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, the Wild Men of Music Prom 72

Charles Ives and Carl Nielsen, two great outsiders,  together in Prom 72 with  Andrew Litton conducting the BBC SO.. the BBC Singers, the Tiffin Boys and Girls Choirs, The Crouch End Choir and a cast of good soloists

Lovely Carl Nielsen Springtime on Funen, so pretty that one might forget that Spring is brief, even on a paradise island. To make a living, Nielsen had to move to the city, though he never lost his love for his country roots. Henning Kraggerud was the soloist in Nielsen's Violin Concerto.

Charles Ives's music, like his personality, seems to defy convention. Many men write part time while pursuing other careers (like Mahler did) and many are justifiably forgotten but Ives stands out because he built on the sounds around him to create brilliant innovation.  There's nothing quite like Ives's Symphony no 4 until, perhaps, Stockhausen, yet it was written from around 1910.

To get a handle on what made Ives tick, read Stuart Feder's My Father's Song : a psychoanalytiuc biography (1992), still the most perceptive insight on what made Ives tick.  Ives's father was a rich kid, who dreamed (unsuccessfully) on breaking out.  He lived out his fantasies playing in bands commemorating the Civil War, the one time when he'd (sort of) made it big on his own. Thus Ives the son got a kind of revenge on the clan for dissing his Dad, by making more money than they ever did, and honoured his father by incorporating the hymns and brass band marches music he grew up with into music that operates like a kaleidoscope that's hard to pin down in conventional terms. Incidentally, one of the hymns Ives used has  a parody text that dates from way back, "We'll have pie in the sky when we die", an irony probably not lost on the composer.  That's why I've chosen this photo of Ives. He's crouching as if he's about to pounce like a tiger. The photographer was expecting a  normal portrait, but Ives's mischief gets the better of him.

In Ives's Fourth Symphony, different sound worlds operate, more or less independently. The music happens when the sounds are combined in the ear of the listener. Although Ives's roots were in semi-rural Danbury, Connecticut,  he commuted to New York City where  skyscrapers inhabited space in the air, and subways added dimensions underground. People came from all over, each with individual lives and agendas, their interaction - if any - creating what we might call modern city life. It's no accident that Elliott Carter admired Ives and was influenced by his ideas.

Because Ives's Fourth predicates on multiple levels and different pulses, performance predicates on precise attention to detail and accurate timing.  The BBCSO, under Andrew Litton, achieved the feat, creating the swirling textures and quirky ins and outs, weaving a whole fabric from the numerous contrary inner cells.  Nowadays we're perhaps used to multi-dimension music, but once it must have seemed hard to achieve.  All the more reason to honour the vision of Leopold Stokowski, who believed in the piece and was instrumental in bringing it to public attention.  When Stokowski first conducted it with the American Symphony Orchestra,in 1954, he needed dozens of hours of rehearsal.  Stokowski's assistant conductor was José Serebrier.  Two main conductors, together conducting an orchestra operating in two sections, with a third, smaller unit, conducted by a third conductor. Not an easy task! When Serebrier recorded Ives's Fourth  in London a few years later, he wasn't allowed the luxury of unlimited rehearsal, or the company of other conductors.  Luckily, he was conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and could rely on players who learned fast and well. He divided the orchestra up into different sections, relying on the section leaders to lead their units.  The recording is still a testimony to creative problem-solving in performance practice. .

Below Stokowski and Serebrier conduct Ives Fourth for prime time TV in the early 1960's Imagine new music getting such mass coverage now, when the media has fooled audiences into thinking that anything difficult is wrong. Without pioneers, like Ives, Stokowski and Serebrier  where would be be? ?

1 comment:

George Matusek said...

I think 1915 is a more realistic year to assign to Ives's 4th Symphony. Ives tinkered with it for years, but he essentially finished it by 1915. Psychoanalytic studies of Ives are interesting ... up to a point ... but they don't come close to explaining Ives's radical originality and profundity. At a 1962 concert in Rochester, NY, I sat next to Ives's first biographer, composer Henry Cowell -- I had read his Ives biography, but he was too busy talking to other people, so I was unable to ask him anything -- I was sitting where I was not supposed to be sitting (reserved for faculty of Eastman School of Music), so I kept my ears open and my mouth shut. I did not choose the seat -- it was held for me by a mathematician from University of Chicago (we both had National Science Foundation grants to attend a math symposium in Rochester). I enjoyed hearing Cowell gossip about Stravinsky, ... etc...