Charles Ives' â€˜Universe Symphonyâ€™ has become the stuff of legend. Composed in parallel with the fourth, the last of his numbered symphonies, it languished in the composer's original fragments (aside from one version created after his death) until the premiere of Johnny Reinhard's remarkable new realization in 1996 with the American Festival of Microtonal Music Orchestra. For the last decades of his life, health badly compromised through overwork, Ives begged others to finish the symphony from his comprehensive sketches. None would.
Over ten years ago, having been fascinated for years by stories of this mythical music, Johnny Reinhard decided to dig. He found surprisingly clear clues and directions from the great man which convinced him that the symphony's final form could be defined. He even received the approval of the Ives Society, who are dedicated to making sure that his legacy is not compromised, for his first performance of his realization of this huge work, at Lincoln Center on June 6, 1996.
The Universe Symphony can now be seen clearly as Ives' largest and grandest conception. As the last work of this inveterate musical iconoclast, it is only fitting that its instrumentation be strikingly different and more ambitious than any other. Characteristically far-reaching, the composer described the symphony enigmatically, more in terms of the 'painting of Creation' and 'not music as such.' During his lifetime, its completion would remain out of his grasp, to his intense frustration.
New findings and research by Johnny Reinhard enabled him to construct a fresh performing version lasting 64 minutes and requiring 74 musicians including, extraordinarily, nine flutes, five bassoons and fourteen percussionists. He conducted its premiere, at Lincoln Center, New York, on June 6 1996 with the full approval of the Charles Ives Society. For the last five years, the Stereo Society has been carefully preparing a commercial recording directed by Reinhard of this new version which benefits from many of New York's top musicians. Unsurprisingly, this recording also needed to utilize some novel techniques.
The names of its movements are evocative: â€˜Earth Aloneâ€™, â€˜Pulse Of The Cosmosâ€™, â€˜Birth Of The Oceansâ€™, â€˜Earth Is Of The Heavensâ€™ and more. Dramatically, most of the first half hour is scored for percussion alone, building from a solitary low bell to a unique sonic mix with all players sounding different patterns, until winding down again. This remarkable pattern cycles through and underpins the whole work, and when solo anticipates later all-percussion pieces such as VarÃ¨se's â€˜Ionisationâ€™ and Cage's â€˜Constructions In Metalâ€™. The second half layers the huge, unique orchestra over the ceaseless percussion, until concluding the tenth cycle with the solitary bookend, the low bell.
The symphony's realization differs from convention in almost every imaginable way, yet Reinhard remarks that he did not add any notes to the composer's original manuscripts. He sees his role not as a creator, but rather a curator, and has argued his editorial decisions coherently and decisively in a book of nearly 200 pages. The new, authoritative recording documents, finally, the crowning achievement of America's musical father figure. At last, Mr Ives might have been satisfied.
Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954)
Only 1% of all Americans would recognize the name Charles Ives. And out of that 1 percent, half will recognize him only as a great life-insurance businessman. Ives was a self-made millionaire thanks to his introduction of door-to-door life insurance sales. The remaining half-percent know of the musical accomplishments of this extraordinary genius.
Influenced by his father, the youngest band leader serving in the Civil War, Charles would first become a professional organist, working for different churches. Some of his Church experiences remind of the young Johann Sebastian Bach; both composer/organists would add extra dissonances and melisma to standard organ responses. As a result of his shyness, Ives would eventually wean himself from keyboard performing. He resolved to enter the business world and make enough money so that he could keep evenings and weekends free for composing.
Ives' business was so lucrative that he later was able to become America's first great music philanthropist. In addition to helping conductors launch concerts and publishers to distribute their editions, Ives aided numerous composers anonymously, including John Cage. In an attempt to share most fairly with his fellow Americans, Ives purposely asked that his music not be copyrighted, although the request has not been honored.
It was rare for the composer to get the chance to experience a live performance of his music, so Ives' music piled up. It is likely that Ives heard his music in his mind so vividly that he was able to withstand the anxiousness of not hearing his works performed aloud by others. By 1916 he had to call it quits as his health faltered though he lived on as a cheerleader for countless others.
Ives self-released a book of songs he composed and mailed it to anyone he thought might be remotely interested. Naturally, there were piano sonatas. More originally, there is the â€˜Three Piecesâ€™ for two pianos in quartertones. There were violin sonatas and two string quartets. Sometimes, he fashioned music only about a place, as with â€˜Central Park In The Darâ€™k. His went from â€˜The Celestial Countryâ€™ to the â€˜Universe Symphonyâ€™.
While the scientist looks over his shoulder and sees Albert Einstein, and the violinist sees Jascha Heifetz, the American composer sees Charles Ives. Works like â€˜The Unanswered Questionâ€™, â€˜Variations on Americaâ€™, and the fourth symphony forever emboss the name of Charles Ives into that .5% of Americans, and much more of the musical world at large.
Great people transcend their time. Better, for those of us following, they define it. Charles Ives' accomplishments are tangible in the substantial body of work composed until his health failed him in his mid-fifties, around 1927. Even more importantly, he has become recognized as the true father of American music, breaking ground for confident innovators of a generation later such as Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and John Cage. Thanks to his insurance business fortune, he would also provide economic encouragement along with the inspirational.
Ives' daring musical experiments firmly established a national musical identity free of the dead hand of historical Europe, whose musical hegemony he was among the first to challenge. He set the example that has informed progressive music since: new is good. Ives became American music's defining grand old man.
His progressive student inclinations might have cost him his Yale degree. However, he bowed to his conservative teacher and concluded his first, student thesis symphony in the key in which it started, instead of moving elsewhere, an innovation he had preferred. It's a bland, easy-going piece. But by his last numbered symphony, the fourth, he incorporates raucous, all-American vernacular gestures, culminating in his most well-known effect, that of a marching band passing by an open window completely out of time with the progress of the symphony.
Some of his most groundbreaking work is in the two orchestral 'sets', which he might have called symphonies had they been less exuberantly original, filled to bursting with fresh ideas which often draw on folk culture even while using characteristically tough harmony and radical structure. The section names themselves evoke a nation growing in self-confidence: Central Park In The Dark, Boston Common, The Housatonic At Stockbridge. Ives had transcended the cultural dependence of his contemporaries.
His abstract work was no less innovative, and today still defines its own stylistic space. The chamber music, notably the classic â€˜Concord Sonataâ€™ for piano (with flute), and other dramatic orchestral works such as â€˜The Unanswered Questionâ€™, built on a fresh American intellectual base first articulated in the previous century notably by Emerson and Thoreau. The Robert Browning Overture still sounds startling today. Much of his work would lie unplayed, even for decades. His greatest abstract work of all, the â€˜Universe Symphonyâ€™, had to wait until 1996 for its definitive performing version. It was ironic that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his third symphony, one year after its premiere but 38 years after its completion.
Charles Ives pulled off the double trick of composing an extensive, inspiring, enduring and passionate body of work while exercising the daring that continues to inspire composers, even beyond the United States. He continues to provoke respect and controversy equally. Truly, the American Original.