Charles Ives: Variations on "America"

It's a new year, folks!  For us Floridian's it's already 85° outside, meanwhile the rest of the country is covered in this strange substance that's not entirely like ice.  We'll get back to you on that after we spend the next several days at the beach.  I digress- with the new year comes new series!  I am happy to announce that the first series of the year of our Lord, Two-Thousand Fourteen will be none other than:

For the next four weeks, we are going to look at some of the most influential American composers throughout our country's interesting history.  Granted, we're in a bit of a slump at the moment, but dammit we're still America!  It's always been interesting to me to compare music traditions in our own country with that of European cultures since American music is insanely young compared to something like Ancient Greece.  We'll talk about different stylistic things introduced on the home turf as well, but first I want to share with you one of my absolute favorite composers, Mr. Charles Ives (1874-1954).

Charles Ives, like most good musicians, had a day job.  Unlike most musicians, however, Ives made a decent living from his day job.  Born to a father who was an Army band director during the Civil War, Ives began his musical studies at a very young age under his father's direction.  From early on he was influenced by the contemporary music of his time, such as Stephen Foster, as well as the religious and patriotic music of the early 1900's.  The elder George Ives took a liberal approach to music theory, which at the time was relatively cutting edge on the American music scene.

We've talked about music theory a bit in here before, and I'm wiling to bet that most of you are familiar with tonal vs. atonal to some degree.  If music sounds relaxing and calm, it's typical of a tonal variety.  If it sounds harsh and coarse, full of tension, it probably has some atonal notes mixed in.  Tonal implies that all the notes fit into the harmony we use which is based on the traditional Western scale of 8 notes. Atonal adds some extra notes, and the closer the notes are to each other, the crunchier it all gets.

So Ives and his dad had these little musical experiments they would conduct. To relate to a modern day example, think of a time you pulled up to a stoplight with your radio on and some idiot pulls up next to you, windows down, stereo blasting. Ignore the seething anger for a moment and think back to what that might've sounded like. Let's say you're rocking out to Queen and your neighbor is blasting Justin Beiber.

What does that sound like?

Well, whatever it sounds like was what was an inspiration to the Ives men. One of his most recognized pieces came from an experience where he was in-between two civic bands playing in a large square and as they each played their respective marches simultaneously the mixture somehow made sense to Ives. And so, "Country Band March" was penned.  This piece features two distinct marches being played at the same time, plus many idiosyncrasies that were endemic to amateur performers of this time. For example adding cymbal crashes on the wrong beat to imitate a lost percussionist.

Ives began playing organ for his church at the age of 14, a position he held through his college days. Upon graduating he began his career in the insurance world, eventually forming his own company and establishing protocol for life insurance that actually impacted and shaped how we manage certain aspects of that industry today. His success in the business world offered him a unique chance many composers could only dream of. As a result of his financial stability, he often was able to self-finance his compositions and arrange his own performances of his music. This gave him a tremendous amount of liberty to create music that he wanted to, as opposed to writing for a specific benefactor or purpose. Despite this, response to his particular flair was tepid at best throughout most of his life. Towards the 1930's, composers such as Leonard Berstein and Aaron Copland began noticing Ives' quiet work and displaying it on their own concerts. However, much of his present fame status was not established until decades after he died.  

The piece we are examining today is "Variations on America".  Originally written for the organ at the age of 18, Ives famously claimed that his Variations were "...as much fun as playing baseball." Ives was not only a talented baseball player, he was also one of the few people who could pull this piece of his off on the organ. 

It features an introduction that is a variation itself, albeit one that plays more with the temporal nature of the piece.  From there he explores many musical styles of the day, throwing in atonal bits and pieces here and there to accentuate and punctuate his other thematic material.  

When I sit and listen (or when I've been fortunate enough to perform the band arrangement) I can't help but think of a good baseball game.  It was later set for full band by William Schumann, another champion of both atonal and American cultural music.  As we evolve through the different variations you can't help but hear the hodge-podge of cultural ideas and norms that is America. We are a bunch of crazies living together under a crazy idea that everyone should be free to live and be happy. And it doesn't always work out, you hear that in the Ives too, but dammit we keep trying. We make mistakes, but we keep fighting to stay free in our own ways.

Ives I think understood this concept better than most. In much of his work I think he felt as though he were carrying forward the mantle of his father's musical experiments, but also giving voice to a nation that was growing quickly and trying to develop a more mature identity.

Our recordings today come from the two popular versions of this piece.  The first being the original work for organ, performed by E. Power Biggs and the second being the wind band arrangement by Schumann performed by none other than the President's Own, the United States Marine Corps Band.

See you next Friday.


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