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CLASSICAL  February 2009

CLASSICAL February 2009

Subject:

Naxos's Complete Ives Songs

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 15 Feb 2009 12:43:52 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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Charles Ives
Songs, vols. 4-6

* Ives: Songs, vol.  4 - Maple Leaves; Minnelied; The New River; A Night
Thought; On the Antipodes; more

Various Artists
Naxos 8.559272  Total time: 73:15

* Ives: Songs, vol.  5 - Paracelsus; The Rainbow; Remembrance; Requiem;
September; Serenity; The Side Show; Sunrise; more

Various Artists
Naxos 8.559273  Total: 80:00

* Ives: Songs, vol.  6 - There is a Lane; They are There!; The Things
Our Fathers Loved; Thoreau; Tolerance; Tom Sails Away; Two Little Flowers;
Vote for Names!; Walt Whitman; Watchman!; William Will; more

Various Artists.
Naxos 8.559274  Total time: 65:48

Summary for the Busy Executive: They sing in my soul.

We have here the last three volumes of Naxos's set of Ives's complete
songs, minus the ones he never finished.  Ives turned out one of the
most prolific songwriters of the century, finishing up with nearly two
hundred.  Unlike Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Faure, Ives never wrote
a cycle.  Unlike Wolf, who methodically went through volumes of lyric
poetry, Ives seemed to turn to song only when he found or wrote a text
he wanted to set.  This justifies Naxos's presentation of the songs
alphabetically by title (although I would have preferred chronological
order)..  Yet despite this apparently casual approach, Ives's songs
became central to his achievement in instrumental genres, and his
instrumental works also influenced his songs.

Volume 4 contains "Majority" through "Over All the Treetops," volume 5
"Paracelsus" through "Swimmers," and volume 6 "Tarrant Moss" through
"Yellow Leaves." This runs to 105 songs.

What impresses here, besides individual items, is Ives's amazing variety.
One finds Lieder, melodie, Victorian and Edwardian "parlor songs," Ives's
version of Impressionist nature painting, political songs, philosophic
songs, "sacred arias," college songs, songs of remembrance and recollection,
settings of literature, and surprisingly few love songs not among the
Lieder.  The quality of almost every single one is amazingly high.  The
composer seldom wrote a dud, and those tended to occur very early, in
his teens.  Ives's work falls into rough periods.  In the 1880s, we
find his juvenilia.  A Yale period follows, during which Ives studies
with the American Wagnerian Horatio Parker and acquires a first-class
professional technique.  The myth of Ives as a naive tinkerer is just
that.  In fact, he underwent a more thorough professional training than
the largely self-taught Elgar.  The music follows contemporary trends,
mainly German and Central European, with Dvorak and Brahms notable
influences.  The first symphony (1898, original version) follows in
general a conventional course, although the first movement seems to want
to modulate through all the keys.  By the second symphony (1902, original
version), Ives keeps the harmonic basis of tonal music, but begins to
incorporate his "collage" technique, where he incorporates medleys of
popular tunes.  He also feels himself consciously looking to write an
identifiably-"American" music.  The Symphony #3 (1904) represents the
peak of this style, although harmonically it flits about strange territory.
The next decade saw increasing experimentation as Ives transforms into
the composer we know.  However, none of these periods are truly separate.
Ives produced experimental work as early as the Nineties and relatively
conservative work late.  Any idiom can pop up at any time, and the songs
bear this out.

Because of the helter-skelter of the songs, I find it difficult to
organize this review.  I'll try to stick to discussing categories,
fitting them as much as I can into a general chronology.

PARLOR SONG

Ives grew up in small-town New England among a musical family, so he
would have encountered many of these.  The "Slow March" (1887) is his
earliest known song.  Fairly bland, it's at least capable, but you can't
say much more for it.  However, Ives soon began imitating the best of
the era, mainly people like Stephen Foster and Henry Clay Work, and his
writing improved.  "Marie" (2nd version, 1901), "My Lou Jennine" (1894),
"Memories: a.  Very Pleasant & b. Rather Sad" (1897), "A Perfect Day"
(1902, nothing like the Carrie Jacobs Bond hit), "To Edith" (1919), "Two
Little Flowers" (1921) are superior examples of the type.  However, as
early as 1888, we see him itching to try other things, with his satirical
"A Song -- For Anything." He takes the same tune and puts three different
sets of lyrics to it: a "sacred song," a love song, and a "farewell to
Yale." The song demonstrates, in Ives's words, "how inferior music is
inclined to follow inferior words, and vice-versa." It's a cousin of the
joke in Singin' in the Rain, where Don Lockwood's (Gene Kelly) career
is traced through tonier and tonier venues with the same music.  Ives
often avoids the sentimentality of the genre, even with drippy texts,
by superior melody and elegantly irregular phrasing.  Ives knew very
well that he was drawn to such things, but he never dismissed them and
looked on them as imperfect expressions of the divine.  On the other
hand, the late "The One Way" (1923) satirizes the songs that a younger
Ives was happy to write, showing the anger of one who considered himself
a dupe.  Nevertheless, he kept coming up with such things even late, as
in "On the Counter" (1920).

LIEDER AND MELODIES

These begin to appear in the Nineties, probably spurred by Ives's studies
at Yale.  Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms are the big influences here,
and Ives comes up with stuff that stands, modest though unashamed, in
that august company.  "Rosenzweig" of 1892 and the 1896 version of "Marie"
(unlike the second) have a Schubertian directness and simplicity.  It's
all about the melody.  "Wiegenlied" (1896) incorporates a Brahmsian
texture and a bit of Grieg harmony.  Some songs exist in two versions,
German and English -- like the Brahmsian "Widmung" (1899) and "There is
a Lane" (1902) -- where the later "regularizes" the original.  One also
finds songs in English in the Lieder style.  Both "On Judges' Walk"
(1901) and "Rough Wind" (1902) use the opening theme of Ives's first
symphony.  "Over All the Treetops" (1903), Harmony Ives's paraphrase of
Goethe's "Ueber allen Gipfeln," reverts to Ives's Schubert vein -- one
of Ives's most affecting songs (although here taken too fast).  The
French songs are fewer, but "Qu'il m'irait bien" (1897) perfectly captures
the harmony and manner of Chabrier.

However, Ives permits himself to stretch in the genre as well, adding
"touches" that become the bases of his more experimental work.  "The
Only Son" (1898), a setting of Kipling, twists 19th-century notions of
harmony almost to breakdown, while both versions of "Rosamunde" (1898,
1901) may begin in Schubert, but end in a characteristic Ivesian
neighborhood.  "Old Home Day" (1920) on the other hand shows Ives's
mastery of integrating sudden shifts of mood and popular quotation into
coherence -- familiar to those who know his second symphony of almost
two decades before.

COLLEGE AND POLITICAL SONG

Like Cole Porter not that much later, Ives entered into the musical
side of Yale college life with gusto.  The one such song in these three
volumes, 1895's "Son of a Gambolier," is a college drinking/fight song
with the same tune as the later "I'm a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech."
So Ives had a minor hit ("I'm a rambling rake of poverty/And the son of
a gambolier").  How it ever made its way from New Haven to Atlanta, I
have no idea.

The political songs run the gamut from enthusiasm to acerbic
disappointment.  "William Will!" (1896) raises the banner for McKinley,
a campaign song with "virtuoso" piano interludes between the stanzas.
Designed as a rouser, it mostly talks about the virtues of a high tariff,
exactly the opposite of most official Republican thinking today, oddly
enough.  It's amazing how Ives gets you to care.  "Vote for Names!  Names!
Names!" came about during the 1912 Presidential campaign where Wilson,
Taft, and Roosevelt slugged it out.  Ives apparently disliked all of
them.  The song requires three pianists, each pounding their own music,
representing the cant of all three political parties, including the Bull
Moose.  Another, more scathing version exists, referring to "Woodrow,
William, and Theodore" in schoolmarmish tones.  "Nov.  2, 1920 (An
Election)" takes an even dimmer view.  Ives hated the results of that
election, which buried his granite ethic in "normalcy." He felt that the
ideals soldiers had died for in the previous war had been dismissed, and
he was pretty much right.  This is one of Ives's most distinctive and
difficult songs, a vocal equivalent of the "Hawthorne" movement in his
"Concord" Sonata.  Robert Gardner sings the bejeezus out of this thing.

"Tom Sails Away" (1917) begins as a typically-Ives "recollection" song,
where the narrator remembers scenes from his childhood.  However, the
song takes on a sudden power at the end, when it turns out that Tom sails
away to "over there." This and "Grantchester" (from Naxos's second volume)
are two of Ives's greatest from the First World War.  "They are There!"
made me pop-eyed when I saw the date: 1942.  My reading led me to believe
that Ives composed nothing new after 1927, when he felt his muse had
left him.  Apparently World War II inspired him to a patriotic rouser
-- this one quoting Sousa and "The Battle Cry of Freedom." It resembles
Cohan's "Over There" a little, and it's just as sturdy a tune.  Often,
singers perform these three songs together for an effective "group."

EXPERIMENTAL SONGS

When people think of Ives, they think of music like this.  Ives saw
his music as a sort of spiritual pilgrimage, and the pilgrim's way is a
flinty one.  The experimental songs generally break into two subcategories:
philosophy and nature, often with some overlap, since Ives read deeply
the New England transcendentalists.  These songs turn up early, with
work like "Song for the Harvest Season" (1894, not to be confused with
the 3 Harvest Home Carols), full of the free dissonance we associate
with Ives after World War I.  "Majority" (1921), at seven minutes
one of Ives's longest songs, flaunts mostly very gritty piano and
an in-your-face vocal line.  A series of high-flown statements about
existential meaning, the text, by Ives himself, doesn't really make much
sense.  "The masses are thinking, whence comes the art of the world?"
Honestly, I doubt whether the masses think that.  Fortunately, baritone
Robert Gardner momentarily suspends disbelief.  Perhaps the composer's
most iconic song, "The Things Our Fathers Loved" (1917), well-sung by
bass David Pittsinger, weaves popular tunes into a meandering vocal line,
as the narrator tries to recall songs of his youth -- one of Ives's major
statements on the spiritual meaning of the sentimental.  "Thoreau" (1915)
became a study for the corresponding movement in the "Concord" Sonata.
"Watchman!" (1913) combines one of Ives's strongest tunes with a
freely-dissonant accompaniment.  Ives made it the basis of the first
movement of his fourth symphony.  This is one of Ives's best, as is
"Serenity" (1919), to Whittier's "O Sabbath rest by Galilee." The latter
suspends time into timelessness, much as The Unanswered Question does.
Ian Howell's unearthly counter-tenor gives the song even more luster.

"Mists" (1910) and "Maple Leaves" (1920, also sung by Howell) represent
Ives's nature-painting.  It has superficial affinities with Debussy's
-- a lot of haze.  However, where Debussy is fascinated with surface,
Ives uses the effect to get the listener into transcendental mode.
Jennifer Casey Cabot stays sweet and true, despite the dissonant curves
Ives throws her from the piano.  Ives never completed his late masterpiece
"Sunrise" (1927).  Indeed, it's the last piece he got into decent shape
before inspiration fled.  We hear John Kirkpatrick's edition of the song
for voice, piano, and violin.  Tamara Mumford gives a haunting reading.

There are also "one-offs," paths Ives discovered but never pursued.
"Walking" (1900) proceeds in sections, yet holds together through subtle
motific variation in the piano. I consider it one of the composer's finest.
Its syncopations seduce me, as do its Gershwinesque harmonies long before
the fact of Gershwin's music.  "Side Show" (1921) is a witty morsel --
an Irish waltz in 5/8 time, which manages to briefly quote the second
movement of Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique," also in five.  "Walt Whitman"
(1921) is Ives's only setting of a poet for whom he himself was the
musical incarnation.  Lots of clanging fourths and fifths, as Ives
emits his own version of a "barbaric yawp."

THE SERIES

This endeavor strikes me as largely a Yale project.  The university
provided or trained most of the singers, the pianists, and the venue.
Although you can hear better readings of individual songs, the standard
here remains quite high throughout.  The standout singers include all
the mezzos (Tamara Mumford, Mary Phillips, Leah Wool, Amanda Ingram),
tenors Ryan MacPherson and Kenneth Tarver, baritone Robert Gardner,
sopranos Lielle Berman, Janna Baty, Jennifer Casey Cabot, and Sumi
Kittelberger, and especially counter-tenor Ian Howell.  They hit it out
of the park every time they come to bat.  However, the rest of the squad
all get their moments to shine -- a deep bench.  I should say that Kevin
Tarver's voice took some getting used to (a little reedy), but his musical
intelligence won me over every time.  I thought Gardner and Howell had
the most beautiful voices in the group, and they also know their way
around a song.

Among Naxos's most important releases.

Steve Schwartz

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