Lectures/Scripts/WritingsTelevision ScriptsYoung People's ConcertsCharles Ives: American Pioneer

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Young People's Concert

Charles Ives: American Pioneer

Written by Leonard Bernstein
Original CBS Television Network Broadcast Date: 23 February 1967

Don't clap, I want to ask you a question: If you heard that rathe bizarre piece of music without knowing its title or its composer, what would you say it was? Something by a composer from outer space? Or by a child? Or something the orchestra is making up as it goes along? No; you're too smart for that; but I'll bet dollars to doughnuts you'd say it was something modern — in fact very modern, probably one of those wild musical experiments that the bright, new, young composers are making these days. Well, the composer in question is not only not new, but indeed very old, in fact quite dead. In fact, the little piece we just heard was written by Charles Ives over 50 years ago, in the very first years of this century, before any of the big modern experiments by Schoenberg or Stravinsky had began to be made.

Just imagine: in those early 1900's what was called "crazy modern music" consisted of Debussy, Ravel, and Richard Strauss — all composers we think of today as pretty stodgy old-timers. And yet, in those very same years, this Connecticut Yankee named Ives was already madly pursuing his own off beat ideas, writing music that no one could decipher, no one could play, and no one cared to hear. And the more nobody cared, the more he wrote — each piece madder, and wilder and more revolutionary than the last. Does this mean that Ives was mad? Not at all; he was a very serious business-man, and a successful one at that; but his insurance business didn't keep him from spending most of his time writing music — strange pieces like the one we just heard, which is called "The Gong on the Hook and Ladder or, Firemen's Parade on Main Street."

Now even that title sounds a little bit mad — or at least not entirely serious. But you must remember that Ives was both a genius and a pioneer — two kinds of people who always seem to have a touch of madness — and it's a good kind of madness. Think of our Early American pioneers: weren't they just a bit mad to go trekking westward across a wild continent, exposing themselves to Indians, bandits, hunger and storms? Well, Ives was very much like them. He was an adventurer, too — a musical pioneer. Nothing could stop him.

But really to understand Ives, or any adventurer for that matter, we must remember that the spirit of adventure is just another way of saying the spirit of play, the sporting instinct — doing things simply for the fun of doing them.

Now I've always thought that word fun was unjustly belittled; it's a wonderful word; and I believe it applies just as much to music as to roller-coaster rides or swimming or movies. And once you get the idea of how important fun was in Ives' mind, then you begin to hear his music with new ears. And you understand why that Firemen's Parade we just played is so freakish; for instance, why there are so many different rhythms going on in the orchestra at the same time, so that it sounds all mixed up. Why? Because it's fun.

And also because if you're trying to make a musical picture of a Fireman's Parade down Main Street, and you've got a gong banging away on the big shiny red fire engine, what better way is there to show the noise and confusion and general hilarity than to have all these different rhythms going at once?

And it's not just the rhythms. What about those notes — those howling dissonances? They're also part of the fun, of the general hilarious goings-on. And this spirit of fun also explains why, amidst all the confusion, there suddenly emerges that innocent and plaintive old tune, "My Darlin' Clementine"

And so the parade ends, in a fizzle, like a wet firecracker. And Ives ended it that way on purpose - blah. Again, why? Did everyone run home because it suddenly began to rain? I doubt it. Was it all just a dream from which we have awakened with a fuzzy head? Perhaps. But what we can be sure of, is that it's Ives having fun, doing the unexpected things — even the disappointing things — ending his piece by good-naturedly thumbing his nose at his listeners. They weren't listening anyways what did he care? He didn't have listeners: his pieces were simply too hard to play. In fact, as far as I know, this performance we've just given has been the first ever given in a concert hall.

Now I don't want you to get the idea that Ives' music is all jokes and games, like this piece.

He wrote four very serious symphonies, over a hundred songs, a mystical piano sonata that lasts an hour — all sorts of things; however serious it may be, in one way or another we find this spirit of fun — whether it shows itself in kooky rhythms, or in dissonant notes, or in surprise endings — or simply in the astonishing way he has of suddenly quoting other people's music. These quotes can be anything from "My Darlin' Clementine" — as we just heard — all the way to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Brahms' First, and all the way back again to bugle-calls, rag-time tunes, or Swanee River.

It's again that spirit of play — playing with music — his own and other people's; and in the piece we're going to hear next —a perfectly serious work called Washington's Birthday — you'll hear at least five such quotes, all of them cozy, home-town, old-fashioned ditties.

And there's a reason for this, Ives was born and raised in Danbury, Connecticut, and although his business life eventually took him to New York City, he always returned to Connecticut, to the small-town life he loved. To his dying day he remained a country boy at heart; and the musical memories of his childhood — the local marching bands, the fiddling and fifing at barn-dances, the hymns, patriotic songs, sentimental tunes and folk-ditties — all these haunted his music as long as he wrote. And no matter how pioneering his music gets — how daring, adventurous, complicated, "modernistic" — there are always musical reminders of the old days, the music he heard as a boy. This gives a sad sweetness to a lot of Ives' music — especially when it's mixed with the strange new sounds he invented. This Washington's Birthday is exactly such a piece: mysterious and nostalgic; and yet, like all the others, full of fun.

It was written to be the first movement of a symphony of holidays, the other three being Decoration Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving — all American holidays. They are all interesting and exciting pieces, but Washington's Birthday is the most exciting of all.

The piece starts bleakly enough with vague wintry mutterings by the muted strings; but almost at once there is one of those peculiar quotes —a French horn singing out "Swanee River," of all things.

Well, almost Swanee River. Do you see why I say a "peculiar" quote? It's not exactly Swanee River, and yet it is, in some odd, drooping way, like something hazily remembered from long ago. This quiet winter picture eventually builds up to quite a noise — nothing realistic, no whistling winds or that sort of thing; rather an inner image of winter — gray, sombre, difficult, unyielding. But suddenly that barn-dance breaks out, in high spirits, and a Quadrille is launched:

And in this dance section you'll hear lots of those peculiar quotes: This familiar sailor's hornpipe:

Then the famous Camptown Races:

All a bit peculiar, you notice. And then, of course, comes that barn-dance favorite, Turkey-in-the-Straw:

Very peculiar, that one. Now comes the maddest of all: a string of old-time Irish reels, leading off with "The Campbells Are Coming," — which is Scottish, but anyway — played by a horn and — now get this — a Jew's Harp. I don't know if you've ever seen a Jew's harp, it's not a harp and it has nothing to do with anything Jewish; the name is simply a corruption of Jaw's harp, since this tiny instrument is played between the teeth. Then the player twangs a little metal tab with his finger, and out comes — well, a twang. I'm sure you'll recognize the sound.

Now only Charles Ives could have thought up this insane combination of Horn and Jew's Harp, playing The Campbells Are Coming, written deliberately out of tune, and out of time, while, mind you, the rest of the orchestra is going wild with its own barn-dance music. It's a riot.

Crazy, you say? Well, it gets even crazier, until it reaches one of those typical Ives blasts, and suddenly — silence, and a sentimental old time which I can't identify, behind which, in a whole other key, a lone fiddle is hauntingly recalling Turkey in the Straw: and finally, to the strains of Good-Night, Ladies, the whole dream disappears into the winter darkness. You see, it was a dream; all Ives' pieces are dreams, dreams of childhood and a vanished world. I think you'll enjoy Washington's Birthday.

An extraordinary piece, Washington's Birthday; I would go so far as to say a great one. Sometimes I think it is Ives' masterpiece — so personal, so mysterious, unlike anything else ever written. And it's over half a century old, like all his major works, because, although Ives lived until 1954, almost to the age of 80 — he stopped composing as early as 1916 except for some songs and tiny things in the twenties. His health just gave out under the strain of leading the double life, of being a full-time business man and a full-time composer. And so it's all the more amazing that this Washington's Birthday was written as long ago as 1913 — a piece which sounds as though it could have been written yesterday, or even tomorrow.

Now, by way of contrast, we are going to hear some early Ives — a little piece called Circus Band March, which he wrote as a young man of twenty, way back in 1894.

This one is pure fun; Ives is not trying to tell us anything about the Puritan character or the mystery of nature. It's just what its title says: A Circus Band March. This peppy — and peppery — little march exists in two versions: one for orchestra alone, and one with a chorus singing some rather odd words written by Ives himself. We've decided to do without the chorus, since you can't understand the words a chorus is singing while a circus band is blaring away.

And now here comes The Circus Band.

As you can hear, old Ives had lots of jokes up his sleeve; but one thing is for sure — it's no joke to play these pieces. They are incredibly difficult to perform, even for the mighty New York Philharmonic; and to play one Ives piece after another is quite a strain, So we're now going to give the orchestra a short breather, while we hear a song by Ives, for voice and piano only. Some people think that Ives was at his greatest as a writer of songs — as I told you before, he wrote over a hundred of them; and the one we're going to hear is one of his most magnificent achievements. It is called Lincoln, The Great Commoner: and it is no ordinary song —no simple melody with accompaniment; it is like a monument, a tremendous and awe-inspiring structure. When we listen to this song about Lincoln, our understanding of Ives begins to grow. We have already known him, through The Gong piece at the beginning, as a man who loved his hometown, Main Street in Danbury, Connecticut.

In Washington's Birthday, we see Ives as one who loves New England — the country life, the power of nature. And now we shall see him as a patriot — a man who adored his country. This streak of patriotism runs all through his music, just as it runs through the poetry of Walt Whitman. In fact, Ives and Whitman are very much alike — the same enormous energy, vitality, humor, and boyish exuberance can be found in both. But Ives went much further with his music than Whitman did with words; Ives really created a new musical language for himself, as we are now going to hear in this song. We will also hear some more of those "peculiar" quotes that were so dear to his heart, only this time the quotes are all from patriotic songs, — naturally — The Star Spangled Banner, Columbia The Gem of the Ocean, Glory, Glory Hallelujah, America, and so on.

Let's see if you can recognize a couple of them, dressed up as they are in Ives' strange new language. Which one is this?

(Audience participation)

And how about this one?

(Audience participation)

Now you may not think it very patriotic to treat The Star-Spangled Banner that way; but from Ives' point of view it was intensely patriotic. He was not by any means making fun of his National Anthem; on the contrary, he was making it richer and more colorful by adding his own strong musical feelings to it. In fact, the very ending of the song is that same phrase from the National Anthem, not so dissonant this time, but switching keys in mid-phrase.

But he's not even content to stick with that last chord: it's too ordinary for him.

So he slyly sneaks in a soft dissonant chord

underneath the big one —so that when the big chord breaks off

this soft dissonant one is still sounding. And that's how the song ends — on a note of mystery again. What an amazing mind that Ives had!

Now, to sing this song for us we are fortunate to have Mr. Simon Estes, that splendid bass-baritone who knocked them dead in Moscow last year, at the Tchaikovsky competition. And just before Mr. Estes sings it, I'd like to tell you the words of the song, so that you'll already know them, and can concentrate as hard as possible on the music itself. These words are by the American poet Edwin Markham.

"And so he came from the prairie cabin to the Capitol
One fair ideal led our chieftain on
He built the rail pile as he built the State
The conscience testing every stroke,
To make his deed the measure of the man
So came our Captain with the mighty heart
And when the step of earthquake shook the house,
Wrenching rafters from their ancient hold."

— and here Ives goes really mad, and has the pianist pound out chords with his fists (SHOW) — to continue them:

"And when the step of earthquake shook the house,
Wrenching rafters from their ancient hold,
He held the ridge-pole up and spiked again
The rafters of the Home he held his place —
He held the long purpose like a growing tree
Held on thro' blame and faltered not at praise
And when he fell in whirlwind, he went down
As when a Kingly cedar green with boughs
Goes down with a great shout, upon the hills!"

Now here is Mr. Estes to sing Lincoln, The Great Commoner

Simon Estes, bass-baritone
Leonard Bernstein, piano

Now that was an earful. I hope it wasn't too much for you. But you must never forget that pioneering genius that was Charles Ives; his spirit of adventure, and of play, took him way beyond the borders of us ordinary mortals. And in the next work the orchestra will play — (I am sure they're quite rested now) — Ives takes us even farther along in his mysterious adventures. The piece we're going to hear is without doubt his most famous work — The Unanswered Question. I don't know if it's famous enough for you to have heard it, but it's one Ives work that is played and known all over the world. This short piece takes us a long way from Danbury, Connecticut — beyond New England, beyond America, out to the universe itself. Ives is now dealing with the greatest mysteries of life, asking the age-old question: why do we exist?

Ives assigns this question to a solo trumpet who intones it six separate times.

And each time there comes an answer, or an attempt at an answer, from a group of woodwinds. The first answer is very indefinite and slow; the second is faster, the third even faster, and the sixth so fast it comes out like wild gibberish. These woodwinds, according to Ives, represent human answers, growing increasingly impatient and desperate, until they lose their meaning entirely. And all this time, right from the beginning, the strings have been playing their own music, infinitely soft and slow and sustained, never changing, never growing louder or faster, never being affected by that strange question-and-answer dialogue of the trumpet and the woodwinds. It is as though the strings were the great galaxy of stars, which keeps slowly, imperceptibly circling about over our heads, as we ask questions and try to give answers; and however hard we try, whatever answers are given, the stars keep circling, unchanging and unconcerned. And then finally the trumpet asks his question for the seventh time, and this time there is no answer at all; only the silent slow-motion of the universe.

What an idea for a piece of music! And you may well ask But what has happened to that spirit of play, that adventure you talked about? Oh, but what a spirit of play there is in this piece! Think of how adventurous a mind must be to think up this concept of two musics at once, totally independent of each other in time or rhythm or key or anything. This is a concept that is now popular among some of the new young composers; but the Unanswered Question was written in 1908 almost sixty years ago!

Ives was our first great American composer. All alone in his Connecticut barn Ives created his own private musical revolution, whose rumblings are only now beginning to be understood.
These rumblings which we shall now hear are very soft indeed, in fact we are breaking the hallowed tradition of the concert hall by ending our program with a soft slow piece. But if Ives could pioneer, so can we: it's all in the spirit of adventure.


© 1967, Amberson Holdings LLC.
All rights reserved.

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