American Transcendentalism, Ives, and the Fifth

After listening to Ives’s first movement “Emerson” of his Concord Sonata, I became speechless. His piece left wonders of composition process, meaning, and musicianship. At times the work sounded as if a child were sitting at a piano, randomly banging out chords, and at others a drunk lounge pianist who kept messing up the notes to a beautiful piece. However, with that in mind, the experience sounded as if it were made by a genius who was too modern for his time, as Guerrieri writes, “Ives was a Transcendentalist born too late and a modernist composer born too soon,”. Ives, being a Transcendentalist, used those ideas in his music throughout his life. He and his father pondered on the concept of music and noise, and the thin line between, similar to Thoreau whose music was nature; he didn’t have to attend the Boston symphony, as Guerrieri stated, “Thoreau’s symphony was in nature.” Flocks of geese and wind weren’t “noise”, they were musical sounds. Ives and Thoreau shared this understanding of what music truly is, and what defines it. For some, anything can be considered music, for others a piece with a melody and flow is music. Those people who have strict restrictions on music would be highly recommended to not listen to Ives’s Concord Sonata. It is lengthy and unpredictable, scattered and sudden, unsatisfying and frustrating, yet mesmerizing and truly beautiful. The ideas Ives infused in the piece about transcendentalism and beauty encourage thoughts of expressive, deep music. Where did his idea come from? What is the meaning behind it? What was the inspiration–which is discussed in the prologue of his essay–does a piece require a scene or something material to be born? Must there be a space in time the composer can pinpoint for inspiration? The list of myriad questions goes on…

In his Concord Sonata, Ives incorporates Beethoven’s first four notes motif in every movement, and in many other works. This I find puzzling, if one were to “steal” a motif from one piece and use it in his or her own, a lawsuit would shortly follow, yet it appears that Ives use of Beethoven’s 5th intro is deemed appropriate. Moving on, the use of the motif is interesting; Ives had a sort of obsession with the “first four notes” for it often appeared in his compositions. Guerrieri believes, “The four-note motive is there because of its fame and familiarity, its original power and its power as cliche inseparable.” The idea that he suggests the motif is added in the compositions because of its “fame and familiarity” is naive and almost insulting. Ives didn’t incorporate the motif because it is popular, he did so because of Beethoven himself and his transcendentalism through music. Then at the end of the chapter, Guerrieri contradicts that statement and states that Ives believed that “every mask ever applied to those four notes desired to have its voice hear. It was his duty…tallying up the Beethovian legacy, making sure the entire estate is covered.” suggesting that Ives used the motif because it deserved to be heard. In the Concord Sonata, Beethoven becomes a pathway, a connecting bridge, forming a red thread of fate intertwining the four men and their ideals through music, specifically four notes.

A few more notes: After listening to the third movement, “The Alcotts”, tears nearly came to my eyes for it was a sweet, tender, and heartwarming piece with episodes of grand, modern chords and melodies. It is indeed surprising that this piece was written so long ago when it harbors such modern qualities and sounds noting of the other compositions at the time. How can one be so advanced with composition, and was Ives lucky like Beethoven–who’s music was “new” but the audiences adapted? How did the people view Ives sonata?

Finally, Ives appears to have been somewhat immature at times, which is contradictory to his writings and work which are modern and mature. The fact that he purposely misspells the names of people who do not impress is rather childish. “…Ossip Gabrilowitsch (whose name Ives spelled “Ossssssip,” a sure sign he didn’t consider him manly enough to tackle such a repertoire).” In addition, in his draft letter blaming the “conventionality of American audiences on Toscanini’s renditions of the symphonies”, Ives called him “Arthur Tascaninny”. Ives appears to have been quite the character, concluding his letter with the sentence: “Wake up America–kill somebody before breakfast.”

One thought on “American Transcendentalism, Ives, and the Fifth

  1. Hi Hattie, I’m responding a bit belatedly to your posts on the last few chapters of the Guerrieri text.

    I’m deeply impressed with your thoughtful and very well expressed response to the Ives Concord Sonata! This is a highly advanced work and you really allowed yourself to dive into it, which is terrific. That long list of questions at the end of the first paragraph are all worth asking and exploring! The piece really did leave you speechless.

    Of course, using the famous motif was not stealing if it’s used in an obvious way to pay homage to its deeper meaning. You make that point well here.

    I also appreciate that you went ahead and listened to The Alcotts, and that it moved you. Again, not everyone can understand this music; it says a lot that it is speaking to you.

    Ives was a complete character, for sure! He made a living as an insurance executive, which is why he could write whatever he wanted, he wasn’t beholden to a paying public. Maybe Beethoven should have sold insurance on the side! 🙂

Leave a Reply