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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

fig. 5-5b William Lyon Phelps, Ives’s English teacher, with a volume of Browning open before him.

The other side of the coin, where Ives’s maximalism was concerned, could not have stood in greater superficial contrast to the visionary transcendentalist side. It consisted of wildly humorous scherzos—or, perhaps better, “scherzoids” (since they do not always follow the “classical” scherzo-and-trio form)—of a hearty, heavy, unsubtle (and again, one cannot help noticing, Germanic) kind reminiscent of Beethoven. The Ivesian difference was that his scherzoids were usually programmatic, and the programmatic content was almost invariably nostalgic, evoking the composer’s idealized, even fictionalized, New England boyhood. Again, nothing could be less modernist than these affectionate pictures of carefree youth in a socially homogeneous and harmonious, preindustrial and pretechnological setting, in which all stylistic excesses were justified in the name of fun, or in that of “realism”—presenting things “just as they [never] were.”

Like the American literary realism with which they may so easily be compared, these pictures were projections of what American cultural historians like Richard Hofstadter call the “agrarian myth”36 —America’s own neoprimitivist fable, proclaiming the moral superiority of the unspoiled, abundant country over the polluted, corrupt and disgusting modern city. In these pieces, as Ives’s biographer Jan Swafford points out, “Ives painted Danbury as the idyllic country village it had not been since his father’s boyhood, if then.”37 Even when not concerned with his Danbury boyhood, Ives’s scherzoids were nostalgic and resolutely innocent in their humor, and it was that innocence—that studied naivety—that guaranteed the authenticity of the radical stylistic means. Ives’s own description of a piece he may never actually have written—A Yale-Princeton Game, sketched (according to the Memos) in 1898 and subtitled “Two Minutes in Sound for Two Halfs Within Bounds”—shows this connection, and the implicit guarantee, to have been entirely conscious and deliberate:

To try to reflect a football game in sounds would cause anybody to try many combinations etc.—for instance, picturing the old wedge play (close formation)—what is more natural than starting with all hugging together in the whole chromatic scale, and gradually pushing together down to one note at the end. The suspense and excitement of spectators—strings going up and down, off and on open-string tremolos. Cheers (“Brek e Koax” [the obscene noise made by the title characters in Aristophanes’s comedy The Frogs] etc.)—running plays (trumpets going all over, dodging, etc. etc.)—natural and fun to do and listen to—hard to play. But doing things like this (half horsing) would suggest and get one used to technical processes that could be developed in something more serious later, and quite naturally.38

A whole worldview (call it “realist” or call it “primitivist”) is implied by Ives’s obsessive insistence on using the word “natural” to describe musical experiments that ran counter to every learned (or “common”) practice and convention. Also implied is the answer to the eternal question that Ives propounded at the very outset of the prologue to his Essays before a Sonata:

How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or a layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?39

Whether the thing expressed is as lofty as Emerson’s Over-soul or as earthy as a football game, the justification is found precisely in the liberation that it may prompt from the tyranny of common practice.

The most famous and in many ways most characteristic of Ives’s “scherzoids” is “Putnam’s Camp,” the second of his Three Places in New England. The place in question is a historic site near the composer’s birthplace, a field that served as campgrounds to the troops under the command of Israel Putnam, the Revolutionary War general who was Connecticut’s most illustrious military hero. The composition in this case is in a form approximating the traditional scherzo-and-trio (or march-and-trio), in keeping both with the military theme and with the scenario related in Ives’s program note:

Near Redding Center, Conn., is a small park preserved as a Revolutionary Memorial; for here General Israel Putnam’s soldiers had their winter quarters in 1778–1779. Long rows of stone camp fire-places still remain to stir a child’s imagination. The hardships which the soldiers endured and the agitation of a few hot-heads to break camp and march to the Hartford Assembly for relief, is a part of Redding history.

Once upon a “4th of July,” some time ago, so the story goes, a child went there on a picnic, held under the auspices of the First Church and the Village Cornet Band. Wandering away from the rest of the children past the camp ground into the woods, he hopes to catch a glimpse of some of the old soldiers. As he rests on the hillside of laurel and hickories, the tunes of the band and the songs of the children grow fainter and fainter;—when—“mirabile dictu”—over the trees on the crest of the hill he sees a tall woman standing. She reminds him of a picture he has of the Goddess of Liberty,—but the face is sorrowful—she is pleading with the soldiers not to forget their “cause” and the great sacrifices they have made for it. But they march out of camp with fife and drum to a popular tune of the day. Suddenly a new national note is heard. Putnam is coming over the hills from the center,—the soldiers turn back and cheer. The little boy awakes, he hears the children’s songs and runs down past the monument to “listen to the band” and join in the games and dances.

The repertoire of national airs at that time was meagre. Most of them were of English origin. It is a curious fact that a tune very popular with the American soldiers was “The British Grenadiers.” A captain in one of Putnam’s regiments put it to words, which were sung for the first time in 1779 at a patriotic meeting in the Congregational Church in Redding Center; the text is both ardent and interesting.40

The last paragraph, evidently, is meant as a testimony to the “authenticity” of Ives’s music, for the whole composition could be described, only slightly stretching a point, as a fantasy or takeoff on “The British Grenadiers” (Ex. 5-12). The tune appears almost complete, but (being part of a dream) surrealistically distorted, in the flute (=fife) part at mm. 91–97 (Ex. 5-13a). Its first fragmentary occurrence, also in the flute part (echoed by oboe and clarinet), is at mm. 14–16 (Ex. 5-13b), and it is more or less continuously present (migrating from winds to brass to strings) between m. 126 and m. 155. Thus it is the only tune that appears in all three sections of the piece.


ex. 5-12 March: The British Grenadiers


ex. 5-13a Charles Ives, “Putnam’s Camp” (Three Places in New England, II), mm. 91 ff.


ex. 5-13b Charles Ives, “Putnam’s Camp” (Three Places in New England, II), mm. 14 ff.

Wherever it pops up, however, it has plenty of company. In the outer sections it mainly accompanies, as a countermelody, the tune of Ives’s “Country Band March,” an early composition that was largely cannibalized in “Putnam’s Camp,” but which turns up piecemeal in many of his larger works (including “Hawthorne” in the Concord Sonata and the “Comedy” movement of the Fourth Symphony). The concern for period authenticity that led to the use of “The British Grenadiers” did not prevent Ives from quoting anachronistically when he felt like it. Marches by John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) make occasional appearances against the “Country Band March,” including a pair in very unequal tandem at m. 27 (Ex. 5-14): the famous “Semper Fidelis” (1888) in the trombone and tuba against “Liberty Bell” (1893) in the first violas (!), where it hardly stands a chance of being heard. At the same time, to complete the collage, a snatch from Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground” (1852) sounds forth gaily in the flute.

To attempt a full catalog of allusions in “Putnam’s Camp” would be fruitless, since some of them are so brief or so altered in the telling as to be ambiguous: is that really the Civil War song “Marchin through Georgia” in the flute at m. 147? Others stick out, as Ives meant them to, like sore thumbs: in mm. 34–35 the trumpet, flute, and first violins collaborate (or try to) in “Yankee Doodle,” each instrument entering in a different key. (Here Mozart had anticipated Ives by more than a century but with similar intent in his Musical Joke, K. 522 [1787], subtitled “The Village Musicians.”) A better joke is the very end of the piece, with the bass instruments starting up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” only to be drowned out by the roar of the final chord, topped with a snatch of “Reveille” in the trumpet.

The middle section, or dream sequence, contains one of Ives’s most celebrated effects. Most of it is based on another early Ives composition, called Overture “1776.” The whole-tone (or whole-tone-scale-plus-C-sharp) chord in m. 64 with its appoggiatura—a spot that Swafford very aptly relates to the words mirabile dictu (wondrous to relate) in the program—marks the splice between the two early pieces. (The splice back to the “Country Band March” comes at m. 120, and the raucous coda is borrowed once again from 1776.)


ex. 5-14 Charles Ives, “Putnam’s Camp,” (Three Places in New England, II), mm. 27-30 in full score.

The pleadings of the “Goddess of Liberty” are set off against the threatened mutiny by pitting two groups of instruments against one another at two different tempos (Ex. 5-15). They are calibrated in a proportion of 4:3, so that a half note at the new tempo, articulated by the piano and snare drum together halfway through m. 68, equals a dotted quarter of the Andante animato established in m. 65. The relationship of the two speeds is made particularly clear by giving the piano and drum the same familiar parade march rhythm (known as the “street cadence”) that the orchestral basses have already been playing at the old tempo, so that the effect is one of two superimposed marches.


ex. 5-15 Charles Ives, “Putnam’s Camp,” (Three Places in New England, II), fig. H

Irritated by a critic’s remark that the full-orchestra rhythm at m. 124 (Ex. 5-16) had been borrowed from Stravinsky (most likely the “Sacred Dance” from The Rite of Spring, which the notation in sixteenth notes offset by rests superficially resembles), Ives went out of his way to explain his technical procedure, somewhat elliptically, in the Memos. In reality, he points out, the measure simply brings back the rhythm of the faster group from the middle section (he calls it the “piano-drum part”), notated in terms of the prevailing beat—an effect that looks strange on paper, owing to the unusual subdivision of the beat, but that is easily performed:


ex. 5-16 Charles Ives, “Putnam’s Camp,” (Three Places in New England, II), 2 before fig. N

The two rhythms going together (in the piano-drum part) are nothing but a beat or pulse on the first of four 16th-notes, and one on the first of three 16th-notes. Say, if a band is marching at , the next fastest marching (keeping the insert spot unit the same) will be stepping to three 16ths or , and if two bands feel like marching on these accents, Nostalgia

Then, for three 4/4 measures, if the top band stops playing, the second one is playing off-accents. In the third measure, it is simply: Nostalgia

It will be the measure cited above [m. 124]. It doesn’t take much musical intelligence to see that (or to do that, for that matter). In putting these two rhythms together, the 16th-notes don’t have to be struck all the while. They will be played in various phrases, omitted in others. The more they are in, the more variants will occur, etc. I’ll bet 1000 people have thought of this, perhaps played this—yet, because they don’t know what it is, they say it is meaningless [when they see it], or influenced by Orcus from Australia [i.e., Stravinsky]!41

This passage from the Memos, with its reference to two hypothetical bands, may have been the source of one of the most durable of all Ivesian legends. The version that follows is from Charles Ives and His Music (1955), by the husband-and-wife team of Henry and Sidney Cowell, the first book-length study of the composer. “The germ,” the Cowells wrote,

of Ives’s complicated concept of polyphony seems to lie in an experience he had as a boy, when his father invited a neighboring band to parade with its team at a baseball game in Danbury, while at the same time the local band made its appearance in support of the Danbury team. The parade was arranged to pass along the main street as usual, but the two bands started at opposite ends of town and were assigned pieces in different meters and keys. As they approached each other the dissonances were acute, and each man played louder and louder so that his rivals would not put him off. A few players wavered, but both bands held together and got past each other successfully, the sounds of their cheerful discord fading out in the distance. Ives has reproduced this collision of musical events in several ways: From it, for example, he developed the idea of combining groups of players (sections of the orchestra) to create simultaneous masses of sound that move in different rhythms, meters, and keys. Thus his polytonality may be polyharmonic, each harmonic unit being treated like a single contrapuntal voice (as the bands played two separate tunes, each with its own harmonic setting); and it may also be polyrhythmic.42

Whether it originated with the composer or it was mere biographical embroidery, and despite its having been canonized by decades of repetition, this famous anecdote is pretty obviously a tall tale, concocted for the same reason that prompted Ives to assure a sympathetic critic that his radical ways “came not only from folk music he was brought up with but to a very great extent from the life ‘around & in him.’”43 For a progressive and a populist like Ives, his strange music would be unacceptably esoteric and “elite” were it not validated by his everyday experience, of which it formed a nostalgic record. It was this conviction that impelled Ives to incorporate so much of the ambient music of America—a music that included hymns and ragtime, but also Bach and Wagner—into his most maximalistic works. Life was his subject, and America was his life. Once again, obsession with technical novelty—“modernism”—had little to do with it.

And neither did “nationalism,” as the term is often understood musically. Ives went out of his way to make this clear in the Essays before a Sonata, where he condemned the mere “stylistic” cultivation of local or vernacular color as a typical “over-influence by and over-insistence upon manner”44 —the very bane of modern music. He reacted angrily to one H. K. Moderwell, who had written of ragtime in a magazine article that it was “the perfect expression of the American city,” where “you feel in its jerk and rattle a personality different from that of any European capital,” making it “the one true American music.” Ives, who helped himself abundantly to both real and imitation ragtime in many of his scherzoids, countered that no music could be so described. Ragtime, he asserted, “is one of the many true, natural, and, nowadays, conventional means of expression.” It had, he allowed, “its possibilities; but it does not ‘represent the American nation’ any more than some fine old senators represent it.”


(36) See Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. (New York: Knopf, 1955), p. 62.

(37) Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 208.

(38) Ives, Memos, p. 61.

(39) Essays Before a Sonata, p. 3.

(40) Ives, Memos, p. 84.

(41) Ives, Memos, pp. 139–40.

(42) Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music, pp. 144–45.

(43) Draft of a letter to Paul Rosenfeld (1940); quoted in Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 3.

(44) Essays Before a Sonata, p. 94.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005007.xml