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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

At the very least, the obsession with dating (even to the extent that Ives himself, in his postcomposing phase, may have abetted it) was fundamentally un-Ivesian, since it was wholly concerned with “manner” (the way something was said), rather than “substance” (the something itself). To understand the “something” we need to know what composers Ives took as expressive examples. The answer to this question may be surprising, since Ives’s models of substance were none of them composers who shared Ives’s interest in a radical manner. Rather, they were composers who expressed orthodox spiritual values, and did so in a way that by the early twentieth century was deemed distinctly old-fashioned, if not downright unfashionable.

In the epilogue to Essays before a Sonata, a little book he published and distributed alongside the Concord Sonata in order to explain its “substance,” Ives indulged in some reminiscences of his own changing tastes:

A man remembers, when he was a boy of about fifteen years, hearing his music-teacher (and father), who had just returned from a performance of Siegfried, say with a look of anxious surprise that somehow or other he felt ashamed of enjoying the music as he did, for beneath it all he was conscious of an undercurrent of make-believe—the bravery was make-believe, the love was make-believe, the passion, the virtue, all make-believe, as was the dragon; P. T. Barnum would have been brave enough to have gone out and captured a live one! But that same boy at twenty-five was listening to Wagner with enthusiasm—his reality was real enough to inspire a devotion. The “Preislied” [Prize-Song from Die Meistersinger], for instance, stirred him deeply. But when he became middle-aged—and long before the Hohenzollern hog-marched into Belgium [that is, before World War I made everything German unfashionable in America]—this music had become cloying, the melodies threadbare—a sense of something commonplace—yes—of make-believe, came. These feelings were fought against for association’s sake and because of gratitude for bygone pleasures, but the former beauty and nobility were not there, and in their place stood irritating intervals of descending fourths and fifths. Those once transcendent progressions, luxuriant suggestions of Debussy chords of the ninth, eleventh, etc., were becoming slimy. An unearned exultation—a sentimentality deadening something within—hides around in the music. Wagner seems less and less to measure up to the substance and reality of César Franck, Brahms, d’Indy, or even Elgar (with all his tiresomeness); the wholesomeness, manliness, humility, and deep spiritual, possibly religious, feeling of these men seem missing and not made up for by his (Wagner’s) manner and eloquence, even if greater than theirs (which is very doubtful).28

The strictures against Wagner and Debussy are familiar: they express Ives’s usual, very conservative (or at least very unmodernist) resistance to decadence and sensuality, along with the (typically American? typically Yankee?) fear of effeminacy that we have noted before. But the list of antidotes, with the exception of Brahms, can seem a bit bizarre. A taste for Franck, d’Indy, and Elgar was by the 1920s, when Ives enumerated them, as dated as a taste for Rossini would have been in the heyday of Wagnerism. Their religiosity and “uplift” were among the things discredited, as we shall see, by the “Hohenzollern hog-march”—the imperialist war to which Ives himself makes reference—at least as far as a younger generation was concerned. Ives’s maximalism, at least as expressed in the Concord Sonata, begins to seem an attempt to give new life—or at least some artificial life-support—to an esthetic stance that had become in modernist eyes tarnished if not altogether outmoded, but one that Ives continued to cherish for its once-unsullied idealism.

Franck appears to have been Ives’s unlikely special favorite. That may have been partly due to his organist’s background; Ives kept a reproduction of Jeanne Rongier’s portrait of Franck seated at the organ tacked to the inside door of his music studio. In any case, Elliott Carter has reported that Ives’s “main love” was for “Bach, Brahms and Franck, for he found in them spiritual elevation and nobility, which, like many a critic of his generation, he felt contemporary music had simplified away.”29 If, following this lead, we take Franck (rather than the more obvious Liszt) to have been Ives’s particular model in the Concord Sonata, his attempt at a sort of antimodernist spiritual revival turns out to have been surprisingly specific.

Franck’s Symphony in D minor had a decisive impact on American composers, particularly on the “Boston school” of which Horatio Parker, Ives’s Yale professor, was a latter-day member. In its “aspiring” quality and its emphasis on the “moral obligations of the artist”30 (to quote Edward Burlingame Hill, Parker’s Harvard counterpart), the Franck Symphony was the most Germanic of French symphonies, and the greatest of all standard-bearers for the supremacy of “substance” over “manner.” Like all nineteenth-century symphonies in D minor (and many others besides), it was haunted by the lofty spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth; but it also mined Beethoven’s last quartet for an emblematic motive that audibly haunted the work and carried its spiritual message from first movement to last.

Ives made a similar appropriation from Beethoven in the Concord Sonata: the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, perhaps the most famous (and at once the most heavily fraught and the most hackneyed) single motive in all of music by the time Ives chose it to pervade his work and carry its spiritual message through all the movements. Each of Ives’s movements bore the name of a Transcendentalist writer (or family of writers) associated with Concord — Emerson, Hawthorne, “the Alcotts,” Thoreau — and attempted to represent or interpret the gist of that writer’s message. Most of the Essays before a Sonata (the title of which was already an evocation of Emerson) was devoted to describing the way in which, Ives felt, his music embodied their ideas. The overriding message that united them all, the essence of New England transcendentalism, was symbolized in the Beethoven motive, to which Ives devoted a special explanation in the chapter on Emerson:

There is an “oracle” at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony; in those four notes lies one of Beethoven’s greatest messages. We would place its translation above the relentlessness of fate knocking at the door [as Beethoven himself once described it to an interviewer], above the greater human message of destiny and strive to bring it towards the spiritual message of Emerson’s revelations, even to the “common heart” of Concord — the soul of humanity knocking at the door of the divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened — and the human become the divine!31

From the “Paracelsus”-like opening page of “Emerson” (Ex. 5-8) to the quiescent closing pages of “Thoreau” with their pastoral flute obbligato (Ex. 5-9), the Fifth Symphony motif suffuses and unifies the otherwise sprawling Concord Sonata. “Emerson,” itself (according to Essays before a Sonata) the portrait of an oracle, abounds especially with Beethoven’s call, sometimes presented as a major third, sometimes minor. The accented repeated notes, first in the right hand then in the left, in the opening bars mark its first appearances; thereafter, one easily uncovers at least a hundred more. The optional flute solo at the end of “Thoreau” — an evocation of Thoreau’s description of his own nocturnal flute-playing by the side of Walden Pond — places the Fifth Symphony idea in the context of a long melody that sums up many of the sonata’s themes. In the Essays before a Sonata Ives associated it with “human faith.” Its beginning is first prefigured on the second page of “Emerson,” in the middle voice over a Fifth Symphony bass. The final dying-away at the end of “Thoreau” is a variation on the Fifth Symphony motif that suggests a quiet ecstasy of affirmation by replacing the falling third by a fourth repeated note — utter unity or “wholeness” (Emerson’s “the ONE”) is attained.

Manner and SubstanceManner and Substance

ex. 5-8 Charles Ives, “Concord” Sonata, I (“Emerson”), beginning

On the first page of “The Alcotts” (Ex. 5-10), a domestic portrait in a distinctly tamer style than the rest, the Fifth Symphony motif is presented in yet another context, that of indigenous American hymnody. As the Ives scholar J. Peter Burkholder has shown, Ives conflates the Beethoven gambit with the openings of two well-known tunes from the Protestant hymnal—Simeon B. Marsh’s Martyn (or Jesus, Lover of My Soul) and The Missionary Chant (Ye Christian Heralds) by Charles Zeuner (Ex. 5-11)—as if to depict the divine presence that informs the homely devotions of the famous New England literary family (or any sincere religious exercise).32

Manner and SubstanceManner and Substance

ex. 5-9 Charles Ives, “Concord” Sonata, end of IV (“Thoreau”)

There is an uncanny resonance between Ives’s “Transcendental” reinterpretation of Beethoven and the uplifting interpretations of Franck’s Symphony that ran rampant with the spread of “music appreciation,” especially in America. A major source of such morally edifying art interpretation was the English critic Matthew Arnold, and, as it happens, one of Ives’s other professors at Yale, William Lyon Phelps (1865–1943), with whom Ives studied English and American literature, was one of America’s leading “Arnoldians,” and a specialist in the poetry of Robert Browning (the author of “Paracelsus”), to whom Ives dedicated an overture. As Burkholder has emphasized, Ives nurtured a special regard for “Billy” Phelps for the rest of his life, corresponded with him in later years, and even sent him a copy of Essays before a Sonata, which Phelps enthusiastically (if somewhat cursorily) reviewed in the Yale Alumni Weekly. “Some of the roots of the ‘Concord’ Sonata,” Burkholder has argued, “reach back to Phelps’s course, where Ives must have studied Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts in depth.”33 Some of Ives’s mature ideas about music may also owe something to Phelps’s example. Phelps collected his thoughts on the subject—many of them adapted straight from the poetry of Browning—in a little volume published in 1930. The third epigraph at the head of this chapter, as wishfully Ivesian a thought as ever uttered, comes from it. So does this:

Manner and Substance

ex. 5-10 Charles Ives, “Concord” Sonata, beginning of III (“The Alcotts”)

The paradox is that Music, the most universal of languages, knowing no boundary lines, should have been monopolized by the Germans…. If one collected all the music in the world written by men who were not Germans, put it together, and multiplied it by ten, the product would not equal in value the music written by Germans alone. In the Music Hall facing the lake on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the committee placed on the façade the names of what they considered to be the five greatest composers in all history. They are Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert—all Germans. And the first names on a substitute list would also be Germans.34

Manner and Substance

ex. 5-11a Simeon B. Marsh, Martyn

Manner and Substance

ex. 5-11b Charles Zeuner, The Missionary Chant

And this:

When we see the Sistine Madonna, or read Hamlet, we admire the extraordinary power of Raphael, of Shakespeare. But when we hear the Ninth Symphony, we are listening to the voice of God. Beethoven was more passive than active, the channel through which flowed the Divine Will.35

These conventionally Romantic and conventionally Germanocentric ideas were Ives’s, too, despite his predilections for regionalisms à la Dvořák. Like Dvořák, Ives believed in the ennobling force of the “beautiful forms of art,” that is to say the forms and techniques of Germanic instrumental music and of the composers who wrote it, whether or not of German birth. In no sense was he a rebel, whether in the name of America or in any other cause, against the reverent Europeanized esthetics, or even against the tastes, of his elders; he wanted, rather, to give them a more emphatic, more personalized, more ideal (and yes, perhaps a more “masculine”) expression, and that prompted a certain blustery uncouthness of manner. But the substance remained exactly what it had been before. That is certainly maximalism. But just as certainly it is not modernism.

Manner and Substance

fig. 5-5a Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), ca. 1844.


(28) Essays Before a Sonata, pp. 72–73.

(29) Elliott Carter, “The Case of Mr. Ives” (1939), in The Writings of Elliott Carter, eds. Else Stone and Kurt Stone (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), p. 48.

(30) Edward Burlingame Hill, Modern French Music (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), p. 36.

(31) Essays Before a Sonata, p. 36.

(32) J. Peter Burkholder, All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), p. 195.

(33) J. Peter Burkholder, Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 75.

(34) William Lyon Phelps, Music, pp. 19–20.

(35) Ibid., pp. 27–28.

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. 20 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005006.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 20 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005006.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 20 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005006.xml