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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

And yet these pieces, while technically (or at least technologically) “advanced,” were not composed in anything like an avant-garde spirit. Nowhere is there the sense, manifest in both the writings and the compositions of Hába or Carrillo, of reinventing music theory and performing practice from the ground up. There is no impulse to cast out the common practice or to replace it. Rather, there is a sense, in the outer movements, of expressively extending the common practice, and, in the “scherzoid” middle movement, of parodying it.

While Ives’s solution to the hardware problem was eminently practical in that (unlike the work of all the composers named in the foregoing background sketch) it did not require the invention of any new instruments, there was one utopian feature that has been modified whenever the pieces have been publicly performed. The score presupposes that the first piano is tuned a quarter-tone sharp. Since no reputable piano tuner will agree to put so much extra stress on the instrument’s mechanism, in practice the second piano is tuned flat.

As to the esthetic or perceptual problems that attend the use of microtones, there is not only the evidence of the score, but also an article that Ives wrote for Schmitz’s house organ, the Franco-American Music Society Bulletin in the issue of 25 March 1925, which appeared shortly after the partial premiere of his pieces. In it, Ives starts right out by disavowing the sort of radical individualism associated with modernism, in favor of a socially mediated or “communitarian” esthetic that was more in keeping with New England idealist thinking associated not only with Emerson but also with Wendell Phillips (1811–84), a leading Bostonian abolitionist and social reformer whom Ives quotes. “To go to extremes in anything,” Ives wrote with pointed irony,

is an old-fashioned habit growing more and more useless as more and more premises of truth come before man, though to hold that music is built on unmovable, definitely known laws of tone which rule so as to limit music in all of its manifestations is better—but not much—than brushing everything aside except ecstatic ebullitions and a cigarette. Instead, why not go with Wendell Phillips (who won’t join a radical party or a conservative one) and assume that “everybody knows more than anybody.”49

Next Ives cites the standard treatise on acoustics (On the Sensations of Tone [Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen], 1877) by Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821–94), in which the great German physicist tried to give equal recognition to both the physical (natural) and social sources of musical theory and practice: “The system of scales, modes, and harmonic tissues,” Ives quotes (italicizing every word for emphasis),

does not rest solely upon unalterable natural laws, but is at least partly also the result of aesthetical principles, which have already changed, and will still further change, with the progressive development of humanity.

The prospect facing all who would enlarge the practice of music along microtonal lines, Ives implies, is to find a truly meaningful basis for it that neither claims the spurious authority of nature nor relies wholly on the spirit of arbitrary arrogant innovation, but that seeks to forge a new consensus between composer and listener.

The task, then, is “the assimilation of quarter-tones with what we have now.”50 The method Ives proposes is one he claims to have adopted from his father, who “after working for some time became sure that some quarter-tone chords must be learned before quarter-tone melodies would make much sense and become natural to the ear, and so for the voice.” There follows the only technical discussion of Ivesian harmony the composer ever furnished; and inasmuch as it is corroborated by the score, it is worth quoting as a gauge of his intentions.

Chords of four or more notes, as I hear it, seem to be a more natural basis than triads. A triad using quarter-tones, it seems to me, leans toward the sound or sounds that the diatonic ear expects after hearing the notes which must form some diatonic interval, say the fifth C-G. Thus the third note, a tone halfway between E and D sharp, enters as a kind of weak compromise to the sound expected—in other words, a chord out of tune. While if another note is added which will make a quarter-tone interval with either of the two notes, C–G, which make the diatonic interval, we have a balanced chord which, if listened to without prejudice, leans neither way, and which seems to establish an identity of its own.51

After acknowledging the necessity of retaining perfect octaves and fifths even in quarter-tone music (for they are “such unrelenting masters in the realm of the physical nature of sounds”), Ives proceeds to some practical examples. Imagining a piano with two keyboards, like a harpsichord, in which the upper one is tuned a quarter tone sharp, Ives starts out with the “out of tune triad” he had considered and rejected as a basis, and then suggests the addition of an “upper” A sharp. “If listened to several times in succession,” the resulting chord

gathers a kind of character of its own—neither major, minor, nor even diminished. A chord of these intervals, it seems to me, may form a satisfactory and reasonable basis for a fundamental chord. It has two perfect fifths, three major thirds a quarter-tone flat, with an augmented second a quarter-tone flat completing the octave. It gives a feeling of finality and supports reasonably well a simple quartertone melody. By quarter-tone melody I mean a succession of notes fairly evenly divided between notes in both pianos or keyboards. If the diatonic notes [that is, the normally-tuned ones on the lower keyboard] are taken as a general basis for a melody, using the quarter-tones only as passing notes, suspensions, etc., the result is not difficult for the ear to get.

The chord just described, together with the kind of melody that is proposed (or supposed) to go with it, make up the basic or “normative” material of the first of Ives’s Three Pieces. It first appears in m. 18 (Ex. 5-17a), exactly as Ives described it in his article (except that the sharps have been respelled as flats). This primary quarter-tone consonance retains the perfect intervals of conventional tonal practice, and substitutes for the imperfect consonances tones that exactly split the difference between their major and minor variants. The way the E♭–B♭ fifth in the first piano alternates with a D–A fifth suggests, moreover, that Ives was seeking within the quarter-tone domain for an equivalent to the major-minor opposition: an alternation between thirds and sevenths a quarter tone greater than minor ones and thirds and sevenths a quarter tone less. The dotted lines connecting notes between the parts in mm. 26–28 identify the notes in piano I as “using the quartertones as passing notes,” according to the prescription for intelligibility formulated in the article.

Accepting BoundariesAccepting Boundaries

ex. 5-17a Charles Ives, Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, first piece, mm. 18-28

The second movement is despite the unusual circumstances a typically nostalgic scherzoid replete with hymn-tune reminiscences (“Bringing in the Sheaves” among others), but more consistently in ragtime style, the quarter tones here parodying the sort of piano—in bars or “houses of ill repute”—on which ragtime was often, if not usually, played. The “normative consonance” makes a triumphant appearance to harmonize what sounds like a snatch from “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” The funny (or fun-filled) aspect of the piece extends to its inordinate difficulty of execution, the pianists being required to execute quick “chromatic” runs of quarter tones that amount in practice to almost impracticably rapid hockets (Ex. 5-17b).

Accepting Boundaries

ex. 5-17b Charles Ives, Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, second piece, mm. 53-56

Accepting Boundaries

ex. 5-17c Charles Ives, Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, third piece, end

According to the Memos, the third piece was a reworking of an old quarter-tone “chorale” for strings that the composer variously dated 1903–1914 or 1913–1914 in different work lists. The earlier dating may have been one of those backdated bids for patent-office priority that have bedeviled Ives scholarship, for there is good internal evidence that the piece was written at least during, and probably after, the Great War. The chorale as such occupies only the first three systems, and consists mainly of showing ways in which the “normative consonance” (this time spelled the way it is described in the Memos) may be quitted and approached with smooth quarter-tone voice leading. The final phrase experiments with the application of a dominant to the quarter-tone tonic, but it is not clear how seriously: the effect may be read as a parody of wheezy church harmoniums to complement the preceding barroom piano.

Beginning in m. 16, chorale gives way to passacaglia over a quarter-tone adaptation of the ancient passus duriusculus, or chromatic descent from the tonic to the lower fifth. What will prove to be the main theme of the piece begins hazily to emerge in triplets. The final page (Ex. 5-17c) is peroration: the theme returns in quarter tones, signaled by the dotted lines connecting the melody notes; at the pickup to m. 53 the theme begins again, now confined to the second piano and proceeding in semitones, only to begin yet again at the pickup to m. 55 in its original diatonic form, by which time all listeners will presumably have recognized it as “America” (“My country, ‘tis of thee”). At the culminating point (m. 56), the American hymn is trumped by the climactic line (“Aux armes, citoyens!”) from “La Marseillaise”, the French national anthem. The linkage of the two may have been no more than a graceful nod to Schmitz’s Franco-American Music Society. But the effect is serious, even moving, and the intended significance may have been greater. The same juxtaposition of national hymns is found at the climax of one of Ives’s most fervent songs, an April 1917 setting of John McCrae’s famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” a tribute to the Allied war dead—not a subject about which Ives was inclined to joke (Ex. 5-18). The ending of the Third Quarter-Tone Piece may have been intended, and can certainly be read, as a transcendental moment to transform (and perhaps embarrass) the irreverent humor that preceded it—another instance of timeless elevated substance channeled or transmuted through a new manner.

Accepting Boundaries

ex. 5-18 Charles Ives, In Flanders Fields, end

The visionary aspect of Ives’s maximalism is the crucial one. It both impelled his radicalism and limited it, lest manner impede substance. Conceived as a medium of vital transcendental communication, Ives’s maximalism sought maximum compromise with the common practice—or rather, with the expectable expectations of listeners. He sought extension, rather than replacement, of the commonly accepted norms and aims of music, and his utopianism was tempered by acceptance of natural constraints, whether “physical” or “human.”

Ives appealed to physical nature when, imagining a possible “fundamental chord” consisting of C and E on his lower keyboard vs. G and A♯B♭ on the upper, he finally rejected it on acoustical grounds: It “has no fifth—that inexorable thing—a part of the natural laws which apparently no aesthetic principle has yet beaten out.”52 The best Ives could offer on behalf of such a chord was the hope that “some day, perhaps, an Edison, a Dempsey, or an Einstein will or will not suppress [the supremacy of the fifth] with a blow from a new natural law.” But, he implies, that day is not today.

As to human nature, he appeals both to “natural” conservatism and to what a European would probably call typically American pragmatism when he comments that, “quarter-tones or no quarter-tones, why tonality as such should be thrown out for good I can’t see,” although, he is quick to add, “why it should be always present, I can’t see.”53 The matter is to be adjudicated not by appeals to history or trips to the patent office, but “on what one is trying to do, and on the state of mind, the time of day or other accidents of life.”

Ironically enough, Ives’s caution—or his emphasis on the easily apprehended “substance” of the music rather than on its peculiar manner—actually stood in the way of reception at the 1925 premiere. Olin Downes, then just starting what would be a thirty-year tenure as chief music critic of the New York Times, dismissed the quarter-tone pieces by “Charles St. Ives” (as he carelessly transcribed the name from his program) as “having been thought in the customary tonal and semi-tonal [?] medium,” so that “the result was simply that the music sounded a good deal out of tune.”54 The critic claimed to be receptive to microtonality, but only provided the music “had a quality far more native to small divisions of tones than those heard last night.”


(49) Ives, “Some Quarter-Tone Impressions,” Essays Before a Sonata and Other Writings, p. 108.

(50) Ibid., p. 109.

(51) Ibid., pp. 111–12.

(52) Ibid., p. 113.

(53) Ibid., p. 117.

(54) New York Times, 15 February 1925; rpt. J. Peter Burkholder, ed., Charles Ives and His World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 293.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005009.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005009.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005009.xml