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"…beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair."
— Charles Ives, 1920
Composer, organist, and insurance broker Charles E. Ives anticipated nearly every musical trend of the 20th century. His music, which utilizes hymn tunes and atonality with equal aplomb, featured poly-meter, poly-tonality, aleatory or "chance" procedures, tone clusters, and spatial arrangement of ensembles decades before they became recognized modernist techniques. Needless to say, Ives stood utterly outside musical establishments in both America and Europe, typically passed off, if acknowledged at all, as an eccentric amateur. Most of his catalogue lay unperformed throughout his life until composers such as Henry Cowell and John Cage became champions of his works, and, in their own way, followed Ives' experimental lead.
Far from being an amateur, Ives was a professional organist by age 14, having studied with his father, a New England bandmaster, before attending Yale University. The hymn tunes which Ives performed in many church services became the building blocks for his first string quartet, a work he composed at age 21, while still a composition student of the venerable Horatio Parker.
Under Parker's guidance, Ives steeped himself in the traditions of European Romanticism and most of the music from these years reflects this focus. Ives' first string quartet is tonal, uses traditional forms, and shows a thorough grasp of late-19th-century style. While his most experimental years still lay ahead of him, there is a rebelliousness to the quartet which is wholly Ives, and the Protestant hymn tunes on which it's based further give the quartet its American character.
The quartet was originally a work for organ and strings (now lost) that Ives performed at a Protestant service. The two hymn tunes used in the "Prelude" are Beulah Land and Shining Shore, though the themes are so fragmented and re-worked that even those familiar with them will barely recognize them. The meditative "Offertory" is based on Nettleton ("Come, Thou Fount of Ev'ry Blessing") and the previous tunes make quick appearances. The spirited "Postlude" blends figures from Coronation ("All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name") as well as Webb ("Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus"), while a complete statement of the latter serves as a satisfying conclusion.
The Scherzo (1903-04) for string quartet, among the first of Ives' many experimental works, was also based on fragments of tunes Ives knew, including Bringing in the Sheaves, My Old Kentucky Home, and Sailor's Hornpipe. Ives sub-titled the middle section "Exercise in Holding Your Own" ("half in fun, half serious," the composer says), which is a reference to the challenge of combining different rhythmic subdivisions of the measure, starting with four against six and working up to two against nine against sixteen.
The Fugue from Ives Symphony No. 4 - ironically, both the earliest and the latest of these Ives works - was, in its first incarnation, a shorter work for string quartet which Ives grafted onto his first quartet as its opening movement. Most performing versions still present it this way. This is only one instance in which Ives re-arranged and re-worked previously written music for new contexts.
In keeping with this spirit, violinist Barry Socher, after reading Jan Swafford's inspired biography Charles Ives - A Life with Music, decided to re-arrange the expanded fugue, returning it again to its string quartet origins. Ives probably would have approved.The fugue's subject is based on the Missionary Hymn ("From Greenland's Icy Mountains"), while a counter-subject is based on Coronation.
— Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Publications Assistant.