Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, snare drum), piano, celesta, organ, 2 harps, strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 27, 1969, Lawrence Foster conducting.
It is ironic that much of the music written by Charles Ives was rarely played while he was alive. Ironic, because fewer and fewer musical scholars would now dispute his reputation (as they were wont to do for years) as one of the most important American composers we have; ironic, also, because the collage-style of his compositions is as popular as ever some 100 years later, not only in concert music but in popular music as well. His music clearly reflects his time, and it is also conceptually far ahead of its time. In his lifetime, however, he was misunderstood. It often took years for his works to be premiered, and usually only at his own expense. (As a highly successful insurance man, he was able to support himself and could afford to sponsor premieres.) The Second Symphony, for example, written between 1900 and 1902, was not performed until half a century later; the Fourth Symphony (1910-1916) did not receive its first full performance until 1965. Three Places in New England, too, though completed in sections between 1903 and 1923 (and revised in 1929), wasn’t given a full reading until the brash young Nicolas Slonimsky conducted it with the Chamber Orchestra of Boston in 1931.
What prevented audiences, critics, and new music champions from immediately latching on to the music of Ives? It is not an easy question to answer, though if one accepts that "Art is Whatever People Say It Is," then Ives’ music just didn’t fit into the rational, "head-in-hands" seriousness about art that prevailed at the turn of the century. Indeed, that he wasn’t so serious in his music, that his compositions would make people chuckle or even laugh out loud at outlandish juxtapositions -- this made it even more difficult for him and his music to be taken seriously.
Ives definitely had his champions, though. Slonimsky, for one. Not only did he conduct the first performance, he also supervised Three Places’ publication. "At the time  people were still saying that Ives was an amateur who really didn’t know what he was writing. Nothing could be more wrong," wrote Slonimsky. "In this particular work, whenever I raised some questions about some changes, he would always point out to me why he did it otherwise…" According to Slonimsky, Ives thought about every detail.
American composer/scholar Henry Cowell was another Ives supporter and friend who, looking back on Ives’ life and career in a 1955 biography, wrote, "His manuscripts contain a whole new world of music, prophetically suggesting… aspects of music whose ‘discovery’ was to make other men famous for years to come." The "prophecy" in Ives’ music was his clever and inventive use of quotations -- usually commonly-known American tunes -- sometimes seemingly coming out of nowhere.
The ‘St. Gaudens’ in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment) is a tribute to the Civil War monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common. The regiment, the first in the Union Army comprised of African American soldiers, was led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw. It was formed in 1862; in July 1863, half of the regiment was killed in an assault on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner. St. Gaudens begins with darkly brooding string passages rising out of the primordial mist. Soon after, the violins take up outlines -- and eventually play entire quotes -- from the then-familiar tunes "Old Black Joe" and "Marching through Georgia." Incongruous threads of these melodies weave in and out as the timpani maintain a steady pulse. Later we hear snippets of "The Battle Cry of Freedom" and "Massa’s in the Cold Ground." The movement ends as if it were a memory fading from consciousness.
By contrast, Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut is rambunctious and upbeat, bringing an old-time, town-square band concert immediately to mind. But this is not a normal band experience. According to Ives’ own notes on this movement, he meant to conjure musically the experience of a young boy as he imagines the comings and goings of the Revolutionary Army near Redding. In this movement we seem to hear the sounds of two marching bands playing different tunes at the same time. Listen for "Yankee Doodle," "Bringing in the Sheaves," and Sousa’s "Semper Fidelis." The truncated ending leaves you wanting to finish humming "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Finally, The Housatonic at Stockbridge returns to the brooding sound world of St. Gaudens. A haunting hymn tune unfolds over shimmering chromatic strings, as percussion and winds burble underneath. A massive climax overwhelms this anxious calm, giving way to two quiet and mysterious final string chords.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He is also a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.