Robert Browning Overture
Composed: 1908-12, rev. c. 1936-42
Length: 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 piccolos, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, Indian drum, low bells, snare drum, tubular chime), organ pedal, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
The first decade of the 20th century was one of profound change and development for Charles Ives. In 1902 he quit his job as organist for the Central Presbyterian Church in New York, his last professional post. He threw himself into the booming insurance business he had entered a few years earlier, ultimately opening his own office on New Year's Day in 1907 - by the end of the decade his company was selling more life insurance than any other agency in the country.
And in 1905 he began a courtship of Harmony Twichell, the sister of one of his Yale classmates. They were finally married in 1908, and it was Harmony's keen interest in literature that inspired many of the works that Ives embarked on in a great burst of creativity following their marriage.
Among these was the Robert Browning Overture, the sole completed product of a projected "Men of Literature" series of tone poems. Harmony gave Ives a copy of Browning's epic poem Paracelsus for his birthday in 1908, and the composer took Browning's Faustian treatment of the alchemist - overweening Romantic ambition redeemed by love - as his subject. (Ives also later wrote a song on a text from Paracelsus, using material from the Overture.)
This is bold, tough, complex music of violent contrasts, brooding langor or ethereal mysteries suddenly shattered by surging orchestral storms. There are almost no quotes in this piece, none of the common-ground references to American stories and sounds that characterize many of Ives' best-known works. "The themes themselves, except the main second theme, were trying to catch the Browning surge into the baffling unknowables, not afraid of unknown fields, not sticking to the nice main roads, and not so exactly bound up or limited to one key or keys (or any tonality for that matter) all the time," Ives later wrote.
Indeed, this is often polytonal, polyrhythmic, poly-multi-everything music. Having left salaried music-making behind, Ives could now compose as freely as his spirit led him on his own "surge into the baffling unknowables." Ives was never shy about counterpoint, particularly of the sturdy "fuguing tune" sort echoing William Billings and other early American composers, but this Overture is filled with dense, abstract polyphony, programmatically inspired as a musical reflection of Paracelsus' alchemistry formularies.
The Overture opens with a slow, haunted introduction, woodwinds gradually supplanting hushed strings. Then a furious Allegro march explodes with all of Ives' poly-tricks, a shrieking, surging thing that seems ever pressing forward and upward. This is then supplanted by an Adagio set of variations, beginning with a string chorale of Mahlerian richness. The March is repeated, leading now into an intense fugal finale.
Browning's mind, Ives wrote on his score of the Overture, "had many roads, not always easy to follow - the ever flowing changing, growing ways of mind & imagination - over the great unchanging truths of life & not death!" When the final, shattering, quadruple forte chord is released, there remains just a hint of the Adagio, like a great unchanging truth.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.