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At-A-Glance

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Length: c. 27 minutes

Orchestration: 2 violins, viola, and cello

About this Piece

Where did Charles Ives come from? Geographically, from Danbury, Connecticut, a 50-mile commute from New York City and thus the site nowadays of prized real estate. During Ives’ youth, it had the distinction of being called “America’s Hat City,” for the manufacture of men’s and women’s headgear, the industry being the city’s largest employer.

Musically, Ives might be said to have come from the brilliant quirks of his bandmaster father, George. Among George’s predilections was the positioning of bands at the four corners of a Danbury park and having them march, each playing a different tune, to a central point, creating the most delectable cacophony and initiating Charles’ lifelong love affair with polytonality. Additionally, Papa Ives would have Charles sing, from an early age, identical tunes in different keys, to George’s piano accompaniment. He also gave the boy a thorough grounding in keyboard technique, which culminated in his becoming organist of the Danbury Baptist Church at the age of 14. During his tenure there, he composed the spectacular variations on America (“My country, ‘tis of thee…”), today part of every organ virtuoso’s repertoire.

His interest in Protestant hymn tunes deepened there, too, until they became an essential part of his compositional style, nowhere more so than in his First String Quartet. Variously subtitled “A Revival Service” and “From the Salvation Army,” the Quartet begins with a movement written as a fugal exercise in 1896 while he was a Yale undergraduate and pupil of Horatio Parker, a deeply conservative, German-trained composer, who must have found Ives quite a handful. On weekends, Ives served as organist at a church in New Haven, where the second, third, and fourth movements of the present quartet were performed as part of a service, and whose minister admired Ives’s experimentation as an organist and composer, saying, “My opinion is that God gets awfully tired of hearing the same thing over and over again.”

Among the hymn tunes incorporated in the quartet are “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” which dominate the majestic first movement, the most formal portion of the work, to which Parker probably had no objection.

In the lively second movement, Ives prominently uses the hymns “Beulah Land” and “Shining Shore,” with a snippet of “Bringing in the Sheaves” for good measure. “Beulah Land” returns in gentle conclusion, following a coda which gives us a little foretaste of the bad-boy harmonist Ives of later works.

The meditative, lyrical third movement starts with a paraphrase of the hymn “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” with a subsequent, waltz-like section based on the same hymn but with a pizzicato accompaniment. This is followed by a substantial increase in energy, almost a march, and a return to the movement’s opening material for a calming conclusion.

The finale begins in lively fashion, quoting the hymns “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and “Stand Up for Jesus.” The contrasting lyrical section again quotes “Shining Shore,” and for the movement’s climax, Ives superimposes “Shining Shore” on “Stand Up for Jesus,” each in different meter, creating the kind of chaos beloved of Ivesian fans and probably terrifying the congregation, before the triumphant, placating conclusion.

-Herbert Glass