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At-A-Glance

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Composed: 1910-1925

Length: c. 30 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, tenor saxophone (= baritone saxophone), 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 6 trumpets (5th = cornet), 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, high and low bells, cymbals, gongs, snare drum, snare drum, timbales, triangle, xylophone), harp, piano 4-hands, theremin, celesta, organ, quartertone piano, strings, solo piano, and chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 25, 1971, with Lawrence Foster conducting

About this Piece

After a hiatus of more than a decade following the completion of his Third Symphony, Ives returned to the symphonic genre with a work that was to embody the full range of his mature philosophical, metaphysical, and musical ideas: his Fourth Symphony. In many ways, the Fourth Symphony can be seen (heard) as a pilgrimage into the depths of Ives’ memory, both musical and extra-musical, for it contains more than a dozen of his own works in part or whole, and a plethora of hymns, parlor songs, and folk tunes traced from his childhood to an adult; the span of his entire life to that point.

And yet, Ives managed to harness all of these diverse elements into a more or less traditional cyclic symphony, its many themes sounding and resounding from movement to movement. Ives biographer Jan Swafford encapsulates the foregoing succinctly: “Journey, apotheosis, autobiography, the Fourth is no less another mediation, the most far-reaching of all in Ives, between art ‘low’ and ‘high,’ vernacular tunes and cultivated genres, the voice of the American people joined with the monumental European tradition.” The Fourth Symphony was Ives’ last essay in this genre.

Ives begins the Prelude with a brief motive in the cellos, basses, and piano answered by a fragment of the hymn “Bethany” in the strings, followed by a solo cello rendition of “In the Sweet By and By.” The chorus enters singing “Watchman Tell Us of the Night,” set in a polytonal and polyrhythmic radiance, ultimately fading to silence.

The second movement loosely follows the plot of Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” a satire on American faith in material progress: comfortable train passengers laugh at old-fashioned pilgrims slogging through a swamp on foot. At the end, the modern travelers miss their connection over the river of death. Ives utilizes more than 30 related tunes and hymns in a polyrhythmic tour de force; it is one of Ives’ crowning achievements. Quarter-tone writing for the violins and a driving solo piano (train music?) continuously plows its way through this complex texture. Brief moments of relaxed lyricism pop up from time to time but are soon obliterated in bombast. The movement converges in a massive quodlibet of no less than six tunes that without warning dribbles to a close.

Ives referred to the third movement Fugue in C major as “an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism.” In its seeming conventionality it is a radical departure from the previous movement. The fugue subject is from the missionary hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” More than half way through the fugue, an extended C-sharp pedal in the bass leads to an extremely chromatic climax that is resolved in a chorale-like coda.

“The last movement is an apotheosis of the preceding content,” Ives said, “in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience.” Largely meditative in nature, the movement opens with percussion heard over a phrase from “Bethany” leading into textures from the Prelude. The rhythms and texture intensify as the volume grows. Near the end, several tunes are contrapuntally juxtaposed around another statement of “Bethany,” after which trumpets and voices (textless) enter with second half of the same hymn. Following the last held note of “Bethany,” the music fades into a distant-sounding bass drum stroke.

— Steve Lacoste