About this Piece
If Ives’ Second Symphony was of a transitional nature between his First and Third Symphonies, then his Symphony No. 3 itself was what he referred to as pivotal; it was in his words a “cross between the older ways and the newer ways.” By “older ways,” Ives was referring to the classical models of symphonic writing in both of his previous symphonies, the “newer ways” were to be found is his extensive use of borrowings of “found materials,” i.e., popular song, religious hymns, and folk tunes that were placed in a traditionally oriented symphonic setting.
The Symphony No. 3 looks back not only to the older European symphonic forms, but, more importantly, to Ives’ childhood impressions of a disappearing spiritual world. It also looks forward in his use of a new formal device dubbed “cumulative form” by Ives scholar J. Peter Burkholder. In a nutshell, cumulative form presents the growth of a movement from motivic elements, as particles of a melody that gradually come together or accumulate to state the melody fully formed at the end. Thus, in some ways, cumulative form reverses the course of traditional sonata form.
The narrative or program for the Third Symphony is conveyed by the subtitle “The Camp Meeting” and the individual movements, “Old Folks Gatherin’,” “Children’s Day,” and “Communion.” They are self- referential, to Ives childhood memories of camp meetings he attended where his father furnished the music and conducted the congregational and choral singing of hymns; Ives borrows several of these hymns to illustrate his childhood memories.
The origins of Symphony No. 3 are found in three organ pieces Ives composed in 1901, when he was organist at Central Presbyterian Church in New York. “Old Folks Gatherin’” reflects this origin in the Bachian four-part chorale texture that permeates the movement. The general pacing of the different melodic fragments (the hymns “Azmon,” “Woodworth,” and “Erie”) alludes to the coming together of the “Old Folks” for the meeting as a solo flute sings “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” of which only fragments of the melody had been previously heard.
As the title implies, the second movement “Children’s Day” is a happy, animated romp featuring the hymns “Fountain,” “Naomi,” and “The Happy Land” in counterpoint against one another. A march fills the middle section. The movement ends with a coda echoing “The Happy Land” and “Fountain.”
“Communion” is a meditation on all of the hymns from “Old Folks Gatherin’,” as well as the Bachian textures from that movement. In distinction from the first movement, however, the hymn “Woodworth” is far more prominent in the second half of this movement, becoming the exclusive hymn underlying the distant church bells with which the Symphony concludes.
The world premiere occurred on April 5, 1946, with Lou Harrison conducting the New York Little Symphony. Ives received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3.
— Steve Lacoste