Composed: 1897-1902; 1907-1909
Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 9, 1960, with Walter Hendl conducting
About this Piece
In the autumn of 1898, Charles Ives moved to New York and established a pattern that would be his modus operandi for the next ten years, that being the pursuit of two separate careers: composer and insurance clerk (later to become an executive). In Memos, Ives wrote that upon graduating from Yale in 1898, with reference to career and a future family, “If he has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances?” Thus the practical Yankee side of his character won out.
For a bachelor in turn-of-the-century New York, the excitement and general pace of life was overwhelming, and optimism for the coming century was electrifying, literally and figuratively: the electric light, motor car, telephone, motion picture, airplane, et al. were, if not already in use, then about to affect everyday existence. Consequently, the United States was on the verge of leading the world into a bright future of scientific, economic, and social progress, and New York was the hub. But of course, accompanying this dynamism and prosperity was omnipresent poverty. Ives was aware of this ethical dichotomy of technological and social advance and wealth on one hand, and the extreme poverty of urban life on the other. Mirror -ike, Ives simultaneously harbored in his inner life both the socially progressive program of the present and the vanishing spiritual world of his youth. Both these strains were to be synthesized in Ives’ future works, beginning with his Second Symphony.
The Symphony No. 2 marks the first major work in which Ives exercises his famous penchant for “borrowings” of well-known hymns, marches, and popular songs, as well quoting from his own earlier works for organ. In addition to these borrowings of American tunes emanating from Ives’ childhood, he also continues to reference European music, Dvořák especially, particularly the Largo from the “New World” Symphony with its sense of nostalgia. In a sense, the Symphony No. 2 is a transition piece between the pure European tradition of the First Symphony to the pure Americanism of the Third Symphony.
A plaintive theme stated in the cellos begins the opening Andante moderato. Following various other thematic materials, it is restated with a fragment from “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” making a brief appearance. The second movement is a lively jaunt, which is interrupted by a slow lyric section for strings, flutes, and oboes. Each of these sections is repeated; “Bringing in the Sheaves” is perhaps the most obvious borrowing in this movement. The Adagio cantabile puts fragments from “America the Beautiful” in a pastoral setting. The Lento Maestoso sets a tragic tone that is briefly disrupted by a fragment of “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” The last movement is a quick moving romp of brilliant contrapuntal writing that climaxes in a medley including “Camptown Races,” “Turkey in the Straw,” and once again, “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” that at the very end is abruptly cut off by a blaring fragment of “Reveille,” perhaps the most “Ivesian” gesture of the Symphony.
— Steve Lacoste