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Composed: 1894-1902; 1908

Length: c. 35 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 11, 1971, with Zubin Mehta conducting

About this Piece

“Papa is standing in the back garden in the middle of a thunderstorm, listening to the ringing of the bell from the Congregational church next door. Papa runs inside to the piano and tries to make the sound, but he can’t find the notes to make the piano sound like the bell. With growing exasperation, he runs outside over and over again, listening hard, trying again and again to find it on the piano…” This incident was one of Charles Ives’ earliest memories of his father George, a bandmaster. In the 1930s, Ives added a postscript that his father decided that to emulate bell sounds, he needed notes “in the cracks between the piano keys.”

George, of course, was not only Charles’ first teacher, but the model and inspiration for Charles’ own music. For like his son’s, George’s musical imagination was boundless: he experimented with quarter tones; he would have two different bands march around the town green, playing two different tunes simultaneously to hear what it sounded like when they passed by; he would have his son sing in one key while he accompanied him in another (bi-tonality); he told Charles that it was fine to construct any harmonic combination of notes as long as he knew what he was doing; and on and on. Charles was to pursue filling in the aforementioned cracks during his compositional career.

In 1894, Charles Ives entered Yale and became a student of Horatio Parker, from whom he received a good grounding in German song composition, counterpoint, and instrumentation; a supremely orthodox musical education. However, right at the beginning of his first year, on November 4, 1894, Ives father died suddenly, leaving an “awful vacuum” in his life. It was around this time that Ives sketched a melody that would become the first theme of his Symphony No. 1. He completed the first movement under Parker’s guidance and submitted movements two and four as his senior thesis in 1898, finally completing the third movement in 1902.  

The Symphony No. 1 is a thoroughly European late-Romantic work. Ives used models such as Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World,” 1893), utilizing devices of cyclic form and the contrapuntal combination of themes from one or several movements; no experimentation here.

The opening theme of the Allegro, played by the clarinet, permeates the entire movement. An ensuing pastoral theme in the strings leads to the fragmentation of materials, articulated by different instrumental groups; a meditative middle section contrasts with the energetic first theme.

A hymn-like tune in the English horn (reminiscent of the melody from the slow movement of the “New World” Symphony) begins the Adagio molto; a second soaring theme is given to the strings followed by a re-statement of the opening theme played by the oboe and violin solo. The Scherzo features a fugal main section, surrounding a dancing Trio section. The concluding fourth movement, Allegro molto, consists of a march that gives way to a lyric theme in the strings, eventually ending in an extensive coda including all of the themes in the movement.

— Steve Lacoste