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Music In The 20th Century

Early Twentieth Century America | Charles Ives

Peter Kun Frary


Through much of America's history, we were closely tied to the music of Europe. Our most important national songs were borrowed from England: My Country, 'Tis of Thee is based on the national anthem of the United Kingdom, God Save the Queen, and The Star-Spangled Banner uses the melody of a popular British song, To Anacreon in Heaven. It took a century and a half to stir together the cultures of Europe, Africa, Asia and Native America to create a uniquely American music culture. Thus, the twentieth century marks the beginning of truly American music, the most original and influential music culture in recent history.

Cowboy Dance 1941 | Jenne Magafan (1916-52) | Smithsonian American Art Museum

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, America was enriched and influenced by visits of prominent European composers such as Dvorak, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky and immigration of composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok. These musicians taught and influenced generations of American musicians. European technique and American creativity resulted in amazingly innovative and original music.

Automobile Industry 1941 | William Gropper (1897-1977) | Smithsonian American Art Museum

Charles Ives

The visionary composer and New England insurance executive, Charles Ives (1874-1954), created astonishing sonic snapshots of America, pioneering techniques unheard of until decades later. Ives was the first truly American composer of the twentieth century and one of the most original spirits of his time.

Ives received his early musical training from his father, a bandmaster, who taught him the value of "manly" composers like Handel, Beethoven and Brahms. Papa Ives encouraged Charles to "stretch his ears" by exposing him to quarter tones and by having him sing in one key while being accompanied in another key. These lessons left an indelible mark on his musical personality and helped propel Ives' music away from the tried and true.

After graduating from Yale with a music composition degree, Ives decided against a music career, stating that he could keep his music "stronger, cleaner, bigger and freer" if he didn't try to "starve on his dissonances."

Charles Ives (1874-1954) | Charles Ives wrote innovative music mixing Americana and avant-garde technique.

Ives was a creative and highly successful businessman: within twenty years he owned the largest insurance agency in the United States, invented estate planning and wrote a widely used insurance textbook.

Ives wrote his music at night, on weekends and during holidays, working in isolation from the musical mainstream, but producing the most advanced and adventurous works of his time, anticipating techniques and ideas used by other composers decades later. Ives was wealthy enough to hire the New York Philharmonic to play his music for private family performances but most of his scores accumulated unheard in the barn of his Connecticut farm.

Still Life with Corn | Charles Ethan Porter (1847–1923), Connecticut, USA | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ives' music was autobiographical in the sense he recreated the sounds and sights of his childhood in small town America: classical traditions, hymns, brass bands, camp meetings and holidays. Ives loved his memories of marching bands which, at carnival time, played different music simultaneously from the four corners of the town square. Ives enjoyed standing in the middle and listening to all the bands at once. As he walked around, the spatial presentation or perspectives of the various bands changed. These experiences probably account for his use of polytonality (simultaneous keys), polyrhythms (layers of independent rhythms), chord clusters (tightly packed pitches, e.g., piano keys played with forehead), multiple orchestras and spatial presentations (e.g., melody notes moving across an orchestra).

Ives suffered a heart attack in 1918, just before his 44th birthday. Neither he nor his music completely recovered. Although he lived thirty years longer, Ives stopped composing by the mid-1920s. Instead, he promoted his voluminous output to little avail. Musicians of the time shunned Ives, thinking him ignorant of rudiments. Why else would somebody write music so unconventional and non-European?

Finally, in 1939, at the age of 65, Ives witnessed the first public performance of his piano work, the Concord Sonata. At the age of 77 he achieved significant public recognition with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic's performance of his Second Symphony. The prospect of hearing a piece he wrote fifty years earlier agitated the old man so much he refused to attend both rehearsals and performances.

Special No. 32 (1915) | Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) | Smithsonian American Art Museum

Three Places in New England

Three Places in New England (1903-29) is both an example of program music and American nationalism. Although not popular during Ives' lifetime, this is one of his most often performed works today. It bristles with his signature traits: layering of textures and meters, multiple, often simultaneous melodies; hymn and marching tunes; tone clusters and bitonality; and abrupt textural contrasts. There are three movements, each steeped in American history and culture. Ives aimed to make listeners experience the atmosphere of each place.

1. The "St. Gaudens" in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment)
2. Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut
3. The Housatonic at Stockbridge

Rainstorm—Cider Mill at Redding, Connecticut | George Harvey (1800–1878) | Metropolitan Museum of Art

We'll listen to the second movement, Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut. Ives writes that Putnam's Camp is about the Fourth of July as seen through the eyes and ears of a boy growing up in late nineteenth century America:

"Near Redding Center, Connecticut, is a small park preserved as a Revolutionary Memorial; for here General Israel Putnam's soldiers had their winter quarters in 1778-79." One Fourth of July, "a child went here on a picnic held under the auspices of the First Church and the village cornet band. Wandering away from the rest of the children past the camp ground into the woods . . . As he rests on the hillside of laurels and hickories the tunes of the band and the songs of the children grow fainter and fainter. He falls asleep and dreams of a "a tall woman standing . . . the Goddess of Liberty . . . pleading with the soldiers not to forget their 'cause' and the great sacrifices they have made for it. But they march out of camp with fife and drum to a popular tune of the day. Suddenly, a new national note is heard. Putnam is coming over the hills from the center—the soldiers turn back and cheer. The little boy awakes, he hears the children's songs and runs down past the monument to 'listen to the band' and join in the games and dances."

Ives draws heavily on musical quotation of popular American songs to evoke both the time and place of this work:

  • The Star-Spangled Banner
  • The British Grenadiers
  • Marching Through Georgia
  • The Girl I Left Behind
  • Arkansas Traveler
  • Massa's in the Cold Ground
  • The Battle Cry of Freedom
  • Yankee Doodle
  • Columbia, Gem of the Ocean
  • Hail, Columbia
  • Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!

Americans during the first half of the twentieth century likely recognized all of the tunes, helping render a vivid and nostalgic picture of the Fourth of July in their mind. I grew up in the second half of the twentieth century and only recognize six of the ten quotes. My best students may recognize only one or two of the melodies.

Putnam's Camp is in ternary form: A B A' with each sections corresponding to the main sections of the story above. The A section, with a tempo mark of quick step time, creates images of marching bands, screaming kids and assorted Fourth of July festivities. After a chaotic and dissonant introduction to the scene, a straightforward march theme appears in the strings:

As groups of instruments rage and compete with one another, the mood intensifies and surges between extremes of multiple marching band textures to off-key quotes of popular songs such as Yankee Doodle:

The chaos of the A section grinds to a halt and the middle or B section begins softer and darker, depicting the child's dreams of the the Revolutionary War. The Revolutionary War images intensify with offbeat drum beats, sounds of merging marching bands and quotes of patriotic songs, including The British Grenadiers.

The child awakens and wanders back to the parade grounds. Thus, the A' section brings back the chaos of picnics, yelling sergeants and multiple marching bands. The final two measures quote America's national anthem and immediately resolve to an unexpected and dissonant fortissimo chord (chord cluster).

Three Places in New England: 2. Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut (5:35) | Written during 1903-29 by Charles Ives (1874-1954)


Charles Ives, polytonality, polyrhythms, chord cluster, Three Places in New England

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved