“Understanding Charles Ives’s music is no easy task. Its diversity is unrivaled, ranging from band marches to avant-garde experiments and from Victorian church anthems to some of the most complex orchestral music ever written.” So begins Peter Burkholder’s 1986 seminal study of the composer: Charles Ives: the ideas behind the music [M557.c.95.250]. Indeed so! However, gentle reader, take heart and read on…
On 23rd November I attended the Charles Ives Study Day at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama which proved to be something of a Damascene moment for me as I have to confess I have never really engaged with Ives’s music properly [Shame! I hear you cry]. Part of the “Words becoming Music” strand within the GSMD’s Research Works programme, the workshop, expertly curated by Pamela Lidiard and Evan Rothstein, set out to explore Ives’s musical and textual models and sources and his transformation of them into his own, unique compositional language.
How? Through a felicitous admixture of engaging, thought-provoking and informative papers punctuated by performances not only of Ives’s music, but also of newly-composed music inspired by Ives from composition staff and students. The whole rounded off with a lively panel discussion and a short concert given by Guildhall students.
That’s the 50 word summary. But there was more, so much more, so I will attempt, in the next 500 or so to convey the essence.
Peter Burkholder‘s two papers addressed two aspects of Ives’s music: his “music about music” reflecting the place of music in American life (think of pieces such as the Yale-Princeton football game with its myriad quotations), and his habit of borrowing (whether a hymn tune, popular song or resetting words) and re-interpreting in his own idiom to offer the listener a rich multi-layered experience. Both papers were given an inspired immediacy with live music examples from Guildhall students (pianist Siwan Rhys, and violinist Ionel Manciu with pianist Dylan Perez) – how refreshing, and surely something that should be done whenever possible.
William Brooks‘ presentation (so much more than the filling in the sandwich) took a deliberate step back, looking at Ives’s reaction musically to WWI but also not-so-gently reminding us that Ives wasn’t the only American musician reacting to the horrors perpetrated. The many settings of In Flanders fields, all long-since forgotten, being a good example. The point being that we shouldn’t forget: we shouldn’t concentrate our understanding of a particular historical event on a single individual, but should look at the wider picture to form a balanced view. (Here, I cheered silently in my seat as, so often when I am working on concert programmes I am saddened by the many, many names of performers and composers whose contributions to musical life in their time are now utterly forgotten).
The centrepiece of the afternoon was a truly masterful Masterclass taken by Robin Bowman, former Head of Vocal Studies at GSMD. Time was short and so brevity of the essence…Robin brought a lifetime’s experience and knowledge of Ives’s music, singing and coaching to bear in a bravura performance. In the 15 short minutes he spent with each of the four singers, he worked with them quickly and succinctly, to bring out the essence of each song, perhaps through suggesting a different approach to breathing, perhaps offering a fresh way of thinking about the words or perhaps the background to the composition of the song itself. And what a wonderful choice of contrasting songs we had: baritone Jack Lawrence-Jones gave us Tom sails away, soprano Bianca Andrew Memories, baritone Jonathan Hyde Omens and oracles and tenor Adam Sullivan ended with the iconic Housatonic at Stockbridge.
Threading their way through these set pieces during the day were newly-composed works inspired by Ives from composition students Alex Stephenson, James Albany Hoyle, Iain Harvie and Helgi Ingvasson together with a piece by James Weeks, Head of Undergraduate Composition. It was fascinating to see how the chosen Ives works sparked very different imaginative and sensitive responses, all using permutations of the violin, clarinet, cello and piano of the Guildhall New Music Ensemble. The final musical interlude was from Michael Finnissy who had us all sitting up and taking notice with his performance of Ives [MRA.340.95.89] (written in 1974 to celebrate Ives’ 100th birthday). His little programme note tells us “The initial instruction to the performer reads: Chaotic and tumultuous rush of sound, like all hell breaking loose”. Phew! He wasn’t wrong – a riveting work, using every inch of the piano and quite possibly inches it didn’t know it had. The second piece was the world premiere of Religion a much more contemplative work for clarinet and piano which takes Ives’s song of the same name and the hymn The shining shore as its inspiration. The closing section in which the clarinet and piano circle around each other with the same three notes was utterly mesmerising.
The workshop was drawn to a close with an (almost) extempore summing up from David Nicholls musing on the complexities of the multi-faceted Ives and his own response to the music, as memorable for its humour as for its drawing together of the salient points of the day, followed by a panel discussion involving all presenters which ranged across topics as diverse as how we should study history to whether composers change their style as a reaction/response to adverse criticism.
Delightfully, we didn’t all have to go home after that, but were treated to a short concert of Ives’s music (a baker’s dozen of the songs illustrating Ives’s borrowings, transformations, pastiches and sheer original genius, the adagio from the 3rd violin sonata and “The Alcotts” from the Concord piano sonata) given by the indefatigable GSMD students once again – hats off to them, I say!
In short, an inspiring day from which I came away energised and, most importantly, with a better idea of how to begin to understand Ives (if indeed that’s ever possible).