Ives's Holidays Symphony
The poet Walt Whitman makes an interesting comparison with Ives. Both men experimented with their art forms, juxtaposed serious themes with frivolous beauty, and spent decades editing and revising their masterpieces. Also like Whitman, Ives imagined various musical strains from around the world merging into a single song of mankind, but whereas Whitman used music as a metaphor, Ives used music as his medium.
The emotional material for Ives' music came from his experiences growing up in the town of Danbury, Connecticut, the son of the town bandmaster, George Ives. George had been a Union Army bandmaster in the Civil War and had a playful relationship with music that he that he passed on to his son. Once, George had two bands march toward each other while playing different songs, just to know what it would sound like.
Ives wrote most of his music between 1900 and 1920, a period in which the United States became a world power. He worried that prosperity was leading Americans to lose touch with their values. In an attempt to enshrine the America he cherished, Ives composed four movements that trace boyhood memories of seasonal celebrations, an American "Four Seasons." This was the Holidays Symphony.
The first movement of Ives' Holidays Symphony takes place on George Washington's birthday and explores the snowed-in claustrophobia of winter. The piece begins like someone whistling aimlessly. Ives transforms this music into something mournful by harmonizing it with trembling strings.
From this bleak, snowy moonscape, Ives brings his audience into the sweaty bustle of a barn dance. Fragments of Camptown Races and Turkey in the Straw can be heard in the din.
Composers before Ives, notably Béla Bartók and Maurice Ravel, had referenced folk music in their work. In most cases, they "corrected" the roughness of folk performers to conform to art music expectations. Not Ives. He kept all the "wrong" notes and worked hard to notate the music so a classically trained musician could play it.
The barn dance music gets wilder until it comes to a complete confrontational crunch. Then, a serene melody floats out, like sentimental parlor music. While that plays, a separate strand of music weaves into the composition, as if a musician on the back porch of the dance is playing something just for herself. The movement ends with more winter harmonies.
The second movement of the Holidays Symphony is Decoration Day, honoring the dead of the Civil War (now celebrated as Memorial Day).
Musically, Decoration Day begins with a few quiet motifs. The first to arise is the opening of Adeste Fidelis. This drifts into a motif Ives said represented the ultimate question: what is the meaning of life? A beautiful original rhapsody follows, perhaps representing mourners as they gather spring flowers. After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out. The trumpet plays quietly from as far away from the audience as possible for just a glimmer of sound.
When the ranks form again, one of Ives' favorite marches leads to another mass of sound that stops and the recurring "meaning of life" theme, this time answered with the chords that we know to mean "amen." In the far distance, Taps returns.
Ives conceived most of Holidays Symphony between 1897 and 1913 but it took him almost another twenty years to finish it. Work in the insurance business supported Ives during that time, but didn't nurture his soul. He composed at night, on weekends, and on the train during his commute from Connecticut to his office in New York City.
The Fourth of July
The Fourth of July presents the summer holiday with all the chaos of a town potluck. Like the previous movements, quotations from other music abound, in this case patriotic tunes like Yankee Doodle. When most of the orchestra plays a version of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a fife and drum core joins in, but out of sync and in a different key. The energy and chaos involved requires a second conductor.
There's sudden silence before the first rocket arches its way up into the sky, followed by a full burst of fireworks. Ives' familiar crunch leads us back into silence as the glimmers of sparks disappear into the night.
The Thanksgiving movement can be traced to Ives' college days at Yale. Music originally written for the organ at Center Church in New Haven was reworked into the final movement of the Holidays.
Thanksgiving illustrates the changes that occur when ideas confront one another. Once again Ives divides the orchestra into groups playing hymns in two opposing keys. Most prominent is the traditional Thanksgiving hymn, The Shining Shore. Again, the bottom drops out, and we hear the swing of a scythe—either the harvest or the Grim Reaper has arrived. The ultimate question is asked again and as the music picks up again toward celebration and noise, the listener expects a confrontational crunch.
Instead, Ives surprises us. A large chorus sounds out Thanksgiving hymns. The choir sings a round and the whole procession passes into the distance. The different songs merge into one universal hymn of mankind.
Recognition came late to Ives. Thanksgiving was first publicly performed at the premiere of the complete Holidays Symphony in April of 1954, just a month before Ives' death.