Breaking Time's Arrow: Experiment and Expression in the Music of Charles Ives

Breaking Time's Arrow: Experiment and Expression in the Music of Charles Ives

Breaking Time's Arrow: Experiment and Expression in the Music of Charles Ives

Breaking Time's Arrow: Experiment and Expression in the Music of Charles Ives

Synopsis

Charles Ives (1874-1954) moved traditional compositional practice in new directions by incorporating modern and innovative techniques with nostalgic borrowings of 19th century American popular music and Protestant hymns. Matthew McDonald argues that the influence of Emerson and Thoreau on Ives's compositional style freed the composer from ordinary ideas of time and chronology, allowing him to recuperate the past as he reached for the musical unknown. McDonald links this concept of the multi-temporal in Ives's works to Transcendentalist understandings of eternity. His approach to Ives opens new avenues for inquiry into the composer's eclectic and complex style.

Excerpt

In 2001, I began researching the music of Charles Ives. I spent countless hours at the piano that summer, familiarizing myself with every score I could get my hands on. I particularly remember accompanying myself through the entire set of 114 Songs—quite a feat, as I’m a pianist but no singer. Originally, I had outlined a thorough consideration of time and temporality in Ives’s music, but, ultimately, a small portion of this outline ballooned into the entire project. After completing my thesis and converting one chapter into an article, I had no plans or desire to develop the material further, but after a few years, rejuvenated, I returned to the research as the partial foundation for a new book project. By this time, however, I had grown dissatisfied with much of my previous work and discarded it in favor of completely new material. I envisioned that this would be a “definitive” statement of my ideas about Ives’s music, a culmination of my work over the previous several years. It eventually became clear, however, that I would never be fully satisfied with the book and could tinker with it forever; the printed version, inevitably, would always feel unfinished. Its fixed form belies the reality of my research, which would be better represented by the endless pages of notes and drafts on my desk and hard drive, many discarded or forgotten, their potential contribution to the whole left unclear or undetermined.

Around 1910, Charles Ives began work on what he referred to as an overture or concerto inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Originally, this was to be one in a set of several overtures devoted to great “Men of Literature,” but ultimately Ives made significant progress on only two. While composing the Emerson Overture, Ives developed some of its cadenzas as studies for solo piano, one of which he completed. After suspending work on the overture, Ives had no evident plans to develop the material further, but he later returned to it as the foundation for a new piece, the first movement of the Concord Sonata. For the Concord movement, however, Ives discarded much of the music of the overture and added a significant amount of new material. the first movement of the Concord, many believe, is the “definitive” musical expression of Ives’s ideas about Emerson, and in 1920 Ives presented it to the musical community as the culmination of his work as a composer. Ives stated on many occasions, however, that he would likely never be fully satisfied with the music and could tinker with it forever; the “Emerson” music, inevitably, would remain “unfinished.” the fixed form of the Concord movement belies the reality of Ives’s musical conception, which is better represented by the multiple versions and endless pages of sketches and emendations, many discarded or forgotten, their status unclear or undetermined.

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