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July 30, 2004

True Grit - Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony

Posted by David Conway

Charles Ives: Fourth Symphony
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Sakari Oramo
BBC Promenade Concerts 2004
Royal Albert Hall
24th July 2004

It seems it is forty years since I heard the first British performance of Charles Ives's Fourth Symphony. According to the note in the programme to Saturday's concert, it was then preceded by Sir Malcolm Sargent, aka Flash Harry, conducting Holst and Vaughan Williams. I can't now recall this part, although it would go to prove that programmers in those days had a good sense of humour. Some parts of the audience did not, however. I clearly remember both the laughter and glee of the Promenaders, and the rush from those seated in the stalls to the exit after the symphony's second movement. I have loved Ives ever since, everything from the Dvořakian pastiche of the First Symphony to the unique sonic universe of the last pieces he wrote before giving up the Muse for the world of insurance broking (in which he was gratifyingly successful). He might well have remarked triumphantly, like his compatriot Walt Whitman

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. (I am large. I contain multitudes)

And by now Ives has become accepted in the canon of classics, and it is his turn, having died thirty years after he stopped composing in 1954, to benefit from the 'rule of 25' on which I have previously remarked. Although the BBC's celebration of Ives is limited to only two of his works (apart from arrangements of some of his songs by John Adams) they are his two finest the Fourth Symphony, and the 'Concord' Sonata for piano (to be played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard at a lunch time concert on August 30th).

The Symphony seems to me indisputably one of the greatest American works of art. The first movement asks a question in the habit of one of Ives's hymn-tune favourites, as the chorus sings 'Watchman, tell us of the night, what the signs of promise are?'. In one of Ives's shorter pieces, 'The Unanswered Question', a trumpet intones an inquiry several times, to be met with several evasions by a bunch of shifty flutes. But here Ives gives us three different and very American answers in the second movement, the throb of the city, in the third the conservatism of old New England, and in the last the transcendental response of his beloved Emerson and Thoreau. And though his heart is clearly with the third answer, he by no means scorns or demeans the others.

It is the extravagance of the second movement, with its explosions of multi-rhythmic rag-time and marches interspersed with sudden changes of perspective to quiet hymn tunes or oily Palm Court ensembles, its quarter-tone piquancies and steam-engine noises, which constantly draws comment. Having visited the Hopper exhibition at Tate Modern a few days ago, I was reminded of the artist's glimpses of different New York interiors at night from the perspective of the El.

Oramo avoided the easy win technique of some conductors who, by change of tempo or dynamic, place clear quotation marks around the dance-music passages, and served us up with a thick and bubbling aural stew, laced with adrenalin, forcing the audience to 'stretch its ears' (in Ives's own phrase). As Ives wrote, this movement 'is not a scherzo [] it is a comedy'.

The third movement is a fugue taking as its theme the hymn-tune 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains' - in fact a recasting of a movement from Ives's early First String Quartet. Its formality in contrast to the preceding near-chaos is in its own way startling, but Ives is not being ironic, still less sarcastic. The 'formalism and ritualism' which according to the composer it represents is nonetheless an American way. The music has its own nobility without pomposity, enhanced by harmonic shifts which recall the naivety of the eighteenth century hymns of Henry Billings. What a pity that the newly refurbished Albert Hall organ had packed up! The pedal points in the final passage, which underline the trombone quoting Handel's 'Joy to the World', were undertaken by a synthesizer instead, but one missed the vibration of the building one gets with the real thing. Oramo took the movement rather quicker than I would have wished it should surely be at the stately tempo of a church congregation.

But the last movement was magical. The percussion section throughout play a quiet processional or maybe death march at a tempo independent of the orchestra and the (now wordless) choir, which develop a glistening thread of tone and colour which broadens out into a river of sound surely one of Ives's beloved New England rivers, the Housatonic or the Concord (after which his sonata is named). To quote the composer once again, it is 'an apotheosis of the preceding content', and was thus expressed beautifully by the conductor and orchestra to its dying fall.

Since I first heard this music it has for me epitomised some of America's finest qualities humane, questing, determined, optimistic, humorous all the positive aspects of the pioneer spirit. Some of these qualities seem to be in abeyance in the States at the present time, but here we had the lads from Birmingham, with their Finnish conductor, letting Ives tell us clearly how it ought to be.


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