Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4

By Christopher H. Gibbs

Written for the concert Fiftieth Birthday Celebration, performed on Oct 26, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

The genesis, musical substance, and fate of Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony are in many respects representative of the singularly strange career of this unusual American composer. The son of a Connecticut bandmaster, Ives studied music at Yale University with Horatio Parker and enjoyed early success in New York City, where he served as organist at Central Presbyterian Church. In 1902, at age 28, he abandoned the professional musical world and turned to business, eventually becoming an extremely successful insurance executive. Ives continued to compose in his spare time, but withheld most of his compositions from performance and publication. With no pressing deadlines, pieces could evolve for years, being continually reworked and revised. His works frequently make reference to other music, most often to indigenous American pieces as well as to Ives’s own earlier compositions and to ones of the European classical tradition.

After writing a fairly conventional First Symphony at Yale, his next two incorporated marches, Protestant hymns, American popular songs, and explored new harmonic, orchestral, and spatial realms. Ives went even further in his Fourth Symphony, which he composed between 1910 and 1925, although it recycles compositions that date back to the 1890s. Ives also revisits grand philosophical issues posed in earlier pieces, most famously in The Unanswered Question(1908). When two movements were premiered in 1927, the program note, based on remarks by Ives, stated that “the aesthetic program” of symphony probes “the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life.”

The brief first movement (Prelude), which sets up the searching questions the next three attempt to answer, begins with a forceful orchestral passage that is juxtaposed with part of a “distant choir” of solo violins and harp playing a fragment of Lowell Mason’s “Bethany” (“Nearer My God to Thee”); soon the chorus enters singing Mason’s “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” The second movement (Comedy), filled with popular tunes and striking layering effects, depicts a journey on “The Celestial Railroad,” inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s satirical short story from 1842. Rather than walking the hard path to salvation as in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the tale’s narrator relates a dream showing a simpler way by rail (sounds of which are imitated in alternation with hymns). The third movement (Fugue) prominently uses Mason’s “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” Snippets of “Bethany,” intoned by a wordless choir, return for the Finale, an “apotheosis” of the previous movements “in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience.”

A series of serious health setbacks around 1920 greatly lessened Ives’s compositional activity, although he lived for more than three decades longer. He self-published some of his works and gradually found performers eagerly advancing his cause. Although three movements of the Fourth Symphony were performed during his lifetime (and one published), the premiere of the entire work was posthumous, coming in 1965 when Leopold Stokowski conducted the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Dr. Gibbs is the James H. Ottaway, Jr. Professor of Music at Bard College and the Co-Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival.