Symphony No. 4 (1912-25)

Symphony No. 4 (1912-25)

By Peter Burkholder

Written for the concert American Originals, performed on Nov 17, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) is the very model of an American original. Born in Danbury, Connecticut, he grew up with American music in his ears: marches played by his father’s band, Protestant hymns he sang at revivals and played as a church organist, and popular songs of Stephen Foster and Tin Pan Alley, all American as apple pie. He continuously experimented with new compositional devices, using two or more keys at once, new kinds of chords, multiple simultaneous musical strands, quartertones, and other techniques to create music unlike any ever heard. All of these elements are part of his Symphony No. 4 (1910-25).

Missing from this description are Ives’s deep links to the European tradition. He revered Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and said he aspired to do what Beethoven would have done had he lived into the modern age. Like Beethoven, Ives emulated the prevailing styles of the time in his early works, absorbed a wide variety of influences, and wrote music that became progressively more complex and individual. His later music comes into clearer focus when one knows his first two symphonies, with their strong influences from Schubert, Dvořák, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Brahms, and Wagner. Part of being an American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was engaging with the European tradition in an original way; part of being original was weaving new variations on old techniques. This heritage is part of the Fourth Symphony as well. Cast as a cyclic, programmatic symphony in the late-Romantic pattern, it is full of American tunes and sounds.

The opening movement alternates bold statements in the orchestra with traces of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in distant violins and harp and closes with a choir singing “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” According to Ives, this movement sets forth “the searching questions of ‘What?’ and ‘Why?’ which the spirit of man asks of life” and later movements offer “the diverse answers in which existence replies.”

The next movement answers with a musical rendition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tale “The Celestial Rail-Road,” in which a man dreams he is offered passage on a railroad to Heaven that is advertised as the easy alternative to the sincere pilgrim’s long and arduous trek by foot. Overlapping streams of music and fragments of familiar tunes evoke the strange and often disturbing logic of dreams. Imitations of train sounds alternate with pilgrims’ hymns, until the man sees from a distance the pilgrims reaching their goal and discovers to his horror that he is traveling to Hell. He wakes from his dream to the earthly sounds of a marching band, grateful to have learned in time that there are no easy answers to the questions posed in the first movement.

The third movement presents a fugue that uses the hymn “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” with part of “Coronation” as a countersubject. One episode quotes Bach’s “Dorian” Fugue, which Ives played as a teenage organist. Lovely as this music is, it represents to Ives “the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism.” For him, religious convention is also not a sufficient response to the “searching questions” of the opening movement.

The finale offers a more compelling answer. Fragments of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” appear near the beginning, deep in the string basses and high in the distant choir of violins and harp. This hymn is a constant presence, gradually moving down to the middle register and pulling together from fragments until it is sung by a wordless choir over majestic descending scales. This symbolizes the fulfillment of the yearning, expressed from the beginning of the symphony, to be nearer to God. The effect rivals Beethoven’s transcendent late works, in modern and very original American language.