Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

At the end of a tragic day

Ives: Three Places in New England; Orchestral Set no. 2; New England Holidays

Memorial Day weekend is a good time to listen to Three Places in New England, which includes an especially poignant tribute by Charles Ives to the sacrifice of American soldiers in battle. This is deeply moving music, written in such a bold and original way that even today it makes one sit up and take notice; I can't imagine the effect it had when it was first played. The first of the Three Places in New England is entitled The “St. Gaudens” in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment); this is Augustus Saint-Gaudens' Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw & the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. This elegy is sombre, with precious little light falling on the doomed soldiers and their commander. All the martial tunes which Ives quotes, designed in the first place to uplift the spirits before battle, are intoned in a minor key, in the darkest of orchestrations, in the most grief-stricken rhythms. Ives was, I believe, as distraught about the dire history of African-Americans after the Civil War as he was about their defeat at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. There is also great beauty, though, and we should pay special attention to this quotation: "Music is the best consolation for a despaired man." It's by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photo: Boston Globe
After this unalloyed gloom Ives turns to a much jollier subject, a July 4th celebration during Revolutionary War times. The mood is raucous, and Ives, as always quoting popular songs and anthems, really goes to town with his homegrown-modernist conflagration of rhythms and themes. The third Place is The Housatonic at Stockbridge, a gorgeous depiction of a riverside walk and a very personal moment with his wife Harmony. For those who didn't find sufficient solace in the beauty of the first movement, this might perhaps be of some help.

Harmony and Charles Ives in 1948. Photograph by Halley Erskine
The masterworks keep coming: both the New England Holidays and the 2nd Orchestral Set have the same mix of serious subtext, whimsical jollity and leading edge modernist composition. The most striking piece is the last movement in the Orchestral Set no. 2, entitled "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose," whose theme is the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines on May 7, 1915. This is music of great complexity, with ambiguity to match. Tolling bells and repeated choruses of The Sweet Bye and Bye are engulfed by discord until finally the music fades out, into the eternal Charles Ives question mark.

Ives is very well represented in recordings; there are many recordings of this music, some of which are good indeed. But only the best can keep the eccentricities from going over the top, and the sad bits from veering into the maudlin. We have in this new Seattle Symphony Media release one of the best. Ludovic Morlot walks this tightrope without seeming over cautious; indeed, the live recordings preserve a real feeling of occasion, while the SSM engineers provide life-like sound with real presence. Very highly recommended.

This disc will be released on June 2, 2017.

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