The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July or Independence Day when many American composers will be featured. But the music of composer Charles Ives best embodies the spirit of American Independence.

July 4, 2013
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year, there are usually two holidays on which American classical music is featured: Thanksgiving and TODAY, the 237th Fourth of July, or Independence Day.

fireworks

Radio hosts and concert programmers come up with all sorts of patriotic, all-American choices.

Many are names that are common and predictable — like George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, Duke Ellington, John Adams, Virgil Thomson, Philip Glass, John Corigliano and Steve Reich.

Others are less well-known American composers. They include Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Amy Beach, William Grant Still, Edward Joseph Collins, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, John Harbison, Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell and John Cage.

In between are the known and the unknown you will find Charles Ives (1874-1954, below), the Yankee iconoclast who was asked to give up his music career as a church organist because of his daring harmonic improvisations on hymn tunes.

Charles Ives BIG

Trained at Yale University, Ives did quit music as a profession and went into the insurance business in his native Connecticut. He made a fortune while he continued to compose new and modern music with only his own standards and pleasure in mind.

Ives loved to use multiple keys at the same time, to use polyrhythms and to mix vernacular music with original music.

So today The Ear offers two Charles Ives pieces of very different natures.

To celebrate in the usual way, here is a YouTube video of Ives’ extroverted and celebratory “Fourth of July” movement from his “Holidays Symphony.” The conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is Michael Tilson Thomas. Try to hear the traditional tunes treated in a his own untraditional way:

But perhaps the most beautiful and haunting piece by Ives is “The Unanswered Question.” I offer this video (also by Michel Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) because I am haunted this holiday by my own question concerning liberty and patriotism: Why are second-rate politicians in Wisconsin and elsewhere trying to ruin a first-rate state, a first-rate university and a first-rate country?

And whatever your answer or whether you agree with the question or not, I hope you enjoy the music. And I hope you pass a memorable and enjoyable Fourth of July.

So as an encore, I’ll throw in a third spirited audio clip. It is of Russian-born piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz playing his own astonishing and knuckle-busting piano transcription of Sousa’s march “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” which I believe he came up with to mark his new status as an Americanized citizen in 1945.

Happy Fourth of July!


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