Thumbing Around: Ives’ 114 Songs

Grant Chu Covell

[October 2009.]

[Some of Ives’ spelling and punctuation have been modernized in the following quotes. G.C.C.]

“None of the songs in this book have been published.”

Ives’ career changed gears in the 1920s. His health was in decline and he withdrew from his enormously successful insurance business. Self-publishing the Concord sonata, he gradually set about letting the world know of his music. In 1922 he distributed an edition of 114 songs to friends, musicians, and to anyone he thought may be interested.

“Nos. 25, 53, 85, 86, 87, 89, 90, 96, have little or no musical value — (a statement which does not mean to imply that the others have any too much of it). These are inserted principally because in the writer’s opinion they are good illustrations of types of songs, the fewer of which are composed, published, sold or sung, the better it is for the progress of music generally. It is asked — (probably a superfluous request) — that they be not sung, at least in public, or given to students except as examples of what not to sing.”

The songs appear in predominantly reverse chronological order. Music from 1921 appears first and the oldest (1888) at the end, except for three from 1921, Nos. 103-105. Besides original words, the list of Ives’ authors reads like a schoolboy’s anthology: Milton, Emerson, Keats, Byron, Whitman, Goethe, Shelley, Kipling, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Bulwer-Lytton, et al.

Ives stopped composing in the mid-1920s. His last song is Sunrise from 1926, obviously not part of this collection.

Footnote to No. 1, Majority (1921):

“Preferably for a unison chorus; it is almost impossible for a single voice to hold the part against the score.”

Majority makes a forbidding beginning. The song has few barlines, no time signature, and starts with a big 10-pitch black-key cluster. Eventually the left hand has even larger white-note clusters, which must be played with the entire forearm.

“Play with fists.”

An occasional instruction, requested specifically in No. 11, from “Lincoln, the Great Commoner” (1921) and the preferred way to execute six-note white-key clusters.

No. 15, The Housatonic at Stockbridge (1921) derives from material for orchestra. No. 17, Grantchester (1920) quotes Debussy’s 1894 l’Après-midi d’un Faune. I do not know if Pink Floyd’s Grantchester Meadows quotes Ives.

Accompanying No. 22, Nov. 2, 1920 (1921):

“The assumption, in the text, that the result of our national election in 1920, was a definite indication, that the country — at least, the majority-mind — turned its back on a high purpose is not conclusive. Unfortunately election returns coming through the present party system prove nothing conclusively. The voice of the people sounding through the mouth of the parties, becomes somewhat emasculated. It is not inconceivable that practical ways may be found for more accurately registering and expressing popular thought — at least, in relation to the larger primary problems, which concern us all. A suggestion to this end (if we may be forgiven a further digression) in the form of a constitutional amendment together with an article discussing the plan in some detail and from various aspects, will be gladly sent, by the writer, to any one who is interested enough to write for it. C.E.I.”

A Suggestion for a 20th Amendment appears reproduced in Vivian Perlis’ Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History. Ives wrote a six-and-a-half page letter to the editor which was rejected by the New York Times and other papers. Undeterred, he sent his proposal to several leading political figures including William Howard Taft (then a law professor at Yale). Taft wrote back, labeling it “impracticable,” to which Ives replied, “You are the only one who came out saying exactly what he thought.”

Note to No. 28, On the Counter (1920):

“Though there is little danger of it, it is hoped that this song will not be taken seriously, or sung, at least, in public.”

No. 44, Watchman! (1913), derives from the Second Violin Sonata; No. 45, At the River (1916) from the Fourth Violin Sonata; No. 46, His Exaltation (1913) from the Second Violin Sonata; No. 47, The Camp-Meeting (1912) from the Third Symphony; No. 48, Thoreau (1915) from the Second Piano Sonata. These five songs contain complex rhythms, changing meters, dissonant and widely spaced chords, and are generally denser than most songs.

No. 53, In the Alley (1896), bears the subtitle: “After a session at Poli’s, Not sung by Caruso, Jenny Lind, John McCormack, Harry Lauder, George Chappell or the Village Nightingale.”

“This song (and the same may be said of others) is inserted for association’s sake — on the ground that that will excuse anything; also, to help clear up a long disputed point, namely: Which is worse? The music or the words?”

No. 54, A Son of a Gambolier (1895) asks for a kazoo chorus, and later, piccolos, ocarinas and fifes.

Students may recognize No. 64, The Cage (1906) from Charles Burkhart’s enduring Anthology for Musical Analysis. The three lines of music contain few barlines. One is necessitated by the opening vamp, marked “evenly and mechanically, no ritard., decresc., accel, etc.”

No. 83, Ich Grolle Nicht (1899) sets Heine:

“The writer has been severely criticized for attempting to put music to texts of songs, which are masterpieces of great composers. The song above and some of the others, were written primarily as studies. It should be unnecessary to say that they were not composed in the spirit of competition; neither Schumann, Brahms or Franz will be the one to suffer by a comparison — another unnecessary statement. Moreover, they would probably be the last to claim a monopoly of anything — especially the right of man to the pleasure of trying to express in music whatever he wants to. These songs are inserted not so much in spite of this criticism as because of it.”

Following No. 89, A Song for Anything (1892):

“The song above is a common illustration (and not the only one in this book) of how inferior music is inclined to follow inferior words and ‘vice-versa.’ The music was originally written to the sacred words printed last (and the best of the three). Some thirty years ago it was sung in a country church and even as a response after the prayer. The congregation not only tolerated it, but accepted it apparently with satisfaction. That music of this character is less frequently heard in religious services now-a-days is one of the signs of the wholesome progress of music in this country. An ‘Amen’ was tacked on to the end of this song; a relative of the composer remarked, at the time, that it was about as appropriate to this kind of a tune as a benediction would be after an exhibition of the ‘Circassian Beauty’ at the ‘Danbury Fair’.”

Two remarks from No. 96, Romanzo di Central Park (1900):

“Men with high, liquid notes, and lady sopranos may sing an octave higher than written. The voice part of this ‘Aria,’ however, may be omitted with good effect. To make a deeper impression, a violin may play the right-hand tune, and may be omitted, — for the same reason.”

“Some twenty years ago, an eminent and sure-minded critic of music in New York told a young man that _______ was one of our great composers; what he meant by ‘our’ is not recorded, nor is it remembered that this profound statement was qualified by the word ‘living’ — probably not, as this arbiter of tears and emotions is quite enthusiastic over his enthusiasms. The above collection of notes and heartbeats would show, but does so very inadequately, the influence, on the youthful mind, of the master in question.”

No. 114, Slow March (1888) is “Inscribed to the Children’s Faithful Friend” and borrows Handel.

At the end of the book, after some brief notes characterizing several songs, are two dense essay pages.

“The printing of this collection was undertaken primarily, in order to have a few clear copies that could be sent to friends who, from time to time, have been interested enough to ask for copies of some of the songs; but the job has grown into something different, — it contains plenty of songs which have not been and will not be asked for. It stands now, if it stands for anything, as a kind of ‘buffer state,’ — an opportunity for evading a question, somewhat embarrassing to answer, — ‘Why do you write so much —–, which no one ever sees?’ There are several good reasons, none of which are worth recording.”

“…this package of paper, uncollectible notes, marks of respect and expression, is now thrown, so to speak, at the music fraternity, who for this reason will feel free to dodge it on its way — perhaps to the waste basket. It is submitted as much or more in the chance that some points for the better education of the composer may be thrown back at him, that any of the points the music may contain may be valuable to the recipient.”

I consulted a disintegrating public library copy. The bookplate has “For use in library only” crossed out above “Gift of Mrs Charles Ives.”

All alone on the very last page:

C. E. Ives Redding, Conn. 1922


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