Thursday, November 27, 2014

Have a happy Charles Ives-accompanied Thanksgiving!

"Certainly one of the things Ives wants to do is to provoke us, to challenge us to think about music in ways we never have," says Michael Tilson Thomas as he talks about and performs Charles Ives's Holidays Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in their PBS series Keeping Score. You can watch the Ives show here.

by Ken

We've done it before, and by gosh, we're going to do it again: celebrate Thanksgiving with the symphonic poem the American original composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) created to depict Thanksgiving, which formed part of his Holidays Symphony (or New England Holidays), made up of Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, The Fourth of July, and lastly Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day, which fall somewhere between independent pieces and movements in a collective whole.

This commentary appeaers on the webpage accompanying the Keeping Score show devoted to the Holidays Symphony.
A hundred years ago, Charles Ives composed a portrait of a year in New England. The Holidays Symphony veers between tender sentiment and savage chaos, a sonic three-ring circus. Beautiful and provocative, the composition, like the rest of Ives' music, encourages the listener to think about sound in new ways.

The poet Walt Whitman makes an interesting comparison with Ives. Both men experimented with their art forms, juxtaposed serious themes with frivolous beauty, and spent decades editing and revising their masterpieces. Also like Whitman, Ives imagined various musical strains from around the world merging into a single song of mankind, but whereas Whitman used music as a metaphor, Ives used music as his medium.

The emotional material for Ives' music came from his experiences growing up in the town of Danbury, Connecticut, the son of the town bandmaster, George Ives. George had been a Union Army bandmaster in the Civil War and had a playful relationship with music that he that he passed on to his son. Once, George had two bands march toward each other while playing different songs, just to know what it would sound like.

Ives wrote most of his music between 1900 and 1920, a period in which the United States became a world power. He worried that prosperity was leading Americans to lose touch with their values. In an attempt to enshrine the America he cherished, Ives composed four movements that trace boyhood memories of seasonal celebrations, an American "Four Seasons." This was the Holidays Symphony.


including one conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas -- an earlier recording with the Chicago Symphony. Along with the performances we have the Keeping Score Web commentary on Thansgiving.

IVES: Holidays Symphony:
iv. Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day

Baltimore Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, David Zinman, cond. Argo, recorded September 1994

Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas, cond. CBS-Sony, recorded 1986
The Thanksgiving movement can be traced to Ives' college days at Yale. Music originally written for the organ at Center Church in New Haven was reworked into the final movement of the Holidays.

Thanksgiving illustrates the changes that occur when ideas confront one another. Once again Ives divides the orchestra into groups playing hymns in two opposing keys. Most prominent is the traditional Thanksgiving hymn, "The Shining Shore." Again, the bottom drops out, and we hear the swing of a scythe—either the harvest or the Grim Reaper has arrived. The ultimate question is asked again and as the music picks up again toward celebration and noise, the listener expects a confrontational crunch.

Instead, Ives surprises us. A large chorus sounds out Thanksgiving hymns. The choir sings a round and the whole procession passes into the distance. The different songs merge into one universal hymn of mankind.

Recognition came late to Ives. Thanksgiving was first publicly performed at the premiere of the complete Holidays Symphony in April of 1954, just a month before Ives' death.

Happy Thanksgiving! (And also Forefathers' Day, though that's not till December 22.)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sunday Classics report: The Schneider Quartet's legendary Haydn recordings finally make it to CD

The cover of the booklet accompanying the indispensable Music and Arts CD reissue of the legendary not-quite-complete 1951-53 Haydn Society cycle of the Haydn string quartets by the Schneider Quartet

by Ken

For decades now it has been one of the gaps in the ranks of available recordings, through much of the LP era and, until now, the whole of the CD era. But this month Music and Arts has released a specially priced 15-CD set of the 54 Haydn quartets recorded by the Schneider Quartet in the early '50s, "newly remastered mostly from the original master tapes." The massive project was spearheaded by company founder Frederick J. Maroth but was pursued, becoming a memorial, following his death in November 2013.

Alexander Schneider (1908-1993), described by Tully Potter, in his customarily excellent essay for the album booklet, as "one of the more remarkable musicians of the last century." was a violinist who expanded into something of a one-man music industry." He had spent a dozen years (1932-44) as second violinist of the Budapest Quartet, the third Russian to replace the old Hungarian players. (His older brother Mischa, a cellist, had preceded him by two years. A few years later, with the coming of violist Boris Kroyt, the Russianization of the Budapest would be complete.) Schneider eventually rejoined the Budapest, and even though the second violinist is normally thought to play the least defining role in a string quartet, to be the most interchangeable element, it's fascinating how much animated and musically probing the Budapest was with Schneider than without.

In the period between his Budapest stints, Schneider undertook also sorts of chamber music initiatives and became a mainstay, first of Pablos Casals' Prades Festivals and then of the Marlboro Festival (more and more often as a conductor), and devoted more and more of his energies to performances with young performers. Around 1950 his attention turned to the great body of Haydn's string quartets, and it became known that the newly formed Haydn Society, taking advantage of the dawn of the LP era, was planning to record all of the string quartets with a Haydn formed for the purpose by Schneider, which came to include violinist Isidore Cohen (later second violinist of the Juilliard Quartet and the violinist of the Beaux Arts Trio), violist Karen Tuttle, and cellist Madeline Foley, in time replaced by Herman Busch (whose brothers included the outstanding conductor Fritz Busch and violinist Adolf Busch, the father-in-law of pianist Rudolf Serkin).

The quartet did perform all the Haydn quartets in concert, but with funds critically short was unable to record the 24 quartets of Opp. 9, 54/55, 64, and 71/74, though it turns out that Op. 64 was actually begun; the first and last movements of Op. 64, No. 1 have their first commercial release, edited from unedited master tapes from a session in October 1954. The Schneider Quartet Haydn performances remain unmatched for their combination of structural integrity with personal relish and big and bold interpretive choices.

By way of illustration, I thought we would listen to a couple of movements we've already heard, the first movement of Op. 33, No. 2, and the famous theme and variations movement of Op. 76, No. 3, and then dip into the early quartets.