"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.
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.
NOW WE HEAR TWO PERFORMANCES OF THANKSGIVING,
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.)