IVES: New England Holidays Symphony -- "Decoration Day" (ed. Sinclair); "The Fourth of July" (real. Porter); "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day" (ed. Elkus). The General Slocum (real. Porter). Overture in g (real. Porter). Yale-Princeton Football Game (real. Sinclair). Postlude in F (ed. Singleton).
Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus/James Sinclair.
Naxos 8.559370 TT: 53:16.

Holidays, newsreels, choir loft, and dear old Yale. This CD brings together several of Ives's works for large orchestra, from teen-age stuff, to student exercises, to mature scores. We have three of the four movements of Ives's Holidays Symphony. The first, "Washington's Birthday," was, for reasons mysterious, put on another album. Granted, Ives himself was none too persnickety about gathering disparate works together (as in his orchestral "sets"), but since custom has generally placed "Washington's Birthday" with the other three movements, its exclusion here bothers me.

New England Holidays gets less play than Ives's four numbered symphonies, but I love it nevertheless, particularly "Decoration Day," which portrays the march to the cemetery to lay wreaths and flowers on the graves of the Civil War dead to the accompaniment of "Adestes Fideles," "The Battle Cry of Freedom," "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground," and "Battle Hymn of the Republic," among other tunes. I find this one of Ives's most beautiful works. It begins in solemn contemplation. Then comes the first march or potpourri of march tunes. The trumpeter blows "Taps" as wisps of "Nearer, My God, to Thee" float about in the strings. Then there's a raucous quick march back to town. The movement ends in quiet reflection, over in an instant. The piece sort of crumbles in a soft poof! Why that ending? I suspect it's because the Civil War was still a living memory for many of the celebrants, like us watching a D-Day or a Viet Nam commemoration. People lost family and friends.

Many of Ives's tone poems are quite pictorial in their procedures, and the other movements follow the same general method. "The Fourth of July" Ives called "a boy's Fourth" -- that is, a day when boys had license to light fireworks and, to some extent, cut loose. Again, we have a slow introduction, but it's more like the stirrings around daylight. A tuba begins with a fragment of "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" (one of the hits on the Ivesian jukebox) taken at a glacial pace, and other instruments join in with fragments of their own, building excitement. We get the odd firecracker going off at the wrong time. Eventually, marching bands parade past with, again, "Battle Cry of Freedom," "Battle Hymn of the Republic, a full-blown "Columbia, the Gem," "Reveille.," and a fife and drum corps practicing, all in the music. The section climaxes on "Columbia, the Gem," and moves on to a fireworks display. The piece ends in a quiet rain of ash.

" Thanksgiving and Forefather's Day" has a more serious intent and aims, I think, to transport the listener from the immediate occasion to transcendental musings. It runs significantly longer than any of the other movements. Once more, we begin with a slow meditation, this time a majestic chorale, during which a hymn tune I can't identify occasionally bubbles to the surface. This gives way to an Ivesian "haze" and then a remarkable middle section based on the hymn "Shining Shore," in a Thomsonian and Coplandian pastoral treatment decades before the fact. A joyous "revival-tent" passage kicks up its heels, before the return of "Shining Shore." The music then builds up in a typically Ivesian fashion, founded on the hymn tune Duke Street, which climaxes in a blaze of full orchestra, pealing bells, and full-throated chorus singing "O God, beneath Thy guiding hand" to the Duke Street tune. The piece then fades out on the memory of bells.

The General Slocum and the Yale-Princeton Football Game both commemorate specific events, in a musical tradition that goes back at least to the Renaissance. The General Slocum was a side-wheeler excursion steamboat that in 1904 exploded and burned to the water-line. With over 1,000 people killed, it remained New York City's worst disaster until the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001. The Yale-Princeton game refers to one of the great Yale football victories (before peasant colleges regularly ate their lunch), when in 1897, Yale All-American quarterback Charles DeSaulles (prior to the days of the legal forward pass) made three spectacular runs, none less than 60 yards. Both pieces are bits of musical reportage. The General Slocum opens with ominous "water music" in the strings, representing the currents of the East River. Boat whistles and foghorns pierce the air. The engines get underway. A steam calliope strikes up a popular waltz. Gradually, the orchestra takes up pop songs like "Sidewalks of New York" on the cornet and quick polkas. The activity grows increasingly frenetic, as the tunes are thrown together at double-speed, like passengers lurching as the catastrophe strikes. There's a stunned moment and a brief hint of "Nearer, My God, to Thee" before the piece's quick close.

The Yale-Princeton Football Game may have originated in a piano improvisation. It begins with college marches and songs I don't know. In fact, I know few college songs, but of the ones I do, most belong to Yale. Indeed, I don't know even the school song of my own college, which had a music school attached, yet. Between brief sections of musical activity, you get refs' whistles. One of the amazing features of the piece was a section that used kazoos (missing in Sinclair's "realization"). Incidentally, can anybody tell me the differences among a "realization," an "edition," and an "arrangement?" Youth wants to know.

Both the Overture in g and Postlude in F come from the teenage and the Yale Ives -- to some extent, student exercises for his composition professor, the American Wagnerian Horatio Parker. The Overture begins in a bid to impress with High Seriousness. It has its imposing moments, but it still shows student awkwardness as well. After the grand invocation, it moves to a trivial parlor waltz. Indeed, the entire work suffers from weak transitions and juxtapositions. The orchestration, however, sounds professional, with a lot of cues from Tchaikovsky and with Wagner reserved for the grand moments -- the avant-garde of the day. The Overture tries for sonata form, and indeed it hits all the marks of sonata-allegro without ever achieving the sonata's goal of dynamic movement and argument. Ives writes a non-development development and litters the piece with formulaic extensions and transitions. Structurally, the piece is a dull mess. Nevertheless, it contains enough surprises, mainly rhythmic and harmonic, to foreshadow at least the Ives of the First Symphony.

The Postlude in F, written by 15-year-old church organist Ives, I find the more remarkable composition -- indeed, one of the most distinguished pieces of American music of its time. Ives thought enough of it to orchestrate it for Parker. It takes a lot from Wagner, particularly from the quieter Wagner of the "Waldrauschen" and the Siegfried-Idyl. It moves much more surely than the Overture. The boy had great talent, early on.

James Sinclair's performances are okay, even good, but (excepting "Decoration Day") not particularly exceptional. For some reason, "Decoration Day" brings out the poet in the conductor. I wish they had included "Washington's Birthday," but that's spilt milk. The Swedes fall into the trap of Ives's thick textures. I used to believe that such foggy playing was inevitable in Ives, until I heard Dohnányi and the Cleveland in the first two orchestral sets. The chorus suffers from the same problem. You can't understand their diction in the Duke Street hymn. Nevertheless, it's the program that sells this CD.

S.G.S. (January 2011)