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.
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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
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
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
Yale football victories (before peasant colleges regularly ate their
lunch), when in 1897, Yale All-American quarterback Charles DeSaulles
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
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
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,
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,
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
their diction in the Duke Street hymn. Nevertheless, it's the
program that sells this CD.
S.G.S. (January 2011)