Ives' Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60, consists of the following four movements:
In October 1918, Charles Ives suffered a heart attack brought on by exhaustion and undiagnosed diabetes. This marked a turning point in his career. As Ives' biographer Jan Swafford points out, for the remainder of his life the primary focus of Ives' musical efforts would be promoting his works, rather than composing. The very first work that he chose to show to the world--after fifteen years of nearly absolute artistic isolation--was his Second Piano Sonata, subtitled Concord, Mass., 1840-1860.
Ives had a special regard for the work. He took great pains to explain his aims in the Essays Before a Sonata, a programmatic overview of the sonata that Ives included when he published the work (at his own considerable expense) in 1921. In short, the sonata is a series of meditations on four great Transcendentalist writers: Emerson, Hawthorne, "The Alcotts," and Thoreau.
[Project Gutenburg has made the complete Essays Before a Sonata available online. Click here to access it.]
One other comment reveals Ives' deep attachment to the Concord Sonata. Many years after publishing the work, Ives remarked that the sonata was his one work that never seemed finished; it was a perpetual work in motion, a continual improvisation: "I don't know as I shall ever write [my improvisations] out, as it may take away the daily pleasure of playing this music and seeing it grow and feeling that it is not finished...I may always have the pleasure of not finishing it..." (Memos 80).
Ives assembled / recomposed the Piano Sonata No. 2 circa 1915, based on music that he had composed from 1904 to 1915. He made additional revisions in 1919 prior to publishing the work, and continued to revise it throughout his life.
Ives quotes Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 29, "Hammerklavier" in every movement of the work. Ives clearly envisioned his work as an extension of and commentary on Beethoven's sonata. Interestingly, Ives also quotes Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and Lohengrin, and Debussy's Children's Corner. Ives also makes use of some of his favorite popular and religious tunes, including: "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean," "Loch Lomond," "Missionary Chant," and "Massa's in De Cold Ground."
The first documented public performance of the Concord Sonata took place on November 28, 1938 in Cos Cob, Connecticut. John Kirkpatrick performed the work from memory. Less than two months later, he performed the work again at Town Hall, New York City. Along with Slonimsky's premiere of Three Places, Kirkpatrick's performance was enormously influential in bringing Ives name (and works) before the public. Lawrence Gilman, in a review in the NY Herald Tribune, made famous remarks about the sonata and Kirkpatrick's Town Hall performance:
John Kirkpatrick made the first recording of the work for Columbia records. It was released in 1948.