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Ives' String Quartet No. 2 consists of the following three movements:

  • i. Discussions (Adante moderato-Andante con spirito-Adagio molto)
  • ii. Arguments (Allegro con spirito)
  • iii. The Call of the Mountains (Adagio-Andante-Adagio)

Ives wrote the following words below the title of the score:

S[tring] Q[uartet] for 4 men--who converse, discuss, argue (in re: 'Politick', fight, shake hands, shut up--then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!

Commentary

Ives considered the Second String Quartet to be "one of the best things I have, but the old ladies (male and female) don't like it anywhere at all. It makes them mad..." (Memos 73-74). As he jokingly implies, this is one of Ives' most thorny, challenging works. In the Memos, he went on to explain the origins of the quartet:

...It used to come over me--especially after coming from some of those nice Kneisel Quartet concerts--that music had been, and still was, too much an emasculated art. Too much of what was easy and usual to play and to hear what was called beautiful, etc.--the same old even-vibration, Sybaritic apron-strings, keeping music too much tied to the old ladies. The string quartet music got more and more trite, weak, and effeminate. After one of those Kneisel Quartet concerts in the old Mendelssohn Hall, I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practise, and have some fun making those men fiddlers get up and do something like men (74).

It's clear that on one level this work represents Ives lashing out at the conservative musical establishment that rejected him and wanted nothing to do with his music. So, on one level, this is some of the most confrontational music that Ives would ever write. But, on another level, this is another example of Ives' romantic transcendentalism. The work's conflict resolves itself with the a shaking of hands and a "walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!" In my view, the closing passage of this work is as grand as anything Ives ever composed. It really is magnificent.

Composition History

Ives composed / assembled the String Quartet No. 2 from 1911-13. (Portions of the second movement appear to have been composed as early as 1907.)

Borrowed tunes include:

  • In the first movement: "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean"; "Dixie's Land"; "Marching Through Georgia"; "Turkey in the Straw"
  • In the second movement: "Columbia, Gem of the Ocean"; "Marching Through Georgia"; "Massa in De Cold Ground"; Beethoven, Sym. No. 9/iv; Brahms, Sym. No. 2/i; Tchaikovsky Sym. No. 6/iii
  • In the third movement: "Bethany"; "Nettleton"; "Westminster Chimes"

Premiere Performance

The first performance of the String Quartet No. 2 was in NYC on May 11, 1946. The work was performed by a Juilliard School student ensemble. (The same concert also featured the premiere performances of "The Unanswered Question" and "Central Park in the Dark.")

Premiere Recording

The Walden String Quartet issued the first recording of this work in 1946.

 

 


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002