In many regards, the Symphony No. 2 represents the pinnacle of Ives' success as a respectable composer. By "respectable," I mean that in this symphony Ives was working within the confines of a clearly defined formal tradition. More broadly speaking, by "respectable" I also mean that this work sounds more acceptable to folks regularly listen to Romantic composers like Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. In fact, people who usually don't like Three Places in New England--much less the Fourth Symphony--often point to the Second and hold it up as something a bit more palatable--Ives without the cranky eccentricities.
Later in his life, Ives regarded the symphony as one of his "soft" works, because it lacks many of the dissonant and rhapsodic characteristics that appear in his later works. But that attitude sells the work short. Keep in mind that Ives probably began the work while he was still at Yale! So, it is not a work of his full maturity. Sure, Ives doesn't try to scale the transcendent heights and catch a glimpse of the divine like he does so often later, but it's still a fascinating work. Don't forget too: Many of the original features of Ives' later and best works are already in full display by the time he composed the Second.
Ives composed the Second Symphony from circa 1900 to 1902. He also made revisions to the work in 1909 and 1910. Ives claimed that everything in the Second Symphony was derived from earlier compositions, most of which are now lost:
Even though we'll never hear the lost works in their original form, I find the titles themselves fascinating. They certainly point toward Ives' abiding concerns and preoccupations throughout his life. Formally, the Symphony No. 2 owes much to Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and especially Brahms' First. One of Ives most remarkable characteristic is his use of "borrowed material." In the Second, Ives liberally quotes musical works from every aspect of life. James Sinclair's Descriptive Catalog of the Music of Charles Ives lists every known quotation. In the first movement alone, Ives' "borrowings" include:
Of course, my ears don't catch nearly all of them. Unless you're a musicologist, you probably won't either. But in Ives's day, people would have been much more likely to recognize the quotations, especially the popular tunes and hymns. Of course, some quotations are more blatant than others. Ives sometimes underlined quotations; in other cases, he camouflaged them.
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the Second Symphony on February 22, 1951 in Carnegie Hall, New York City. The concert was also broadcast nationally. The story of Ives' reaction to the premiere is an interesting one. Ives refused to attend the concert, so his wife Harmony attended the concert at Carnegie Hall without him. In his biography of Ives, Jan Swafford relates Ives' reaction to the radio broadcast of the concert:
Although Bernstein went on to make a historic recording of the work in 1958 (now on Sony Classical SMK 60202), his was not the first. F. Charles Adler made the first recording with the Vienna PO in February 1953. SPA Records issued the disc (SPA-39) in 1954.