Ives' Third Symphony is a work that I have grown to love. I think it's one of Ives' finest achievements, even if it's not in the same league as the Fourth Symphony and a handful of others. When I was first discovering Ives, I thought the Second Symphony was much more interesting than the Third. Now, after having listened to Ives for nearly ten years, I think that the Third is a better work than the Second. Why? I think that the Third is more original, more truly Ivesian. Ives called it "a kind of crossway between the old ways and the newer ways" [Memos 128]. It's another step in Ives' maturation as an artist.
This is some of Ives' most gentle, meditative music. Like most of his greatest works, the Third is also profoundly spiritual. But the sense of quest, of striving for transcendence that appears in many of his works--typified by the final movement of the Fourth; the Emerson movement in Piano Sonata No. 2; "The Unanswered Question"--is nowhere to be found in the Third. Unlike those works, the Third is more like spiritual comfort food. It's much closer to the Fourth Violin Sonata than the Fourth Symphony.
Although Ives never articulated a formal program, as Swafford points out, "The three movements follow the progress of a camp meeting" . Ives makes an interesting aside about the Third Symphony in his Memos: "When [the Third] was being copied in, I think, Tam's [Copying] office, Gustav Mahler saw it and asked to have a copy-he was quite interested in it" . It's a fascinating scenario to consider. Sadly, no corroborating evidence now exists, and some now dispute the veracity of Ives' story . . . Hmmm. I don't know . . . Make of this tale whatever you will!
Ives assembled and recomposed the Third Symphony around 1904, from works originally composed circa 1901. Ives also revised the symphony between 1909 and 1911. According to Ives' Memos, all three movements largely derived from organ works that he'd composed and first performed at Central Presbyterian Church, New York City:
All three of these original works are now lost.
In the Third Symphony, Ives most notable quotation is the hymn "Azmon." (You may know it as "Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.") He uses it in both the first and third movements. Other "borrowings" include:
Ives' Third premiered in New York City on April 5, 1946. Lou Harrison conducted the New York Little Symphony Orchestra in a concert at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall. The New York Music Critics Circle awarded the work a special citation after the premiere. Subsequently, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in May 1947. These were the only musical awards given to Ives during his lifetime. After Ives won the Pulitzer, he declared to a newspaper reporter, "Prizes are badges of mediocrity." But he also hung the certificate on the wall of his home, and was clearly proud to have won it. He gave the away the prize money to two fellow-composers, John Becker and Lou Harrison.
The radio station WCFM issued the first recording of Ives' Third in 1950. Richard Bales conducted the National Gallery Orchestra (Washington, D.C.).