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Ives' Fourth Symphony consists of the following four movements:

  • i. Prelude: Maestoso
  • ii. Comedy: Allegretto
  • iii. Fugue: Andante moderato con moto
  • iv. Finale: Very slowly; Largo maestoso


The Fourth Symphony...is one of the greatest symphonies ever penned. It is the great American symphony that our critics and conductors have cried out for, and yet the symphony has remained unperformed...

These words were written by composer Bernard Herrmann in 1932. Amazingly, Ives' Fourth Symphony remained unperformed in complete form until 1965, when Stokowski premiered it. The premiere took place nearly five decades after Ives completed the work.

Ives was also strangely reticent about this work in his Memos. Biographer Jan Swafford suggests that Ives was reluctant to speak about the work that represented his "holy of holies."

In this author's opinion, the foremost interpreter of the Ives' orchestral music is Michael Tilson Thomas. His recording of the Fourth is stunning, perhaps the greatest of all Ives recordings. MTT also is very articulate about this work's program. Here's what he had to say about the Fourth in an interview, circa 1994:

...The Fourth is meant to answer a question. And the question is, "What is the meaning of existence?" Right at the front of the piece there is a bold and craggy theme in the double basses and the piano, quite aggressive, which is the most lengthy bit of original musical material in the symphony; and this question thunders out very defiantly--"What is the meaning of existence?" Or perhaps, as Whitman or Ruggles or even Ives himself might have said, "What the hell is all of this supposed to mean, anyway?" And then comes a series of answers.

In the first movement, just after the main theme is introduced, you have a group which Ives called the 'Star of Bethlehem.' ...And this is a group of musicians, violins and harps who are meant to play someplace suspended above the stage. They play the first hymn tune in the piece, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," which is, as you probably know, the hymn tune that the musicians on the Titanic were playing when they went down. A hymn of great significance because of its words: "Nearer my God to Thee, nearer, nearer to Thee, still all my soul shall be, nearer to my God to Thee." It's almost a mantra-like repetition of the Transcendentalist's ideal, to be nearer, to be at one with God...

The second movement offers another answer to the meaning of existence. "Well, it is all things as they appear to be." The second movement is saying that this is Maya, the material world. It is also the movement that Ives called a comedy, in the sense that some Hawthorne pieces, grotesque crowd-scene pieces, were identified as being comedy pieces. And it makes reference to everything that's happening in America, particularly the onslaught of mechanization, the noisy aspect of modern civilization. ...It's a parody of the hustle and bustle and overkill of noise in modern society, and a parody of the sort of music that's played at ladies' teas, when they have pink lemonade and listen to salon music. The salon music is made out of a hymn tune called "Beulah Land;" it's a very Mahler-like shape, but preposterously harmonized and so over the top. Instruments at the back of the orchestra, which Ives calls shadow instruments, continue to play in their odd meandering way, having nothing to do with the shape of the hymn tune in the foreground. It's just a big stewpot of everything in musical society at that time. ...The attitude [Ives] has toward all of this music is, well, it's just part of the human comedy. Sometimes it's rough, sometimes it's sentimental, sometimes it's mysterious, but it's all just something that's making a great to-do over nothing. ...Then in a moment, it's all blown away. It's as if the wind comes through and there's nothing left but a few violas desperately trying to play some rapid sixteenth notes that tail off to nothing....

The third movement takes up the answer of Congregationalism...[Ives] felt that there were important benefits to be obtained by going to an event where other people met together for the purposes of worship and contemplation ...The third movement is based on a hymn tune called "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." It is a fugue, and it is meant to go at a rather vigorous pace....

[In the fourth movement] Ives introduces a new group--the percussion ensemble, which represents the ticking of the universal clock. I have only recently had the chance to perform this piece with a truly subterranean percussion ensemble in San Francisco. ...It makes a tremendous difference. It is so remarkable that this man imagined these things and knew exactly what he was talking about. When you read the instructions in the score which say a "subterranean percussion ensemble," it sounds totally absurd. But if you actually do it, set it up so they can play in a space that would normally be given over to the pit beneath the stage, it sounds fantastic. So this ensemble begins playing this odd, rhythmic pattern which suggests the ticking of the universal clock. The theme is the same, the question of human existence. And this time the answer is a sort of procession, a mournful procession, the tune of which is one of Ives' most masterful combinations of several phrases from several different sources, melded together. It is an expressive and sad melody. And what an ensemble it is--the violins of the Star of Bethlehem group play along with one solo violin on stage and gradually more violins join in. ..."Nearer, My God to Thee" is brought in, with dark and tragic harmonization over a bass line which is at first that of processional, and then becomes increasingly more desperate, lashing and flailing away at these harmonic turns. The large forces of the orchestra--brass, winds, and percussion--come in, bringing various phrases to a glittering, obliterating climax, and then they disappear-one of Ives' favorite effects. This huge sound suddenly clears, and leaves the sound of the violin and quarter tone pianos far off in the distance playing a beautiful quarter tone harmonization of "Nearer, My God, to Thee."

It's these kinds of contrasts which shape the movement, leading to the biggest of climaxes where "Nearer, My God, to Thee" in the massed low brass is pitted against the swirling original combination hymn tune in the upper orchestra. And just at the moment when the happy ending should occur, it turns round this corner and into an absolutely Calvary-like passage, where sounds occur like souls being borne down through great travail by the immense power of the orchestra. ...It's typical for Ives to represent this most exalted moment of spiritual search in ever more dissonant and blaring sound. ...This to me has always suggested the Mount Sinai aspect of spiritual revelation. Man searches and searches as he gets too close to the divine it is more than he can bear, the sounds and the harmonies are just too much. This is exactly what happens in Ives' Fourth Symphony. It builds to such a point of intensity that it's as if we can bear no more, and it sweeps away. We have to turn away and a few little tendrils of singed nerve endings then lead to the beginnings of the long, luminous coda. The choir brings back, wordlessly, the last phrase of "Nearer, My God, to Thee"--"Still all my songs shall be nearer, my God, to Thee."...As the chorus reaches its last phrase we come to the raison d'Ítre for this Symphony. In the original hymn tune, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," the chorus sang the raised seventh degree of the scale-C sharp. But the very last time Ives uses the tune in the symphony, he lowers the seventh degree to the scale of C natural. So now "Nearer to Thee" is a modal cadence rather than a diatonic cadence. By doing that, he takes this hymn from a small Congregational church in New England and changes it into concord with ancient music, with Asian music, with all the musical traditions of the world. And then, with all of this layering of tunes going on, the procession slowly retreats. It's as if all of the people on earth are singing, and then the planet itself, with all of its inhabitants singing, passes further away on its orbit, out of our view....

This, to me, is what is so extraordinary in Ives imagination: all the aspects of this piece--the Star of Bethlehem; the percussion ensembles; the quarter tones; the mixed wind ensembles playing in different meters and different rhythms; the different spatial representations of music within the orchestra; the incredible use of dynamics to suggest the shifting of the winds and changes of psychological concentration; the extraordinary complexity of the layering, the textures; the complex reharmonization of familiar tunes in ever new ways; the whole vastness of the expression. And the whole symphony is really about one thing, which is "Nearer, My God, to Thee."...To search for this closeness to God, and in searching for it discover that one's expression of it changes from being a comfortable little thing you know at home to something that does indeed connect with the great universal search of mankind. And Ives is able to focus all this simply by changing one note of the cadence of this familiar tune....

(Quoted from Michael Tilson Thomas, Viva Voce: Conversations with Edward Seckerson, Faber and Faber, 1994, pp. 117-23.)

Composition History

Ives assembled and recomposed the Fourth Symphony from circa 1910 to 1916?, based on material that he originally composed from 1898 to 1911.

Ives' derivations:

  • The first movement, Prelude: Maestoso, is partly derived from the First Violin Sonata, third movement, or from the song "Watchman!"
  • The second movement, Comedy: Allegretto, is largely based on the "Hawthorne" movement from the Second Piano Sonata, "Concord, Mass., 1840-60"
  • The third movement, Fugue: Andante moderato con moto, is Ives' orchestration of the first movement of his First String Quartet.
  • The fourth movement, Finale: Very slowly; Largo maestoso, is partly derived from a lost organ work "Memorial Slow March." Ives also used materials from Second String Quartet, third movement, in the Fourth's finale.

Some of the tunes that Ives "borrows" in the Fourth Symphony:

  • Movement i: "Bethany," "Crusader's Hymn," "Proprior Deo," "Something for Thee," "Sweet By and By," "Watchman," "Welcome Voice," "Westminster Chimes"
  • Movement ii: "The Beautiful River," "Beulah Land," "Camptown Races," "Hail! Columbia," "Home! Sweet Home!," "Long, Long Ago," "Marching Through Georgia," "Pig Town Fling," "Turkey in the Straw," "Yankee Doodle," many others
  • Movement iii: "Antioch," "Coronation," "Welcome Voice," "Missionary Hymn," Bach / Toccata and Fugue in D minor
  • Movement iv: "Antioch," "Azmon," "Bethany," "Dorrnance," "Happy Land," "Martyn," "Missionary Chant," "Nettleton," "Proprior Deo," "St. Hilda," "Something for Thee," "Street Beat," "Westminster Chimes"

Premiere Performance

Ives' Fourth Symphony received its premiere performance on April 26, 1965 in New York City. Leopold Stokowski conducted the American Symphony Orchestra. Conductors David Katz and Josť Serebrier assisted with the conducting.

Premiere Recording

A few days after the premiere performance, Stokowski, the American Symphony Orchestra, and Schola Cantorum of New York made the first recording of Ives' Fourth. It appeared on Columbia Records in 1965 (MS-6775). David Katz and Josť Serebrier again assisted.



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Original text copyright © Scott Mortensen 2002