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Ives' Violin Sonata No. 1 consists of the following movements:
  • i. Andante
  • ii. Largo cantabile
  • iii. Allegro


In his Memos, Ives expressed ambivalence about some of his more traditional works, including the violin sonatas. Apparently, he thought that they were examples of his "weak-minded, retrogressive" work [126]. He also specifically declared that the First Violin Sonata was "in part a kind slump backward, though in some places it is quite the opposite" [126]. Frankly, I'm skeptical of the negative attitude that Ives expressed in his Memos. Surely, these are gentle, easy-going works, especially compared to spiky chamber works like the Second String Quartet. But even though the violin sonatas are more conventional (and more conventionally beautiful) than many of Ives' other works, they are also strong, honest compositions. In his Memos, Ives seems to be intent on characterizing himself as an unrepentant modernist, who only occasionally stooped to gentle, old-fashioned tonality. But even Ives' most "advanced" compositions contain extremely traditional elements. Here's a case where the artist is not his best critic. Remember also that Ives had composed the sonata works more than twenty years before he began collecting his thoughts in the Memos.

Listen to the music. Rather than any comments in the Memos, I think you'll find Ives' program, which he wrote on the First Violin Sonata score, much more insightful:

This sonata is in part a general impression, of kind of reflection and remembrance of the peoples' outdoor gatherings in which men got up and said what they thought, regardless of the consequences-of holiday celebrations and camp meetings in the 80's and 90's--suggesting some of the songs, tunes, and hymns, together with some of the sounds of nature joining in from the mountains in some of the old Connecticut farm towns.

The first movement may, in a way, suggest something that nature and human nature would sing out to each other-sometimes. The second movement, a mood when "The Old Oaken Bucket" and "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching" would come over the hills, trying to relive the sadness of the old Civil War Days. And the third movement, the hymns and the actions at the farmers' camp meeting inciting them to "work for the night is coming."

Composition History

Ives assembled and recomposed the Violin Sonata No. 1 circa 1914 from earlier pieces that he had composed circa 1901 to 1908.

The second and third movements are both derived from earlier works. The second movement contains materials from Ives' so-called "Pre-First Sonata for Violin and Piano." Ives adapted the third movement from the song "Watchman!" Ives later reworked this movement/song for the first movement of the Fourth Symphony.

The first movement contains the following "borrowed" tunes: "The Old Oaken Bucket" and "The Shining Shore," among others. The second movement quotes "The Old Oaken Bucket," along with "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp." The third movement incorporates "Watchman," "Work Song," and quotes material from the Second Violin Sonata.

Premiere Performance

The First Violin Sonata premiered in San Francisco on November 27, 1928. Dorothy Minty (violin) and Marjorie Gear (piano) performed the work in a recital for the New Music Society of California.

Premiere Recording

Joan Field (violin) and Leopold Mittman (piano) made the first recording of this work in 1951 for Lyrichord records.



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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002