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Ives' Violin Sonata No. 3 consists of the following movements:
  • i. Adagio; Andante; Allegretto; Adagio
  • ii. Allegro
  • iii. Adagio cantabile


Ives made some disparaging comments about this sonata in his Memos. He also uses a fascinating story to reveal his feelings about the "Third." The story reveals Ives at his crankiest. He's hell-bent on lampooning the musical establishment. It's also very sad and goes a long way towards explaining Ives' isolation from other musicians. I've quoted it at length below:

Generally speaking, this sonata was a slump back, due, I am certain, to a visit in Redding in August 1914 from a typical hard-boiled, narrow-minded, conceited prima donna solo violinist with a reputation gained because he came to this country from Germany with Anton Siedl as his concertmaster. He has given some concerts in Carnegie Hall (forty years ago), where he played the usual kind of program and everybody applauded, etc. etc. Mrs. Ives knew him in Hartford, and as I'd had so much trouble with musicians playing my music, we thought it would be a good plan to get one of the supposedly great players. Before finishing the "Third Sonata," I wanted to have the "First" and "Second" played over.

The "Professor" came in and, after a lot of big talk, started to play the first movement of the "First Sonata." He didn't even get through the first page. He was all bothered with the rhythms and the notes, and got mad. He said "This cannot be played. It is awful. It is not music, it makes no sense." He couldn't even get it after I'd played it over for him several times. I remember he came out of the little back music room with his hands over his ears, and said, "When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears (by a dose of oil)."

I remember Milcke (the Professor), in looking over some of the other music, came across a part of the "In Re Con Moto Et Al" for chamber group (which I didn't intend to show him), and also the church bell piece called "From the Steeples" for bells, and a Chamber [Music] Set, etc. He jumped back, mad. Then I thought I shouldn't treat him so rude and gave him a copy of the "First Symphony." He looked [at it] and felt better and smiled-"Now that's something like"-etc., etc. But then came a joke on both of us, for in it were some pages of the "Tone Roads" and some part of the "Trio" (the college days Scherzo, I think, or the first movement). He stared at [it], then threw it down and went out of the room--and went home that afternoon.

After he went, I had a kind of feeling which I've had off and on when other more or less celebrated (or well known) have seen or played (or tried to play) some of my music. I felt (but only temporarily) that perhaps there must be something wrong with me. Said I to myself, "I'm the only one, with the exception of Mrs. Ives (and one or two others, perhaps, Mr. Ryder, Dr. Griggs), who likes any of my music, except perhaps some older and more or less conventional things. (Why do I like these things?) Why do I like to work in this way and get all upset by it, while (others only get upset by it) and it just makes everybody else mad, especially well known musicians and critics-for instance Dave Smith and Max Smith-nice boys! (Are my ears on wrong? No one else seems to hear it the same way…)."

The "Third Sonata"…is a good sample of an occasional result of the above kind of experience. The last movement especially shows a kind of reversion. The themes are well enough, but there is an attempt to please the soft-ears and be good. The sonata on the whole is a weak sister. But these depressions didn't last long, I'm glad to say. I began more and more, after séances with nice musicians, that, if I wanted to write music that, to me, seemed worth while, I must keep away from musicians.

The fact that Ives was able to recount the story in such detail after many years reveals a great deal. Clearly, his encounters with professional musicians were almost never pleasant. (Notable exceptions were Henry Cowell and Nicolas Slonimsky, but Ives formed these relationships after he had stopped composing.) It also makes clear how--especially later in his life--Ives began to associate his more conventional music with dishonesty and with failing to follow his own muse. Of course, this tension began much earlier in Ives' life than 1914. A notable example from earlier in his life is his relationship with his Yale music professor, Horatio Parker.

At any rate, not having had the experience that Ives did, we can approach the "Third" with different expectations. And while it doesn't represent his best work, I still think it's wonderful.

Composition History

Ives assembled and re-composed the Violin Sonata No. 3 in 1914 from pieces that he had composed from 1901 to 1904. It is the longest of the violin sonatas by far, clocking in at around thirty minutes.

Ives derived the first movement from the lost organ works "Preludes" and / or "Pieces for Voices and Organ." The second movement is partly derived from a lost "Organ Toccata." The third movement makes use of another of Ives' organ works, "Prelude [III]," which is also now lost.

The first movement borrows the tunes "Beulah Land" and "Need." The second movement quotes "The Beautiful River" and "They'll Be No Dark Valley." Ives again quotes "Need" in the last movement.

Premiere Performance

The first performance of the Third Violin Sonata took place on April 27, 1917 in New York City. David Talmadge (violin) and Stuart Ross (piano) performed the work in the Carnegie Chamber Music Hall.

Premiere Recording

Sol Babitz (violin) and Ingolf Dahl (piano) premiered the work on Alco Records, sometime during the 1940's.



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Original text copyright © Scott Mortensen 2002