The reader well up
in his Ives songs might be content to
know that here are terrific performances
of 54 of them, excellently recorded.
Those who buy in search of enlightenment
will get it – up to a point. As a starter,
Klaas A. Posthuma’s note is fair enough.
He tells us the Ives wrote a total of
151 songs, of which 114 were in an album
he published himself - in 1922, he might
have added; Ives’s composing career
virtually finished with this date. He
also explains that his songs fall into
three basic groups: ballads in the popular
sentimental style of the day, settings
of French and German texts more or less
in the style of the composers of those
nations, and a sizeable portion of genuinely
original songs where practically anything
might happen – speech, whistling, microtones,
note-clusters and the rest.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t
see the need to tell us which are which.
To a certain degree, one’s own ears
can do this work, but this brings us
to another big absence – dates. Since
he quotes approvingly John Kirkpatrick’s
statement that "any attempt to
find in Ives a consistent development
of musical style would have encountered
his scorn for the whole idea of ‘manner’",
perhaps we are being deliberately challenged
to set aside our historically attuned,
musicological ears and hear 54 songs
composed over a period of 37 years -
as I found out in due course - as though
they are all contemporary with one other.
But one’s petty, traditionalist mind
remains unsatisfied. It wishes to know
if the three types of songs followed
each other chronologically, or whether
they went on contemporaneously.
Still in search of
useful information, one is pleased to
find the words included in the booklet
- not a thing to be taken for granted
these days. One wonders, too, who wrote
them. Perhaps this is all part of the
complicated guessing game. Ives’s style
is likely to churn up fragments of well-known
melodies - hymns in particular - with
the result that one listens with ears
wide open for quotations. One is as
likely to half-recognize a familiar
tune that isn’t actually there as one
is to miss one that is. One follows
the words half-recognizing familiar
turns of phrase – again, hymns are a
Fortunately, help is
at hand in the form of Emily
Ezust’s wonderful site which gives
words and (often) translations of a
vast range of art songs. Happily, only
one song on these CDs – "Slugging
a Vampire" – seems not to be on
her site, which includes 162 of the
151 songs Posthuma tells us Ives wrote;
as you can see, Ives challenges our
notions of mathematics as well as of
music. As well as providing details
of the poets she gives us most of the
dates as well.
The first thing that
emerges is that the words to about twenty
of the songs sung here - including one
of those in French - are by Ives himself.
This is surely something that needed
to be discussed. Did Ives write the
words and music together, or did he
write poetry regularly as an independent
activity, drawing on his poems as song
texts, maybe many years later? A few
other songs have texts by Ives’s wife,
the engagingly named Mrs. Harmony Twitchell
- some other sources have Twichell.
It would have been nice to know something
about her, too. Their style seems almost
interchangeable, epigrammatic, often
close to speech rhythm though elsewhere
echoing the tones of the late 19th
century American romantics. For the
rest we have a few classics – Keats,
Milton, Browning, Meredith, Thomas Moore,
Christina Rossetti – and some Americans.
Of the several that sounded as though
they must be by Longfellow, it was nice
to find that one of them – "The
Children’s Hour" – actually was.
The second thing that
emerges is that, in spite of Posthuma’s
evident scorn for chronological matters,
the performers, or whoever actually
planned the discs, clearly thought otherwise.
The first disc begins with a group of
early songs, including "Slow March"
in which the 14-year old Ives comments
on the burial of a family pet with a
poem of his own, sung while the piano
intones Handel’s "Dead March".
Pointers to the future? A jeux d’esprit?
In a group from the first decade of
the 20th century ("Berceuse"
through to "Autumn") sentimental
balladry gives way before more modernist
tendencies, though without going away
entirely. Indeed it may be said – however
scornful Kirkpatrick and Posthuma would
be of the idea – that in some of the
most substantial group on the disc,
from 1917 to 1921 ("The Things
our Fathers Loved" through to the
end) Ives succeeded in grafting the
sentimental ballad onto more modernist
harmonies and textures to create something
quite individual; witness "Immortality"
and "The Housatonic at Stockbridge",
both from 1921.
The second disc begins
with another early group – though not
all are sentimental ballads. "The
Circus Band" is the sort of catchy,
riotous piece I expected to find much
more of here. Then come the German and
French settings, written around the
turn of the century. "Feldeinsamkeit"
and "Weil’auf mir" would grace
any lieder recital; more Strauss than
Brahms in manner. We then get another
chronological parade, "The Children’s
Hour" through to "Evidence"
from the first decade of the 20th
century, the remainder taking us up
to 1921. A sizeable religious group
– "The Camp Meeting" through
to "From ‘Paracelsus’" – appears
here. I found at times that interest
was rather thinly spread; Ives’s daring
modernity was not always matched by
any actual musical merit, and I found
this religious group particularly empty.
"At the River" is a setting
of the tune well-known from Copland’s
"Old American Songs" and Ives’s
oddness is not matched by any particular
effectiveness. The Browning setting
"From ‘Paracelsus’" is really
a rather horrible noise, reminding us
that Ives’s "Robert Browning Overture"
is one of his most intractable orchestral
works. The three terse songs that follow
redress the balance and a piccolo player
provides a jolly obbligato for the foot-tapping
"They Are There".
statement made by Posthuma is that these
songs will only work if "done by
a singer whose voice and manner are
first of all shaped by the informal
and comparatively steady cadences of
American speech", as opposed to
"the subtleties of diction, timbre
and dynamics of the European vocal tradition".
Firstly, any Frenchman who reads this
and then listens to the French songs
here might wonder smirkingly if Posthuma
believes that these, too, will only
work if sung in French with an American
accent. Now don’t let’s make mountains
out of molehills, it’s decent "international
French", I’ve heard far worse,
but you only have to listen to Gérard
Souzay for half a minute to realize
that the true colours of this fascinating
but elusive language are not here. Our
Frenchman might also reflect that the
songs of Debussy, Ravel, Fauré
and plenty more are sung all round the
world in "international French"
and their musical worth does not suffer,
even if native French ears do. For,
frankly, if Posthuma’s statement were
true, this would mean the music was
of purely local interest. I don’t believe
that the worth of the finest songs here
would lose its effectiveness if sung
by a French, German or Italian singer
"doing his/her best"; nor
do the emptier ones seem to assume unexpected
value from Roberta Alexander’s undoubtedly
authentic American vowel sounds.
What is more to the
point is that she sings all this music
superbly well, as happy in the high
soprano range as in the mezzo range,
hitting off the right character immediately
for each song - very important when
some are so short. Tan Crone is also
excellent, as is the recording, so the
discs themselves are all that could
be desired. I just wish that those needing
listening guidance had been given all
the information they needed.
see also on MusicWeb
Mortensen's Ives pages