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Charles IVES (1874-1954)

CD 1
Songs My Mother Taught Me [02:10]; Slow March [02:11]; Dream [03:25]; Memories [02:41]; Berceuse [01:34]; Romanzo Di Central Park [01:55]; Slugging A Vampire [00:25]; Spring Song [01:19]; The Cage [00:55]; Autumn [03:06]; The Things Our Fathers Loved [01:42]; Tom Sails Away [02:57]; Down East [02:45]; Serenity [02:00]; Maple Leaves [01:00]; Like A Sick Eagle [02:16]; On The Counter [01:16]; The See’R [00:45]; Evening [01:38]; Immortality [01:41]; The Housatonic At Stockbridge [03:32]; The Greatest Man [01:34]; Two Little Flowers [01:24]; The Side Show [00:38]; 1;2;3 [00:28]; Charlie Rutlage [02:55]
CD 2
The Circus Band [02:15]; A Night Song [01:00]; An Old Flame [02:04]; From "Night Of Frost In May" [01:22]; Iche grolle night [02:46]; Feldeinsamkeit [03:04]; Die alte Mutter [01:51]; Weil’auf mir [01:52]; Ilmenau [01:43]; Rosamunde [02:10]; Qu’il m’irait bien [01:03]; Elegie [03:38]; Chanson de Florian [01:56]; The Children’s Hour [02:04]; Harpalus (An Ancient Pastoral) [01:10]; There’S A Lane [01:18]; Mirage [00:54]; A Farewell To Land [01:46]; Evidence [01:27]; The Camp Meeting [04:07]; Watchman [01:27]; His Exaltation [01:57]; At The River [01:35]; From "Paracelsus" [03:41]; Remembrance [00:34]; At Sea [01:23]; Ann Street [00:59]; They Are There [02:39]*
Roberta Alexander (soprano); Tan Crone (piano); Rien de Reede (piccolo)*
No recording dates or location
ETCETERA KTC 2508 [50:34 + 57:20]


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 likely source.

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".

Another questionable 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.

Christopher Howell

see also on MusicWeb International Scott Mortensen's Ives pages

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