It is taking a long time for singers and the public to appreciate
the full extent and importance of Ives’ output of songs. Not as
large as Schubert maybe, but still a major achievement. The title
alone of the main published source – “114 Songs” (1922) – gives
an idea of its scope but there are in fact nearly 200 songs in
all. Surprisingly, however, this appears to be the first attempt
to record the completed songs in their entirety and, whatever
shortcomings there may be in its realisation, this series must
be an issue of major importance for anyone with an interest in
Ives or indeed in song or in American music in general.
recordings of the songs have usually involved a single singer.
A small number of songs have found their way onto many of these
discs. Of those on the present discs, “General William Booth
enters into Heaven”, “The Greatest Man”, “The Circus Band” and
“Ann Street” are amongst this group. What is remarkable is the
number of what are to me at least wholly unfamiliar. It may
at first seem arbitrary for Naxos to have put the songs into
alphabetical order, and indeed it does lead to some strange
companions, but the alternatives of arranging them by author,
theme or date would run a much greater risk of monotony. On
the whole I have no doubt that Naxos have chosen the better
option. It means that we hear early songs strongly rooted in
American domestic and social music of the late nineteenth century
alongside songs completed towards the end of his active composing
life; the latter are of a drastically different character. This
may be disconcerting at times but constantly draws attention
to the Ives’ range as a composer.
all were recorded at Yale University, Naxos have divided the
songs between a large group of singers and pianists, mainly
young Americans. They have even made use of an organ and a string
quartet in three instances. Overall the listener can have no
doubt of the seriousness with which the project has been undertaken.
Each disc has a brief but helpful introduction to each song
as well as much longer biographies and photographs of the performers.
of this is immensely praiseworthy, and I hope that the somewhat
less enthusiastic comments which follow will not discourage
intending purchasers too much. It would be good to think that
the existence of this set may mean that in a few years there
will be alternative complete cycles of these songs. This was
the case following for instance the first complete recordings
of the Bach Cantatas and Wagner’s Ring, but for the present
these discs and those that follow stand alone to demonstrate
the marvellous range of Ives’ achievement in song.
main concern here is perhaps to a large degree an almost inevitable
consequence of the unfamiliarity of many, or even of most, of
these songs. It is that the performances of individual songs
tend often to be generalised rather than characterised as they
would be if the performers had had a longer period to get to
know them. It is notable that it is the better known songs that
receive the more convincing performances. There is however a
general tendency towards a form of vocalisation which stresses
the musical line rather than the words. Indeed few of the singers
appear to concentrate sufficiently on diction or vocal character.
Naxos make the listener’s task more difficult by making the
words available only on-line rather than in the booklet. I am
surely not alone in finding this an irritating practice, and
it would surely have been preferable to have put the lengthy
biographies of all the performers on line and printed the words
instead. The latter are likely to be consulted more frequently
and to add more to the listener’s enjoyment and understanding.
The poor diction is partly caused and certainly exacerbated
by the excessive vibrato of many of the singers, and by a general
inability or lack of desire to sing or play very quietly. This
is something the composer frequently directs and the lack of
it adds to a disappointing lack of character in many of the
this is not the moment to abandon long treasured recordings by
such singers as Helen Boatwright, Fischer-Dieskau or Marni Nixon,
or more recent versions by Henry Herford or Gerald Finley. I will
however certainly return to these new recordings for the many
novelties which they include, and for the way in which they demonstrate
the range and quality of Ives’ songs.