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Commentary

Most of Ives' sacred choral music comes from early in his career, composed while he was still serving as a church organist. This includes most of the Psalm settings and his largest choral work, "The Celestial Country." Since most of these sacred choral works pre-date Ives' peak years, they are not necessarily his most important or interesting compositions. But they are all worth hearing. And a few of them are masterpieces.

"The Celestial Country" is an early work , a sacred cantata that bears faint traces of Ives' unique voice. But, for the most part, it follows conventions established by other turn-of-the-century composers such as his Yale music professor, Horatio Parker. Not long after premiering the work in NYC, Ives resigned his post as church organist and began his long period of artistic isolation and maturation. I think that the experience convinced Ives that he couldn't compose music that would satisfy social expectations and also satisfy his own artistic impulses. Later, he would scrawl the words "Damned rot and worse!" across a favorably written newspaper review of the performance.

On the other hand, according to his wife, Harmony, Ives was only fully satisfied with one of his compositions: his setting of Psalm 90. It's not hard to understand why. It's a kaleidoscopic, strange and beautiful masterpiece, as all-embracing and grand as anything he ever wrote. The music evokes cosmic and earthly images in a constant state of permutation: spinning galaxies, streaking comets, shimmering stars, flowing lava, heaving oceans. Everything is in motion, primal, busy being born. But behind it all is a stillness that eludes words, a communion, a unity, God. Listen carefully, and you can hear it all. It really is an extraordinary work.

The secular works choral works span Ives' entire career. Many of his most important secular choral works are re-arrangements of his songs for solo voice and piano. For example: "He Is There!", "The New River," and "The Masses" are all derived from songs. Perhaps Ives' greatest secular choral work is "Lincoln, the Great Commoner," which is based on the poem by Edward Markham. Other composers have also rearranged Ives songs for choral accompaniment. Notably, Ives himself commissioned his friend and fellow-composer John J. Becker to arrange a choral / orchestral version of "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven."

Sacred Choral Works

Ives' sacred choral compositions include:

  • "All-Forgiving Look on Me" (1898?) [for mixed chorus]

  • "The Celestial Country" (1898-99, with revisions through 1901), consisting of the following movements:
    • Introduction before No. 1
    • i. Prelude, Trio and Chorus
    • Prelude before No. 2
    • ii. Aria for Baritone
    • iii. Quartet, accompanied by organ
    • Interlude before No. 4
    • iv. Intermezzo for String Quartet
    • v. Double Quartet, a capella
    • vi. Aria for Tenor
    • Introduction to No. 7
    • vii. Chorale and Finale

    [for tenor and baritone soloists, 2 vocal quartets, mixed chorus, trumpet, euphonium, organ and string quartet or string orchestra]

  • "Communion Service" (1893), consisting of the following movements:
    • i.a. Kyrie I
    • i.b. Kyrie II
    • i.c. Kyrie III
    • ii.Gratias agimus
    • iii. Gloria tibi
    • iv. Sursum corda
    • v. Credo
    • vi.a. Sanctus I
    • vi.b. Sanctus II
    • vii. Benedictus
    • viii. Agnus Dei

    [for mixed chorus and organ]

  • "Crossing the Bar" (1894?) [for mixed chorus and organ]

  • "Easter Carol" (1896?, revised c. 1901) [for solo quartet, mixed chorus, and organ]

  • "I Come To Thee" (1889 or 1892) [for mixed chorus and organ]

  • "Processional: Let There Be Light" (1901?, revised c. 1907 and in the late-1930's) [for Version 1: mixed chorus and organ; for Version 2: male chorus, two organs (optional: four trombones may replace or double chorus)]

  • Psalm 14 (1902?) [for double mixed chorus]

  • Psalm 24 (1894, revised c. 1914) [for mixed chorus]

  • Psalm 25 (1900, revised c. 1914) [for mixed chorus]

  • Psalm 42 (c. 1888) [for tenor soloist, mixed chorus, and organ]

  • Psalm 54 (1894?, revised 1902?) [for mixed chorus]

  • Psalm 67 (1894?, revised 1898) [for mixed chorus]

  • Psalm 90 (1894, revised 1897-98, reconstructed 1923) [for mixed chorus, 4 bell parts, and organ]

  • Psalm 100 (1902?) [for treble chorus and mixed chorus]

  • Psalm 135 (1902?) [for mixed chorus, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion, and organ]

    Psalm 150 (1894?) [for treble chorus and mixed chorus]

  • "Three Harvest Home Chorales," consisting of:
    • i. Harvest Home, Adagio maestoso (c. 1902)
    • ii. Lord of the Harvest, Adagio maestoso (c. 1915)
    • iii. Harvest Home, Andante con spirito (c. 1912)

    [for mixed chorus and four trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, and organ]

  • "Turn Ye, Turn Ye" (1896?) [for mixed chorus]

Secular Choral Works

Ives' secular choral compositions include:

  • "The Bells of Yale" (1897, revised c. 1900) [for Version 1: baritone soloist and male quartet or chorus; for Version 2: baritone soloist, male quartet or chorus, bells, and piano; for Version 3: baritone soloist, male quartet or chorus, piano, and violin]

  • "The Boys in Blue" (1896?) [for male chorus]

  • "December" (subtitle: "A Winter Orgy") ( 1913?, revised 1934) [for unison male chorus and twelve-piece wind ensemble]

  • "An Election" (alternative title: "Down With Politicians and Up With People!!") (1920) [for unison male chorus and orchestra]

  • "For You and Me!" (1895 or 96) [male chorus or quartet]

  • "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" (arranged summer 1934 by John J. Becker, from the song) [for unison chorus and chamber orchestra]

  • "He Is There!" (arranged 1918?) [for unison chorus and orchestra]

  • "Lincoln, the Great Commoner" (c. 1920) [for unison chorus and orchestra]

  • "The Masses (or the Majority)" (c. 1915) [for unison chorus and orchestra]

  • "The New River" (adapted in 1915 from music composed c. 1911, revised 1934) [for two-part chorus and orchestra]

  • Serenade (1895?) [for mixed chorus]

  • "They are There!" (orchestrated by Lou Harrison in 1943) [for unison chorus and orchestra]

  • "Two Slants (Christian and Pagan)," consisting of:
    • i. Duty, Adagio maestoso (1913?)
    • ii. Vita, Adagio (1913?) [for male and unison chorus, orchestra, and organ]

  • "The Year's at the Spring" (1892?) [for mixed chorus]

 

 


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002