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The Robert Browning Overture is unlike any other work in the Ives canon. It is a densely dissonant, almost expressionistic work. Rather than employing Ives' characteristic "layered" dissonance, the piece seems to progress in a manner more like works such as "Men and Mountains" or "Sun Treader" by Ives' friend Carl Ruggles.

Apparently, Ives was never completely satisfied with the work. In his biography of Ives, Jan Swafford calls the Robert Browning Overture one of Ives' "orphans." In his Memos, Ives makes the following remarks substantiating Swafford's claim:

[The Robert Browning Overture] is a kind of transition piece, keeping perhaps too much (it seems to me) to the academic, classroom habits of inversion, augmentation, etc. etc., in the development of the first theme and related themes. But the themes themselves, except the second main theme, were trying to catch the Browning surge into the baffling unknowables, not afraid of unknown fields, not sticking to nice main roads, and so not exactly bound up to one key or keys (or any tonality for that matter) all the time. But it seemed (I remember when finishing it) somewhat too carefully made, technically--but looking at it now, most twenty years after, it seems natural and worth copying out [Memos 76].

Ives originally conceived the Robert Browning Overture as a single work in a cycle of overtures called "Men of Literature." Other authors that Ives intended to represent were Matthew Arnold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry Ward Beecher, and John Greenleaf Whittier. However, Ives completed only the Robert Browning Overture.

Ives did use the sketches for various overtures as germinal ideas in other works. Most notably, the Emerson Overture evolved into the first movement of the Second Piano Sonata (also dedicated to Emerson). Ives made following remarks appear in various places on the score. They describe his feelings about the inspiration for the overture, Robert Browning. Naturally, they also serve to illuminate the music as well:

Browning was too big a man to rest in one
nice little key, his inward tough[ness] & strength
he walked on the mountains down a nice
proper little aisle…

R.B. is called obscure, indefinite, etc. just because his system of contemplation
and thinking didn't jibe with the usual-his mental workmanship is as sound[,] logical
& strong as plans Rollo likes--because you didn't get his plans--he always had a good adventure

His mind had many road, not always
easy to follow--the ever-flowing, changing, growing
ways of imagination over the great unchanging truths of life & not death!

Composition History

Ives composed the Robert Browning Overture from circa 1908 to 1912. He also made revisions to the work circa 1936 to 1942 with the assistance of Henry Cowell.

Unlike many of Ives' other works, the Robert Browning Overture makes little use of musical quotation. Ives later used portions of the work as the basis of his song "Paracelsus."

Premiere Performance

Leopold Stokowski and the Symphony of the Air premiered the Robert Browning Overture at Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1956.

Premiere Recording

The Polish National Radio Orchestra conducted by William Strickland made the first recording of the Robert Browning Overture in 1965. It was issued by CRI in the same year.



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Original text copyright © Scott Mortensen 2002