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Ives' "Set for Theatre Orchestra" (also known as the "Theatre Orchestra Set") consists of the following movements:

  • i. In the Cage
  • ii. In the Inn
  • iii. In the Night


Ives was particularly loquacious about the "Set for Theatre Orchestra" in his Memos. I think he felt that it was stronger than any of his other sets for small orchestra. (Or at least that's how I feel!) Unlike some of the other sets, the "Set for Theatre Orchestra" doesn't seem cobbled together. It comes across as an integral work. Here are some of Ives' comments from his Memos about the "Set for Theatre Orchestra":

The first movement [In the Cage] is a result of taking a walk one hot summer afternoon in Central Park with Bart Yung (one-half Oriental) and George Lewis (non Oriental), when we were all living together at 65 Central Park West in 1906 ... Sitting on a bench near the menagerie, watching the leopard's cage and a little boy (who had apparently been a long time watching the leopard)--this aroused Bart's Oriental fatalism--hence the text in the score and in the song.

A leopard went around his cage
from one side back to the other side;
he stopped only when the keeper came around with meat;
A boy who had been there three hours
began to wonder, "Is life anything like that?"

…A drum is supposed to represent the leopard's feet going pro and con. Technically, the principal thing about this movement is to show that a song does not have to be in any one key to make musical sense [55-56].

The second movement [In the Inn] is one of several ragtime dances which have been used in whole or in part in several things…Some of them started as far back as George Felsberg's reign in "Poli's." George could read a newspaper and play the piano better than some pianist could play without any newspaper at all. When I was in college, I used to go down there and "spell him" a little if he wanted to go out for five minutes and get a glass of beer, or a dozen glasses… [56].

Behind the music [of the third movement, In the Night] is a … picture-the heart of an old man, dying alone in the night, sad, low in heart--then God comes to help him--bring him to his own loved ones. This is the main line, the substance. All around, the rest of the music is the silence and the sounds of the night-bells tolling in the far distances…[58-59].

Compare Ives' comments with remarks that he made in a letter to New Music magazine:

…This whole movement [In the Night] is an attempt to reflect those distant, almost silent sounds of nature on quiet summer night in a forest--and perhaps some of the feelings & thoughts of a lonely old man who may be "passing on"--while distant church bells are tolling.

Composition History

Ives assembled the "Set for Theatre Orchestra" circa 1914, based on material he had composed between 1899 and 1906.

Ives' derivations:

  • "In the Cage" is an orchestration of Ives' song of the same name.
  • "In the Inn" is derived from Four Ragtime Dances, No. 1 and from the Piano Sonata No. 1, second movement.
  • "In the Night" is partly derived from Ives' Prelude on "Eventide" and from a lost sacred choral Hymn-Anthem on "Eventide."

In the first movement, Ives quotes:

  • "After the Ball"
  • "Bringing in the Sheaves"
  • "Happy Day"
  • "Reuben and Rachel"
  • "Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay"
  • "Welcome Voice"
  • "With His Hands in His Pockets"

In the third movement, Ives quotes:

  • "Eventide"
  • "De Little Cabins All Am Empty Now"
  • "Massa's in de Cold Ground"

Premiere Performance

The premiere performance of the complete work took place on February 16, 1932 in New York City. Adolph Weiss conducted the Pan American Chamber Orchestra at the New School Auditorium.

Premiere Recording

The first recording of the complete work was released in 1953 on Oceanic Records. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra performed the work with Jonathan Sternberg conducting.

Nicolas Slonimsky recorded "In the Night" in May of 1934 with the Pan American Chamber Orchestra. Slonimsky also recorded the "Barn Dance" section of Washington's Birthday during the same session. These were the first commercial recordings of Ives' compositions. They were released by New Music Quarterly Recordings, an enterprise which Ives helped finance.



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Original text copyright © Scott Mortensen 2002