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Ives' Fourth Symphony consists of the following four movements:
- i. Prelude: Maestoso
- ii. Comedy: Allegretto
- iii. Fugue: Andante moderato con moto
- iv. Finale: Very slowly; Largo maestoso
The Fourth Symphony...is one of the greatest symphonies ever penned.
It is the great American symphony that our critics and conductors have
cried out for, and yet the symphony has remained unperformed...
These words were written by composer Bernard Herrmann in 1932. Amazingly,
Ives' Fourth Symphony remained unperformed in complete form until 1965,
when Stokowski premiered it. The premiere took place nearly five decades
after Ives completed the work.
Ives was also strangely reticent about this work in his Memos.
Biographer Jan Swafford suggests that Ives was reluctant to speak about
the work that represented his "holy of holies."
In this author's opinion, the foremost interpreter of the Ives' orchestral
music is Michael Tilson Thomas. His recording of the Fourth is stunning,
perhaps the greatest of all Ives recordings. MTT also is very articulate
about this work's program. Here's what he had to say about the Fourth
in an interview, circa 1994:
...The Fourth is meant to answer a question. And the question is,
"What is the meaning of existence?" Right at the front of the piece
there is a bold and craggy theme in the double basses and the piano,
quite aggressive, which is the most lengthy bit of original musical
material in the symphony; and this question thunders out very defiantly--"What
is the meaning of existence?" Or perhaps, as Whitman or Ruggles or even
Ives himself might have said, "What the hell is all of this supposed
to mean, anyway?" And then comes a series of answers.
In the first movement, just after the main theme is introduced,
you have a group which Ives called the 'Star of Bethlehem.' ...And this
is a group of musicians, violins and harps who are meant to play someplace
suspended above the stage. They play the first hymn tune in the piece,
"Nearer, My God, to Thee," which is, as you probably know, the hymn
tune that the musicians on the Titanic were playing when they went down.
A hymn of great significance because of its words: "Nearer my God to
Thee, nearer, nearer to Thee, still all my soul shall be, nearer to
my God to Thee." It's almost a mantra-like repetition of the Transcendentalist's
ideal, to be nearer, to be at one with God...
The second movement offers another answer to the meaning of existence.
"Well, it is all things as they appear to be." The second movement is
saying that this is Maya, the material world. It is also the movement
that Ives called a comedy, in the sense that some Hawthorne pieces,
grotesque crowd-scene pieces, were identified as being comedy pieces.
And it makes reference to everything that's happening in America, particularly
the onslaught of mechanization, the noisy aspect of modern civilization.
...It's a parody of the hustle and bustle and overkill of noise in modern
society, and a parody of the sort of music that's played at ladies'
teas, when they have pink lemonade and listen to salon music. The salon
music is made out of a hymn tune called "Beulah Land;" it's a very Mahler-like
shape, but preposterously harmonized and so over the top. Instruments
at the back of the orchestra, which Ives calls shadow instruments, continue
to play in their odd meandering way, having nothing to do with the shape
of the hymn tune in the foreground. It's just a big stewpot of everything
in musical society at that time. ...The attitude [Ives] has toward all
of this music is, well, it's just part of the human comedy. Sometimes
it's rough, sometimes it's sentimental, sometimes it's mysterious, but
it's all just something that's making a great to-do over nothing. ...Then
in a moment, it's all blown away. It's as if the wind comes through
and there's nothing left but a few violas desperately trying to play
some rapid sixteenth notes that tail off to nothing....
The third movement takes up the answer of Congregationalism...[Ives]
felt that there were important benefits to be obtained by going to an
event where other people met together for the purposes of worship and
contemplation ...The third movement is based on a hymn tune called "From
Greenland's Icy Mountains." It is a fugue, and it is meant to go at
a rather vigorous pace....
[In the fourth movement] Ives introduces a new group--the percussion
ensemble, which represents the ticking of the universal clock. I have
only recently had the chance to perform this piece with a truly subterranean
percussion ensemble in San Francisco. ...It makes a tremendous difference.
It is so remarkable that this man imagined these things and knew exactly
what he was talking about. When you read the instructions in the score
which say a "subterranean percussion ensemble," it sounds totally absurd.
But if you actually do it, set it up so they can play in a space that
would normally be given over to the pit beneath the stage, it sounds
fantastic. So this ensemble begins playing this odd, rhythmic pattern
which suggests the ticking of the universal clock. The theme is the
same, the question of human existence. And this time the answer is a
sort of procession, a mournful procession, the tune of which is one
of Ives' most masterful combinations of several phrases from several
different sources, melded together. It is an expressive and sad melody.
And what an ensemble it is--the violins of the Star of Bethlehem group
play along with one solo violin on stage and gradually more violins
join in. ..."Nearer, My God to Thee" is brought in, with dark and tragic
harmonization over a bass line which is at first that of processional,
and then becomes increasingly more desperate, lashing and flailing away
at these harmonic turns. The large forces of the orchestra--brass, winds,
and percussion--come in, bringing various phrases to a glittering, obliterating
climax, and then they disappear-one of Ives' favorite effects. This
huge sound suddenly clears, and leaves the sound of the violin and quarter
tone pianos far off in the distance playing a beautiful quarter tone
harmonization of "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
It's these kinds of contrasts which shape the movement, leading
to the biggest of climaxes where "Nearer, My God, to Thee" in the massed
low brass is pitted against the swirling original combination hymn tune
in the upper orchestra. And just at the moment when the happy ending
should occur, it turns round this corner and into an absolutely Calvary-like
passage, where sounds occur like souls being borne down through great
travail by the immense power of the orchestra. ...It's typical for Ives
to represent this most exalted moment of spiritual search in ever more
dissonant and blaring sound. ...This to me has always suggested the
Mount Sinai aspect of spiritual revelation. Man searches and searches
as he gets too close to the divine it is more than he can bear, the
sounds and the harmonies are just too much. This is exactly what happens
in Ives' Fourth Symphony. It builds to such a point of intensity that
it's as if we can bear no more, and it sweeps away. We have to turn
away and a few little tendrils of singed nerve endings then lead to
the beginnings of the long, luminous coda. The choir brings back, wordlessly,
the last phrase of "Nearer, My God, to Thee"--"Still all my songs shall
be nearer, my God, to Thee."...As the chorus reaches its last phrase
we come to the raison d'Ítre for this Symphony. In the original hymn
tune, "Nearer, My God, to Thee," the chorus sang the raised seventh
degree of the scale-C sharp. But the very last time Ives uses the tune
in the symphony, he lowers the seventh degree to the scale of C natural.
So now "Nearer to Thee" is a modal cadence rather than a diatonic cadence.
By doing that, he takes this hymn from a small Congregational church
in New England and changes it into concord with ancient music, with
Asian music, with all the musical traditions of the world. And then,
with all of this layering of tunes going on, the procession slowly retreats.
It's as if all of the people on earth are singing, and then the planet
itself, with all of its inhabitants singing, passes further away on
its orbit, out of our view....
This, to me, is what is so extraordinary in Ives imagination: all
the aspects of this piece--the Star of Bethlehem; the percussion ensembles;
the quarter tones; the mixed wind ensembles playing in different meters
and different rhythms; the different spatial representations of music
within the orchestra; the incredible use of dynamics to suggest the
shifting of the winds and changes of psychological concentration; the
extraordinary complexity of the layering, the textures; the complex
reharmonization of familiar tunes in ever new ways; the whole vastness
of the expression. And the whole symphony is really about one thing,
which is "Nearer, My God, to Thee."...To search for this closeness to
God, and in searching for it discover that one's expression of it changes
from being a comfortable little thing you know at home to something
that does indeed connect with the great universal search of mankind.
And Ives is able to focus all this simply by changing one note of the
cadence of this familiar tune....
(Quoted from Michael Tilson Thomas, Viva Voce: Conversations with
Edward Seckerson, Faber and Faber, 1994, pp. 117-23.)
Ives assembled and recomposed the Fourth Symphony from circa 1910 to
1916?, based on material that he originally composed from 1898 to 1911.
- The first movement, Prelude: Maestoso, is partly derived from the
First Violin Sonata, third movement, or from the song "Watchman!"
- The second movement, Comedy: Allegretto, is largely based on the "Hawthorne"
movement from the Second Piano Sonata, "Concord, Mass., 1840-60"
- The third movement, Fugue: Andante moderato con moto, is Ives' orchestration
of the first movement of his First String Quartet.
- The fourth movement, Finale: Very slowly; Largo maestoso, is partly
derived from a lost organ work "Memorial Slow March." Ives also used
materials from Second String Quartet, third movement, in the Fourth's
Some of the tunes that Ives "borrows" in the Fourth Symphony:
- Movement i: "Bethany," "Crusader's Hymn," "Proprior
Deo," "Something for Thee," "Sweet By and By,"
"Watchman," "Welcome Voice," "Westminster Chimes"
- Movement ii: "The Beautiful River," "Beulah Land,"
"Camptown Races," "Hail! Columbia," "Home!
Sweet Home!," "Long, Long Ago," "Marching Through
Georgia," "Pig Town Fling," "Turkey in the Straw,"
"Yankee Doodle," many others
- Movement iii: "Antioch," "Coronation," "Welcome
Voice," "Missionary Hymn," Bach / Toccata and Fugue
in D minor
- Movement iv: "Antioch," "Azmon," "Bethany,"
"Dorrnance," "Happy Land," "Martyn," "Missionary
Chant," "Nettleton," "Proprior Deo," "St.
Hilda," "Something for Thee," "Street Beat,"
Ives' Fourth Symphony received its premiere performance on April 26,
1965 in New York City. Leopold Stokowski conducted the American Symphony
Orchestra. Conductors David Katz and Josť Serebrier assisted with the
A few days after the premiere performance, Stokowski, the American Symphony
Orchestra, and Schola Cantorum of New York made the first recording of
Ives' Fourth. It appeared on Columbia Records in 1965 (MS-6775). David
Katz and Josť Serebrier again assisted.