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The Holidays Symphony consists of the following four movements:

  • i. Washington's Birthday (Winter)
  • ii. Decoration Day (Spring)
  • iii. The Fourth of July (Summer)
  • iv. Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day (Autumn)

The work is also alternatively known as A Symphony: New England Holidays.


I think that the Holidays Symphony is one a handful of Ives' very greatest works. That said, I'll leave most of the commentary to Ives himself, since his words--and his way with language--illuminate his music wonderfully. He also had quite a bit to say about this particular symphony. Ives made the following remarks about the Holidays Symphony in his Memos:

These four pieces, movements of a Holiday Symphony, take about an hour, and although they were first called together a symphony, at the same time they are separate pieces and can be thought of and played as such--(and also, and as naturally, be thought of and played as a whole). These four pieces together were called a symphony, and later just a set of pieces, because I was getting somewhat tired of hearing the lily boys* say, "This is a symphony!--Mercy!--Where is the first theme of 12 measures in C major?--Where are the next 48 measures of nice (right kind of) development leading nicely into the second theme in G?" (second donkey contrasting with Ass #1)--the nice German recipe, etc.--give it a ride, Arthur!-to hell with it!--Symphony = "with sounds" = my Symphony! (94).

* "Lily boys" are one of Ives' many disparaging terms for conventional, conservative musicians and critics.

Ives composed brief program notes for three of these works. These "postfaces" appeared at the end of the score. Now, before you go put on your favorite recording of the Holidays Symphony, carefully read before you listen!

i. Washington's Birthday

Ives' postface to Washington's Birthday reads:

"Cold and Solitude," says Thoreau, "are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to seek the snow on the trees."

And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken-hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!--in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan's fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?

"The old folks sit 'the clean winged hearth about,
Shut in from all the world without,
Content to let the north wind roar,
In baffled rage at pane and door."
[Quoted from James Greenleaf Whittier's "Snowbound"]

But to the younger generation, a winter holiday means action!--and down through the 'Swamp hollow' and over the hill road they go, afoot or in sleighs, through the drifting snow, to a barn dance at the Centre. The village band of fiddles, fife, and horn keep up an unending 'break-down' medley, and the young folks 'salute their partners and balance corners' till midnight;--as the party breaks up, the sentimental songs of those days are sung half in fun, half seriously, and with the inevitable 'adieu to the ladies' the 'social' gives way to the grey bleakness of the February night [Memos, 96-97].

ii. Decoration Day

Ives' postface to Decoration Day reads:

In the early morning the gardens and woods around the village are the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day's Memorial.** During the forenoon as the people join each other on the Green there is felt, at times, a fervency and intensity--a shadow perhaps of the fanatical harshness--reflecting old Abolitionist days. It is a day as Thoreau suggests, when there is a pervading consciousness of "Nature's kinship with the lower order-man."

After the Town Hall is filled with the Spring's harvest of lilacs, daisies, and peonies, the parade is slowly formed on Main Street. First come the three Marshals on plough horses (going sideways), then the Warden and Burgesses in carriages, the Village Cornet Band, the G.A.R., two by two, the Militia (Company G), while the volunteer Fire Brigade, drawing a decorated hose-cart, with its jangling bells, brings up the rear-the inevitable swarm of small boys following. The march to Wooster Cemetery is a thing a boy never forgets. The roll of the muffled drums and "Adestes Fideles" answer for the dirge. A little girl on a fencepost waves to her father and wonders if he looked like that at Gettysburg.

After the last grave is decorated, Taps sounds out through the pines and hickories, while a last hymn is sung. The ranks are formed again, and "we all march to town" to a Yankee stimulant-Reeves inspiring Second Regiment Quickstep-though, to many a soldier, the sombre thoughts of the day underlie the tunes of the band. The march stops-and in the silence of the shadow of the early morning flower-song rises over the Town, and the sunset behind the West Mountain breathes its benediction upon the Day [Memos, 101-102].

** Decoration Day corresponds to the Memorial Day holiday that we currently celebrate in the United States to honor war veterans.

iii. The Fourth of July

Ives' postface to "The Fourth of July" reads:

It's a boy's '4th-no historical orations-no patriotic grandiloquences by "grown-ups"--no program in this yard! But he knows what he is celebrating--better than most of the county politicians. And he goes at it in his own way, with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism. His festivities start in quiet of the midnight before, and grow raucous with the sun. Everybody knows what it's like-if everybody doesn't-cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs Beaver Brook Boys), the sky-rocket over the Church steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town Hall on fire. All this is not music,--not now [Memos, 104].

Ives held this work in especially high regard. In 1914, Ives and his business partner Julian Myrick were packing their office for an upcoming move. Myrick stumbled across a draft of "The Fourth of July" and asked Ives if he wanted it thrown out. Ives reply: "Why Mike! My God! That's the best thing I've written!" [Memos, 271].

iv. Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day

"Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day" doesn't have a program, but it does bear a dedication to Ives' brother-in-law Edward Carrington Twichell. On a score manuscript, Ives wrote:

This is a very nice piece of TURKEY - Eddy!
Put it there! - Very Good Eddy!
& dedicated
125 Woodlawn St. Hartford

Composition History

Apparently, Ives assembled the four works and entitled them Holidays Symphony circa 1917. By then, he had already composed all four of the works that comprise the symphony. However, in his Memos Ives claimed that he conceived the idea of four-part work in 1904, after completing Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day.

i. Washington's Birthday

Ives composed this work circa 1909-13. Ives scored the work for chamber orchestra in 1913. It is the only one of the four requiring less than a full orchestra.

ii. Decoration Day

Ives arranged this work for orchestra circa 1912-13, based on an earlier work that he had composed for violin and piano. Ives claimed that he originally envisioned the piece as "brass band overture, but never got very far that way" [Memos, 101].

iii. The Fourth of July

Ives composed this work circa 1911-12.

iv. Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day

This is the first of the four movements that Ives composed. Ives started the work around 1903 and completed it in 1904. The work is based on two organ works that Ives had composed and played at Center Church in New Haven, Connecticut. The works, now partially lost, are "Prelude for a Thanksgiving Service" and "Postlude for a Thanksgiving Service."

Premiere Performances

Antál Doráti conducted the first complete performance of the work with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 9, 1954--approximately one month before Ives died.

Other premieres:

  • "Washington's Birthday" in San Francisco in 1931, conducted by Nicolas Slonimsky and the New Music Society Orchestra.
  • "Decoration Day" in Havana, Cuba in 1931 by conductor Amadeo Roldán and the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • "The Fourth of July" in Paris in 1932 by Slonimsky and the Orchestra Symphonique de Paris.
  • "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day" in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1954 by Antál Doráti and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Slonimsky's recording of "Barn Dance" section of "Washington's Birthday" for Henry Cowell's New Music Quarterly Recordings was the first commercially available recording of Ives' music. For more information about this session, click here.

Premiere Recording

The first complete recording of the Holidays Symphony was released in 1964 on the CRI label. Conductor William Strickland recorded each of the four movements with a different orchestra (!):

  • "Washington's Birthday" with the Imperial Tokyo Philharmonic
  • "Decoration Day" with the Finnish RSO
  • "The Fourth of July" with the Göteborg SO
  • "Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day" with the Iceland SO



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Original text copyright © Scott Mortensen 2002