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Ives (1874-1954) – Variations on “America”

The primary purpose of music is neither instruction nor culture but pleasure; and this is an all-sufficient purpose” (Charles Ives, Facts and Comments, New York, 1902)


Rather surprisingly, for a fairly stodgy Galliard, over 400 years old and of uncertain parentage, the tune known as “America” has enjoyed a fair bit of popularity. As well as playing host to numerous word-settings in the USA it’s been used, at one time or another, for nationalistic purposes by around two dozen countries. Many Americans regard it as their second national anthem, whilst (and let’s keep this just between you and me, eh?) many of my friends in the UK would rather it wasn’t their first. 

Charles Ives was both a pillar of the community and a vandal. At least, the latter is how those with what he called “cissy ears” regarded him. Armed with little more than a solid education, tremendous vision and colossal imagination, Ives forged what was around him into the first truly American classical music. He might even have beaten Picasso to the punch, with his exhilarating “musical cubism” that offended many - understandably uncomprehending - ears. 

Although Ives was only seventeen - more high-spirited than pioneering - when he wrote his Variations on “America” for organ, the seeds of things to come were already palpably germinating. He couldn’t have known, but in preceding the theme’s statement by its first variation, he beat Rachmaninov to the punch by fully 43 years. 

Did the lad, as he probably intended, ever dare play it as an intrada at Danbury Methodist Church? It would surely have raised a few congregational eyebrows! Ponder that possibility, as you enjoy William Schuman’s orchestration, which vividly amplifies its sense of unadulterated, irreverent fun. Those with “cissy ears”, or otherwise of a nervous disposition, would be well-advised to sit this one out in the bar. 

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© Paul Serotsky
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