One day last week, I was listening to some music by an American composer named Charles Ives. Born in Connecticut in 1874 — the son of a bandleader in the American Civil War — Ives isn’t widely known among the general population, but he’s often mentioned as one of the few American orchestral composers who ranks alongside Europeans. He wrote his remarkable Second Symphony between 1897 and 1902, but it wasn’t performed until 1952.
Leonard Bernstein was among those who in the 1950s tirelessly championed the then mostly unknown Ives and his music, describing his work as having “all the freshness of a naive American wandering in the grand palaces of Europe.”
More than that, though, it captures a facet of the American character better than any other music I’ve heard. As I listened, I began wondering how I would describe it to one who hasn’t heard it.
As the Second Symphony begins, Ives’ purpose and overarching theme of the work is not at all evident. Intertwining lines seem to search for something to latch onto. A vaguely familiar melody briefly emerges, but just as you think you could hum it, it disappears. For a moment, things sound very much like Dvorak’s New World Symphony (an important clue to Ives’ undertaking), but then without warning you hear the old hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves” weaving in and out like a deer moving through the shadows of the forest, a minor note slipping in here and there. But then it’s gone.
A little bit of subsequent back-and-forth evokes a Beethoven symphony, then suddenly you realize the melody you’re now hearing is the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” But again, as soon as you hear it, it’s gone. Now it’s something else, something patriotic. You’ve heard it before, but you may not know the name. (It’s “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean”). It doesn’t return immediately, but you’re left with the impression that perhaps you’re beginning to sense what Ives is up to.
Melodies you’ve not thought of as orchestral are proving to be, but it’s as though the whole orchestra is struggling to fuse these snippets into something coherent. Without realizing it you’re drawn in, listening for clues as to how this mélange will resolve.
A rising line in the third movement sounds like Tchaikovsky’s grand Fifth Symphony materializing somewhere off to right, its massive, stately form obscured by fog, but making you aware that it’s there. As you sort through all you’re hearing, your ears start filling in the gaps, as if the orchestra were giving you space to join them and help carry the load.
By now, you’re listening for any trace of your cultural patrimony. There’s a hymn again, then a piece of Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races.” Suddenly, trumpets cut through with “Reveille,” clear as the dawn breaking. As if to answer, the low brass reprises “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” more completely than before. And then just like that it’s over.
Bernstein calls Ives “our musical Mark Twain, Emerson and Lincoln all rolled into one,” and correctly comments that for all his influences and musical quotations, Ives doesn’t sound like any other composer: It’s “a new brew out of a European soup pot, very American in flavor.”
In a way, Ives’ Second Symphony speaks to us because it reminds us that we’re a nation of immigrants. Not merely of people, but the culture they brought with them. Beethoven’s music itself is an immigrant to the new world, interacting with the culture that was born here and producing something new.
Something of a melting pot. Something American.