Charles Ives self-published his book of 114 Songs in 1922. Although the book does not include every song Ives ever wrote, it contains the bulk of them, and all of the songs in this set of six are from this larger collection. The earliest songs in 114 Songs date back to the 1880’s; the most recent were composed right before the set was published. The subjects of the songs are extremely varied, with text topics ranging from hymns to romantic songs, satirical songs, and protest songs, and Ives himself wrote many of the texts. The musical language is equally diverse, ranging from the traditional to the avant-garde.
The selection of these six songs was a collaborative effort between myself, conductor Ching-Chun Lai, and tenor Lonel Woods. We attempted to highlight some of the diversity found in 114 Songs, although the primary concern was to create a coherent set. Orchestrating Ives presents many challenges and rewards, but if there is a reoccurring headache for the orchestrator, it is Ives’s preference for large chords and thick textures in his accompaniments. When performed on the piano alone, these present limited balance problems, but with an entire orchestra covering those many notes, the vocalist can become overwhelmed. Finding a balance between Ives’s intent and the reality of the stage was never far from my mind.
The text for Charlie Rutlage comes from Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, collected by John Lomax. Rutlage worked the XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle; at three million acres in 1880s, it was the largest fenced range in the world. Ives begins (and ends) the song tamely, imitating a strumming guitar, but as the excitement and danger in the text grows, the music responds in kind. The singer stops singing exact pitches, the tempo speeds up, the music growing ever more dense and loud, until finally, at the moment of Charlie’s death, there is an explosion of clusters and tremolos. This kind of text painting is typical of Ives. He is also known for quoting other music, usually songs, in his works, and there is a reference to “Git Along Little Dogies” in the accompaniment in the middle of this song.
Two Little Flowers was one of the first songs that we picked for the set, largely because both Lonel Woods and I wanted to include it – a happy concurrence. Here is Ives being as sentimental as he ever gets, but without being sappy (I don’t think Ives was capable of being sappy). Although the melody has the character of a popular song, memorable and easy to sing, Ives creates an accompaniment that is consistently one eighth-note short of the 4/4 meter. In other words, the two parts are not in the same time signature until the end of the song, and therefore the perceived downbeats in the accompaniment keep shifting. The text, written either by Ives or his wife, Harmony, is about their adopted daughter Edith, and her friend, Susanna. The subtitle for the song: “And Dedicated to Them.”
The Things Our Fathers Loved directly addresses Ives’s philosophy about musical quotation. The narrator imagines a place in the soul “all made of tunes,” and although he does not remember the words, these songs can still remind of us our values by their tunes alone. Meanwhile, in the accompaniment, he quotes five songs whose words express those values: “My Old Kentucky Home,” “On the Banks of the Wabash,” “Nettleton,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” Peter Burkholder writes (in his book, “All Made of Tunes”), “The text of Ives’s song is about these different kinds of music and the values they represent, from religion to patriotism…What Ives’s song is about, ultimately, is the power of tunes, even without a text, to embody and remind us of what we value.”
The Cage is an example of Ives’s experimental side. This short song, with an in-your-face philosophical text written by Ives, has a split personality. The vocal and piano parts are in completely different harmonic and rhythmic worlds, but all in the service of conveying the meaning of the words. While the voice represents the pacing tiger by moving up and down in the whole-tone scale, the accompaniment is strictly chordal (using mostly quartal and quintal harmonies), representing the bars of the tiger’s cage. Further, the fact the two are so dissociated from each other harmonically might allude to our own dissociation from the natural world, perhaps, or other aspects of our nature.
Ives’s has a deep relationship with Thoreau and the transcendentalists. The final movement of Ives’s Second Piano Sonata (Concord) is named “Thoreau,” and some of the music in this song comes from that sonata. The text begins with selected quotes taken from Thoreau’s book Walden. In a bit of text painting, Ives’s produces the Concord bells that Thoreau refers to.
For a closer, The Circus Band was the only option we ever considered. As he does so often, Ives conjures up a memory from his childhood, this time about a circus parade, complete with a marching band. What is particular about his genius is his ability to give us this event from the perspective of his younger self. The thrill of this monumental event – having to wait all year for the return of the circus and the lady “all in pink” – are conveyed in the breathless rhythms of the vocal part (“Horses dancing…”). Even the music’s abrupt ending reflects the way a parade just ends when the last person goes by. I will admit to adding a famous Sousa piccolo lick to the very last verse of this song, something Ives could not have done without the pianist growing another arm. This was done in the spirit of Ives, and I hope he would have approved.
Non Sequitur Music Publishing
2112 Ontario Street
Bellingham, WA 98229