Saturday, October 24, 2015

Charles Ives Composes The First 'American' Symphony

One of the things I love most about going to the Houston Symphony Orchestra's concerts at Jones Hall is their pre-concert talks they generously give before each concert called 'prelude'.

The fetching Mrs. B and I have learned so much from these talks about the great composers and their music.  There have been many great lovers and teachers of classical music giving these talks, but none better than the man giving the prelude talks this concert season, The Houston Symphony's 'musical ambassador' and assistant conductor, Carlos Andres Botero.  This man is so positive, enthusiastic, friendly and informative with his obvious love of the music and the composers that it is conveyed to all the patrons attending the pre-concert talks.  You can tell by the smile on everyone's face in attendance after his lecture is over.

Houston Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor - Carlos Andres Botero - before he has shaved his beard :-)
This last 'prelude', on October 17, 2015, Maestro Botero talked about American composer Charles Ives and his Symphony #2 that we were about to hear on the first half of the concert.  

Charles Ives was an American Romantic/modern composer born in Danbury, CT in 1874.
Charles Ives  [1874 - 1954]
Maestro Botero related how during Charles Ives life and before [probably rightly so] music [classical-Romantic] from American composers was considered inferior to the music that was composed from the great masters of Europe.  While I love my country and am a great patriot, I probably would have joined in that feeling if I lived back then.  

So, the American composers mostly followed the ideas, and sound of the great Baroque, Classical, and Romantic composers of Europe.  For the most part they didn't develop an American symphonic sound, an American symphony as such. 

It actually took the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, using folk songs, Native American music, and old Negro spirituals, that he learned from his visit to the United States from 1892-1895, to compose his "New World Symphony" #9 in the late 19th century.

Charles Ives in his first symphony followed the German Romantic model of Brahms and others in his first symphony.  He would quote ideas from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Dvorak in this composition. 

But Ives was a great patriotic American and did want to compose an American symphony that would show his pride of America, and show that an American composer could compose an American symphony not inferior to the great masters of the West.   

He did this in his second Symphony he composed sometime between 1897-1902 [and it took 50 years to be performed in its entirety before a concert audience].  

While for the most part Ives still followed the Brahms German Romantic model in this symphony, what he did to make this an American symphony was that he weaved into this symphony brief  moments of American folk tunes, religious hymns, gospel music, etc.  In fact there were 15 different "American tunes" that he gave quick glimpses of in this symphony.  Carlos Andres Botero, said that it was like if you were listening to classical music in your car and somebody came along in another car with music blasting of some other music [rap, or country, or pop] and while it passes your car you would get a brief sound of that other music weaved into the classical music you were listening to, and then it would quickly go away as the car passed.  

In his talk, Carlos Botero gave audio examples of first some of the American tunes [like hymns, etc. as they would be sung] then of the brief moment that it sounded like in Ives symphony.  While I didn't recognize some of the religious hymns, I knew my wife did because I could hear her humming as the music was playing.  Mr. Botero then played songs everyone knew, like "Camptown races" and "America the Beautiful" briefly quoted in the symphony and everyone laughed when they heard-"Turkey in the Straw", also briefly interwoven in the symphony.  Maestro Botero, in his pleasant Colombian-American accent asked if we [the patrons in attendance at the prelude talk] could help him with the pronunciation of a song that he played for us, also included briefly included in Ives Second Symphony.  That American song was...reveille.  :-) 

Someone not familiar with American culture might think Ives' Second Symphony was no different than any other.  So, to make sure everyone knew this Symphony was different, that this was an American symphony, Ives ended the symphony in a surprise chord that you will probably never hear again.  This was his punctuation mark on this different symphony-the first American symphony composed by an American composer. 

The symphony does not have a specific key as each movement is in a different key. There are five movements in Ives Symphony #2:  1. Andante moderato,  2. Allegro,  3. Adagio Cantabile,  4. Lento maestoso and 5. Allegro molto vivace.  

Remember you must listen closely as some of the hymns or other American tunes or quoted very briefly and sometimes in variation of the original theme.  You should have no trouble hearing reveille near the end of this American Symphony.  

Please turn up the volume to enjoy the first American symphony composed by an American composer-Charles Ives.  Also, as an extra bonus, listen to the beautiful first movement of one could call the first American symphony that was written by not an American composer, but by the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak.  

Hint:  For just one example of Americana in the symphony that you will recognize, listen at the 3:03 mark, listen closely, it goes by quickly as do many of the examples.  

Charles Ives: Symphony #2:

Antonin Dvorak: Symphony #9 in E-minor, "From The New World", Movement 1, Adagio-Allegro:

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