Charles Ives and “Variations on America”
If you are – or ever were – an amateur composer – Charles Ives is a name you should know. According to All Music, Ives, born Oct. 20, 1874, the son of George Ives, a Danbury, Connecticut bandmaster, was, by most accounts a musical prodigy.
Ives was playing organ at the local Presbyterian church at the age of 12 and began composing at the age of 13.
Stories that begin like this, typically evolve into life as a professional composer. Ives evolved into something completely different – an insurance executive.
Although he had a degree in music from Yale, Ives also had a flair for business and a way with people. Over time he became a very wealthy insurance magnate – with an odd hobby – composing music.
Ives wrote music on commuter trains, in the evening, and on weekends. He wrote what he liked without worrying what anyone else thought.
He died in May 1954 and it was at that time biographers and researchers began looking into Ives’ music and the start of his musical legacy really began.
Variations on America
To truly understand the music of Charles Ives, it might be helpful to examine one piece of music with an interesting history. In many ways “Variations on America” typifies all stages of Charles Ives’ compositional life.
Written for Organ
Ives wrote the piece at the age of 17 in the form of a set of organ variations on the patriotic hymn America for a 4th of July celebration at Brewster, N.Y. He did submit it for publication and, as with most works he submitted, it was immediately rejected. At that time it went into a drawer with many other rejected and half-finished compositions.
In 1949, organist E. Power Biggs discovered and reassembled the piece for publication. Biggs performed it in 1962 at a program dedicating the new organ at what is now known as Avery Fisher Hall.
If you would like to hear the piece played on the instrument it was originally written for – organ – here it is as realized by E. Power Biggs.
Composer, William Schuman, heard the performance in 1962 and immediately decided it had to be transcribed for orchestra. Schuman was faithful to Ives’ intent – and even added a bit of humor of his own in the way he scored the piece for various brass and woodwind instruments.
In 1964 Ives’ “Variations on America,” transcribed by William Schuman was premiered by Andre Kostelanetz and the New York Philharmonic.
Inside the Music
James Reel Rovi provides a brief, but useful analysis of the music.
Introduction & Theme
A brief, introduction based on fragments of the melody leads to a sober statement of the full theme by brass over strings.
The strings have the melody while woodwinds, brass, and percussion play what sound like musical exercises.
A sweet and sour combination of sentiment and dissonance with a couple of barbershop-sounding cadences thrown in for good measure.
This section is in two keys at the same time. Just when it almost becomes unbearable, it turns into a waltz.
The tuba is featured in a minor-key variation that includes castanets and a tambourine.
A fairly tonal brass chorale statement is followed by a fast moving section that slows down and becomes almost majestic.
The introduction is reprised and the whole thing ends with a bang (not a whimper).
Most people today know Ives’ “Variations on America” as performed by orchestra or concert band. Here’s an excellent performance by the Cologne Symphony Orchestra, Jonathan Stockhammer, conductor.
Here is Leonard Bernstein explaining Ives:
Here are some other videos related to Ives:
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