Why Ives? Jeremy Denk explains.
The pianist and MacArthur “Genius” award winner Jeremy Denk joins violinist Stefan Jackiw—and the men of the of the Stanford Chamber Chorale—for a performance focusing on American composer Charles Ives. He shares his thoughts on why and how he put this program together.
Because Ives is one of the original American originals. Because he’s a Founding Father of American “classical music”—whatever that strange term means. But most importantly, I love to play Ives because he’s after things that most composers don’t dare to attempt, and so he gets to emotional places and states that other composers can’t find.
Why these four Violin Sonatas?
Because they feel like a cycle. Mahler’s first four Symphonies are similar—they’re called the “Wunderhorn” Symphonies because their melodies come from a book of songs Mahler composed called “Des Knaben Wunderhorn”—the youth’s magic horn. Mahler’s quoting himself, accessing a childlike wonder by reusing earlier material, and weaving together big stories from small, folk-like tunes.
In the Violin Sonatas, Ives keeps trying to deal with beloved musical ideas—hymns, marches, ragtimes—the raw material of his childhood in New England, often just in snippets, like the fragments of memory. Lots of these ideas recur between the Violin Sonatas, like he’s trying to deal with them again, trying to find the perfect way to access the complex memory.
Charles Ives (1874–1954) is one of the first American composers of international renown.
Also, these four Sonatas create a portrait of the composer—in four different states. (Ives is nothing if not schizophrenic.). The 3rd Sonata is Ives trying to fit in (as best he can) with the broader European late Romantic music, by writing a serious “Romantic” Sonata. But his oddities and tics can’t help interrupting, transforming the Romantic narrative into something more unsettling. The 4th Sonata is more like charming uncle Ives: a miniaturist and satirist, a childlike story-teller. The 2nd and 1st Sonatas represent what you might call “mature” Ives, less compromising, less comprehensible, going after the most ambitious and emotionally fraught climaxes—especially the 1st, which is the wildest, and (to my ear) the greatest.
Why the singing?
I hate to say it, but here goes: Ives is the first postmodern composer. So much of his work is in quotation marks, even the original stuff. The violinist will be playing along, and you will think, yes, that’s a gospel singer improvising on a hymn, or the pianist will be banging away, and you’ll think, that’s a barroom pianist playing at a ragtime in a dive somewhere—everything has the sense of referring to other music, other musicians, music about music, music about the joys and emotional possibilities of music.
Luckily, we still recognize many of the tunes Ives uses. But many of them are no longer popular: the musical world has changed in the last hundred and twenty years. So some of the “footnotes” in Ives have gone missing. We’re giving you those footnotes—live!—supplying the missing quotes. But also, we hope you find something emotionally satisfying about hearing the basic tunes, and then launching off in to Ives’ crazy, dissonant musical world—entirely based (paradoxically) on these simplistic materials. I find it very moving to travel from the devotional hymns (the neighborhood choir, a barbershop quartet) into Ives’ music, which is also devotional in its way, devoted to the highest, usually unattainable ideals. The sense of travel and transformation is important—rehearing, shifting perspectives. Plus, at the simplest level, it’s always worthwhile to hear the human voice, and then aspire to that.
What makes these Violin Sonatas so hard?
Ives, to a fault, hated to do things the “normal” way. He loved to turn everything on its head, backwards or upside down. A “normal” composer would start with some tune and then begin to do developments or variations, letting you as listener perceive “something is happening to the tune (which I recognize).” But Ives loves to start with variations and improvisations, gradually giving way to the tune at the end, so that you only understand the piece in retrospect. That poses unique challenges for the performer and the listener, obviously. One thing you have to do when you play Ives is try to untangle what is an improvisation on what: that is, to get in Ives’ head a little bit. Pretend you’re a madman genius riffing on a hymn or a ragtime—then, hopefully, maybe, you as the audience can understand the whole thing too, the way the hymns are constantly being changed, made funnier or more solemn, shifted into various personalities and styles—all setting up a final epiphany. The pacing to these climaxes is crucial. When Ives finally lets the hymn loose, it has to feel like a discovery.
Violinist Stefan Jackiw is recognized as one of his generation’s most significant artists.
One of the most complex and difficult passages in the four Violin Sonatas happens in the second movement of the 1st Sonata. The movement begins with a sentimental tune from Civil War days, “The Old Oaken Bucket” (“how dear to my heart are the scenes of the childhood”). All is well at the beginning. The violin starts with the tune, and gradually there are gorgeous modulations: the melody begins to drift, even nostalgia is becoming a memory.
But then, the trouble starts! The pianist is in a duple rhythm, while the violin remains in the waltz time of “the Old Oaken Bucket.” The piano’s rhythm becomes loudly and clearly a march, while the violin keeps quietly obsessing over the waltz in all kinds of elaborate, chromatic ways. The pianist is marked much louder than the violin and may appear to be something of a jerk. Against all odds, this weird passage keeps going and going: the violin’s almost inaudible frenzy, begging to be heard, and the marching pianist rising heedlessly. At last, the two instruments meet for a fanfare: but the window of clarity is brief, a second Civil War tune appears, clotted with sour notes, half-remembered, blurred as if through tears. It’s stunning, how much emotional connotation Ives packs into this passage: the boys marching to war and the family at home lamenting their loss; the blur and submersion of memory; tender nostalgia juxtaposed against violent separation. Each technical element of the music is matched to its expressive end, but the passage is still almost impossible to pull off.
Again, why did Ives use so many hymns?
In the last movement of the 1st Sonata (the last thing on this program), much of the music is about the hymn “Work for the Night is Coming”:
Work, for the night is coming,
Work thro' the morning hours…
Work, for the night is coming,
When man's work is done.
which Ives transforms into a rambling and endlessly regenerating march, as if the whole town was stomping about singing, encouraging each other to be productive Protestants. Towards the end of the movement, the march becomes even more chaotic (an important sign in Ives that things are about to explain themselves) and then resolves into an incredible climax in F major. The violin belts out the hymn (work work work!) while the pianist plays bells clanging, surrounding the hymn with color and dissonance. Yes, at last, it all makes sense, a glorious end to a glorious day, and as the smoke clears, something emerges which we haven’t heard before: the pianist plays a soft gospel cadence, something achingly familiar to us from the American popular tradition. It’s a cliché, almost. But somehow after all the welter of music, after all the veering marches and cross accents and different kinds of music colliding, it seems to contain and calm everything. The chaos of Ives’ world laid the stage for this one quiet cadence to speak, and to feel new. Or in other words, Ives wrote whole impossible works, so that we could hear one thing well.
Upcoming Event: Jan 28
Bing Concert Hall
Jeremy Denk and Stefan Jackiw play Ives