Thursday, February 14, 2013

Yon Mountain's Height

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Charles Ives, Symphony No. 4 (Leopold Stokowski, American Symphony Orchestra). Plenty of 20th-century composers put notes together in new and ear-cracking ways, but insurance salesman/Emersonian eccentric Charles Ives gave the world dissonance with a difference. There are a number of moments in this, his cantilevered, bipolar masterpiece, that actually sound out of tune, like Ives didn't work out all the clashing harmonies with some kind of serialist or atonal logic but just gleefully let them crash into each other with a kind of proto-Cagean randomness.

The ferocious second movement, which I either forgot or only just noticed this time around is called "Comedy, Allegretto," often sounds like three or four marching bands rolling around in the belly of a rocking ship, and the swirling final movement evokes an arctic strait crowded with passing icebergs and floes, each bearing a different section of the orchestra (music I'm pretty sure was in the mind of John Adams when he wrote Harmonielehre). Around those two jagged peaks Ives laid down some lush greenery: a mildly foreboding choral prologue and a hymn-like fugue as magisterially moving (in both senses) as any American orchestral music ever written.

That American-ness is an important part of what makes Ives Ives, not to mention indispensable: both his cacophony and his calm could only spring from the land that nurtured both Whitman and Dickinson, Melville and Twain, Quakers and Puritans, the radical Republicans of 1860 and the radical Republicans of 2010. It is broad-shouldered music of unearned but utterly infectious confidence, whose utter sincerity gives it a deep, unmistakeable soulfulness--even, or especially, when that soul is troubled, raging, at sea.

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