Emerson and Charles Ives
“What classical music in America lacked was American classical music. Composition remained in the condition of cultural subservience that Ralph Waldo Emerson had diagnosed in his essay “The American Scholar” back in 1837: ‘We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.’ American writers answered Emerson’s call: by the turn of the century, libraries contained the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, and the brothers James. The roster of American composers, on the other hand, included the likes of John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, George Whitefield Chadwick, and Edward MacDowell – skilled craftsmen who did credit to their European training but who failed to find a language that was either singularly American or singularly their own. Audiences saved their deepest genuflections for European figures who deigned to cross the Atlantic” (Ross 28).
In the opening sentence of his book Essays Before a Sonata, Charles Ives writes, “How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or a layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?” (Ives 3). In the prologue to his book, Ives concerns himself with philosophical questions on the nature of programmatic music, including whether such a piece is successful because of the explanations provided in the program, or because of the representational power of the music itself (Ives 4).
Grove Music Online defines “programme music” as: “Music of a narrative or descriptive kind; the term is often extended to all music that attempts to represent extra-musical concepts without resort to sung words” (Scruton). The term was coined by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who is well known for his “symphonic poems,” one of the most common expressions of programmatic music (Scruton). Much of 19th century music is filled with large and lavish examples of programme music, such as Berlioz extravagant Symphonie fantastique of 1830 (Block 66).
For Charles Ives in America at the turn of the 20th century, programme music was an effective way to express several “extra-musical concepts,” or ideas and philosophies that intrigued the composer, rather than an actual narrative of fictional events. “Ives…is [more] concerned with symbolic meanings than with the representation of objects and a musical narrative” (Block 68). To this end, his interest in the Transcendental philosophy originating in his homeland New England became a strong focus in much of his music, noticeably so
in the Piano Sonata No.2, “Concord, Mass. 1840-60” also known as the Concord Sonata.
Ives and Emerson:
David B. Robinson in his article Children of the Fire: Charles Ives on Emerson and Art states that, "The Transcendentalists as a group, with their commitment to individual expression and nonconformity gave Ives the moral support he needed simply to persevere at composition, while Emerson formulated the principles that gave his music its special character" (Robinson, 566).
An obvious, yet important correlation between Ives and Emerson is Ives’s own extensive writing on the transcendentalist, found in his book Essays Before a Sonata. Written as an extended program for the Concord Sonata, the book outlines clearly Ives philosophical
(transcendental) ideals, and consequently how these ideals play out in his music.
Robinson notes that in the epilogue to his book, Ives speaks of a dualism between “substance,” or the quality and spirit of the art, and the quantity or “manner” of the art (Robinson 566). Robinson goes on to compare this dualism in Ives with Emerson, stating that, “Ives’s ‘substance,’ translated into the terms of Emerson’s ‘The Poet,’ is ‘Genius’ as distinct from ‘Talent’” (Robinson 567).
Ives also took up Emerson’s call in “The American Scholar,” striving to create truly American music. He did not ignore his great European predecessors, but he did strive to “…remind American composers, in an era dominated by the European sensibility, to be faithful to their native heritage” (Robinson 569). To this end, Ives is often “guilty” of copious quotations of other works, ranging from famous European composers like Beethoven to traditional American hymns and other popular music. Robinson notes that Ives took his justification of this practice from Emerson’s essay “Quotation and Originality” (Robinson 570).
Ives was also interested in Emerson’s thoughts on unity and spiritualism, especially in his concept of the “over-soul.” Christopher Shultis in Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the American Experimental Tradition, notes that both Ives and Emerson believed that unity should exist between man and nature, and the real and transcendental (Shultis 16). He posits that Ives uses Beethoven’s famous four note opening to the Fifth Symphony, in the Concord Sonata as a unifying factor (Shultis 16). Ives characterizes this motif himself as “…the soul of humanity knocking at the door of the divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened – and the human become the divine!” (Ives 36) In this sense, the Beethoven motif acts as a representative of Emerson’s concept of the “over-soul” throughout the Sonata.
There is no doubt that Ives admired and sought to emulate Emerson in many aspects of both his music and his life. Perhaps the most apparent instance of this influence can be seen in Ives Concord Sonata.