dead musicians

I fell in love with some choral music yesterday. The harmonies in this music resonate in my ears with great beauty.  It sounds to me like it could easily have been written last week.

It was written in the 1890s by a 20 something Charles Ives.

Charles Ives (1874 – 1954)

What was he doing when he wrote these psalms? In Charles Ives: A life with music, Jan Swafford quotes Stravinsky about the void that  the 20th century composer shaking off older conventions faced.

Stravinksy wrote in his book Poetics: “… finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me… if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable… and consequently every understanding becomes futile.”

Ives peered into this infinitude with a cool Yankee indifference. He was writing music for a future no one could imagine.

Stravinsky was a young guy in the 1990s.

Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)

He was 8 years younger than Ives.  Schoenberg was the same age as Ives.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874 - 1951)

Swafford points out that Schoenberg was a late bloomer and came up with his hugely influential compositional ideas much later than Ives.

And then there’s this guy:

Béla Bartók (1881-1945)

His music resounds with harmonies that Ives uses in his early psalm settings. Ives wrote these pieces in hovering combined textures called bi-tonal harmony.  Apparently these pieces created in his youth were the only pieces where he used this technique all the way through a composition. He tried it and then moved on. Bartok later exploited this technique in many wonderful pieces.

It’s hard to imagine how Ives heard his music. Usually it was so far-fetched to the American ears who heard it, it provoked laughter. He constantly self-censored his music and tried to tone down his experiments in efforts to get accepted and published. Later in life, he restored his original intentions. And like any composer, he constantly recomposed his work.  In the past decades in efforts to establish who came up with what technique first, Ives has been suspected of back dating some of his work. This is true of his setting of Psalm 90.

The truth seems to be more that when he put the good parts back in he was working from pencil sketches and memories of sketches and his evolved musical ideas.

I say, “Who cares!” What cool music.

Then there is the World’s Fair-like 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Ives is there.

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932)

John Philip Sousa is there. His band included two songs, “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!”

and “After the Ball” in their performances at the fair.

The brass band sound and specifically these two songs caught the imagination of the American public. The young Ives must have heard these songs in Chicago. He later used them both in compositions.

Scott Joplin (c. 1867 – April 1, 1917)

Scott Joplin is there.  It is thought that Ives probably heard him perform. Joplinesque ragtime rhythms permeate Ives’ later work. It was a great time in the flowering of American music. The hugely influential American conductor, Theodore Thomas, quit his position as music director for the Exhibition half way through saying, “for the remainder of the Fair music shall not figure as an art at all, but be treated on the basis of an amusement.”  In retrospect his words almost seem like an indictment of how classical music wanders away from its audience in the 20th century leaving some voids to be  filled by fascinating wonderful music of the “amusement” kind.

The last decade of the 19th century was a fascinating time.

Johannes Brahms (1883-1897)

Brahms is writing some of his loveliest music for solo clarinet and solo piano.

Claude Debussy (1862-1916) & Erik Satie (1866-1925)

Debussy and Satie are writing and squabbling in Paris. Both with very different styles and aesthetics.

Jelly Roll Morton (18?? - 1941)

There is some doubt about when he was exactly born, but the fabulous Jelly Roll was a young man at this time.

W. C. Handy (1873-1958)

W. C. Handy was an active musician at the time as well. He later popularizes a form of the Blues.

It boggles my mind that all these people were alive and making fascinating music in the same period.



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2 thoughts on “dead musicians

  1. I have sung the Psalm 67 piece. I think it was probably at Ohio Wesleyan. I loved it. I keep looking at the Swafford bio. I read Vivian Perls’ bio 25+ years ago and enjoyed it very much. And some of his prose stuff in that old Norton (?) collection.

  2. This is my second bio by Swafford. I read his bio of Brahms and quite liked it. I have access to Naxos again and have found a wonderful recording of the Ives Psalms. Marcus Creed and Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble. I can listen to it online by logging in to my Hope account. I still might purchase it because (contrary to the B&N review linked below) I think it’s a stellar recording. I don’t know the Perls bio.

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