Ives; Variations on America

Charles Ives was born in Danbury Connecticut in October of 1874. Although he was known as a musician during his lifetime including being a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Third Symphony (written in 1911) , it was not until about ten years after his death in 1954 that he began to receive the recognition he so richly deserved. Ives turned out to be one of the most forward-looking composers in America. Even today, he is still finding new audiences for his creations, most of which were never performed during his life. He was carrying on the tradition which his father had instilled in him, that of always being willing to experiment with musical sounds. His father, George, was a Civil War bandleader. One of the most unusual experiments his father ever conducted was to invite the bands from three or four neighboring towns to come to Danbury. The bands would be placed hundreds of feet apart, instructed to play four different pieces, march toward and through each other, and end up on opposite sides of the town. To a listener placed in the center of it all, it must have sounded like four discreet pieces which would blend into one cacophonous sound in the middle, and then four distinct compositions at the end. This would be an experiment that Ives would duplicate at least in part during such concert works as the Fourth Symphony and the Holidays Symphony. The experiment that he was never given the chance to realize was his composition for multiple orchestras and choruses placed across the hillsides of a valley. Alas, the Universe Symphony by Ives was never realized.

Ives did grow up in the church and we was the organist of the local church. Here was where he conducted some of his earliest experiments, including the duplication of the sound of an out-of-tune amateur church choir.. The Variations on America were originally written for pipe organ when Ives was about 18 years old. The earliest performance was given at the Brewster Methodist Church in Brewster, New York.

One wonders what his listeners thought when they heard a beloved patriotic song turned into a march, the polonaise, or even ragtime. And how would they have reacted to the bitonal sections written in two different keys? Nowadays our ears would be much more accepting of these sounds. This orchestral version was concocted by William Schuman,who wrote it for the 20th anniversary of the founding of BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.). He was quite cognizant of the jollity and humor of Ivesí creation and his version misses none of the jokes.

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