Monday, May 25, 2015

American Folk Found in Classical Music: Charles Ives

The last few weeks we have been looking at how folk music has found its way into the classical genre. This week, let’s look at two American composers who found great success in using this approach.

Charles Ives (1874–1954) was first exposed to music by his father, George E. Ives, whose performance, teaching, direction of various musical ensembles, and involvement with traveling shows left a lasting impression on the burgeoning composer.  From a young age, Ives was surrounded by European classical music, Protestant church music, and American vernacular music, saturating his musical world with a cultural vocabulary to incorporate in his later American works.

How does European classical music, Protestant church music, and American vernacular music find their way into Ives’ compositions? Ives is known for his musical borrowing and quotation. In his compositions, he often borrowed from the European classical music with which he was quite familiar with while also quoting from American vernacular songs and hymns. This approach essentially synthesized a unique type of American classical music. One example of this is his General William Booth Enters into Heaven, a setting of a poem by Vachel Lindsay that depicts the founder of the Salvation Army leading the impoverished into heaven.

General William Booth Enters into Heaven is written in the style of an art song however Ives pulls from American vernacular and church music in his musical quotations. The vocal line is drawn from the hymn “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”. Ives also uses various other tunes including the minstrel tune “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers” in the piano line. Listen here: 

Next time we’ll look at the music of American composer Virgil Thomson!

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