Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Musical Quotation: Ives' Second Symphony

How does Ives incorporate elements from the musical world around him into his own compositions? Looking at his second symphony, we can see that he uses the influence of European classical music in his work. First, this symphony uses the cyclic form famously used in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Cyclic form occurs when a later movement contains thematic material that appeared in an earlier movement. Ives also tended to borrow transitional passages from Brahms’s symphonies as well as from the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  Borrowed episodes from Bach fugues can also be found in his music.

 Do you find it interesting that Ives attempted to base his compositions in European tradition despite his American roots?

Ives felt that it was important to hold onto traits that characterize both European and American traditional music by paraphrasing the American tunes using European forms. One of his distinguishing compositional techniques is the quotation of American popular songs and hymns. The method by which Ives went about quoting these American pop songs and hymns involved the creation of thematic material that paraphrased an American tune followed by reconstructing them into a theme that was more symphonic in nature. By doing this, Ives was making the national material of America follow a more international style. Though the original American tunes were all decent, they needed to be re-worked in order to be considered appropriate symphonic themes.

An example of this re-working of themes can be found in the opening of the second movement in Ives’ second symphony. Here, Ives re-constructs Henry Clay’s Civil War song, “Wake Nicodemus,” into a more symphonic theme. Despite his alterations, Ives is still successful in preserving the character that made the tune distinctively American, thus preserving the American sound. Other examples of musical quotation in his Symphony No. 2 include “O Columbia Gem of the Ocean,” “America the Beautiful,” music similar to the organ and choir music found in the Long Green Organ Book, and others. Though Ives frequently uses musical quotations, he never sounded the original tune in its entirety.  Rather, he allowed the melody line to lead to a new point that was not found in the original.        

What are your thoughts on Ives’ compositional approach? Do you think the use of musical quotation conjures up nationalist sentiments when listening to his music?