Three Places in New England

I. The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment);
II. Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut;
III. The Housatonic at Stockbridge

 

The American composer Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Conneticut. During the civil war, his father was the conductor of the heavy artillery military band and on his return to Danbury, became a  kind of New England handyman for all things musical. He founded an orchestra which played at various celebrations and processions, directed a chorus, taught music and made numerous arrangements. He was not a composer but he was passionately interested in all aspects of sonority: he experimented with quarter tones, various unusual tunings and the spatial use of music. Sometimes, he made his son sing while accompanying him on the piano in a different (and clashing) tonality to the one written! After his father's eccentric music lessons, Charles Ives continued his studies at Yale University where he underwent a regular and basic musical training. He also worked as a church organist. When he finished university, the 24 year old Ives moved to New York where he began work as an official for an insurance company. Ives later formed his own insurance company and it rapidly became hugely successful. He only had time for composing at weekends or at the end of  long working days, and regarded it as merely a hobby. It is hard to grasp how Ives was able to compose the quantity and quality of music he did under these circumstances. He wrote his immense oeuvre between 1896 and 1916, composing four symphonies, numerous works for symphonic and chamber orchestra, chamber works, pieces for piano and organ, as well as a great many songs and other vocal compositions.

 

His best known works are the Concorde Sonata and The Unanswered Question. Ives virtually ceased composing with the end of World War I. In 1929, he also retired from business. His works totally flummoxed just about everyone who heard them and the majority of his compositions only came to be performed and appreciated many decades after they were written. The elderly composer was relatively indifferent when in 1947 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

 

Musicology regards Charles Ives as the pathfinder of American music. Until he emerged, American music teaching and composition tended to be a rather stiff impersonation of European traditions. Ives was the first important composer to introduce the unique, everyday music of his country into serious compositions: the dance music of folk violins, the various types of religious hymns, the sentimental popular melodies of the day and marches from brass bands. In his works, we often find seemingly irreconcilable melodies, rhythms and musical worlds simultaneously present, creating poly-rhythms, poly-metres and polytonality.

 

His musical suite Three Places in New England was written between 1903 and 1914 but only premiered in Boston in 1930. Each of the three movements are prefaced by a brief text, or “programme”. The topic of the first movement, 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common (Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment) is a bronze relief raised to the memory of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment. Ives, alluding to the civil war, quotes various marches and old melodies in such a way that that listeners feels they are hearing them across a vast gulf of time and space. Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut was born from what were originally two separate pieces and is one of the finest examples of Ives's multilayered music. The Housatonic at Stockbridge – inspired by a verse of Robert Underwood Johnson – is one of the composer's most original soundscapes: a kind of chorale prelude in which delicate orchestral sonorities a woven around the contours of a distant anthem.