Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A New England Summer: Charles Ives' Piano Trio

Before there was LOL, IMHO, and TTYL, there was TSIAJ.

And for those of you who thought you were familiar with internet acronyms, that one dates back to at least 1904, possibly earlier, and is the creation of a recent college grad named Charles Edward Ives. He applied it to what became the middle movement of his Piano Trio and it means “This Scherzo Is A Joke.”

Star Athlete, Charlie Ives (l.)
(BTW, for anyone not in on the joke, scherzo is the Italian word for what is usually a light-hearted movement in symphonies and sonatas that composers of all nationalities have used since around 1800 and which means, quite literally, “joke”.)

But we'll get to that in a minute.

FWIW, this is the second post about Market Square Concerts' Summermusic series which gets underway on Friday at 8:00 at the air-conditioned Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. It's a program of piano trios by American composers performed by the West Garden Trio, in residence at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but on the road this week (because who wouldn't want to get out of Washington once in a while, after all?).

These include the trio Leonard Bernstein composed when he was a 19-year-old student at Harvard and a trio inspired by the 24/7 lifestyle of NYC that Kenji Bunch wrote in 2002 and called Swing Shift, dedicated to “anyone whose business stays open all night.”

(ICYMI, you can read the first post – about the Bernstein and Kenji Bunch trios – here and the third post about Paul Schoenfield's Café Music, here. You can also read about the second program with its Latin American guitar duos here; and eventually the third and final concert with two Russian piano quintets, as well.)

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Charles Ives, Yale Senior
This post is about Charles Ives' Piano Trio and while he started work on it in 1904, it's quite possible it began as a set of short works – at least the famous (or infamous) second movement – written when he was still at Yale where he graduated Class of 1898. (And yes, he was a BMOC but not as a musician or composer, nor as a scholar, but as the pitcher for the Yale baseball team - the photo above was actually taken the year his grammar school team beat the Yale freshman team but then that fall, Charlie Ives was a Yale freshman!).

We don't know how much of the trio he actually composed by 1904 since he often sketched some ideas, put them aside, came back to them later, fiddled around with them some more. It's not uncommon for Ives to take old pieces of his and incorporate them into something new: the 1st String Quartet is in fact made up from three previously existing hymn settings for organ and strings. So who knows what the trio might have looked like when he “finished” it in 1910 or so is anybody's guess, and how much he revised it by 1915 or so is another “unanswerable question.”

Still (typical with Ives), it wasn't given its first public performance until 1948 at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio (though Ives vaguely remembers a private performance of the TSIAJ movement, having since misplaced the program note he had written for the occasion). Given that history, the work wasn't published until 1955. The composer had died the year before, never having heard the piece performed in public.

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There's probably no more American a composer than Charles Ives, born in Danbury CT in 1874, and who studied at Yale with one of the stalwarts of the New England School of Composers, Horatio Parker. Some have considered him a “primitive” – untrained – because of the... well, frankly inexplicable things he was coming up with: who could have written anything like that, his colleagues must have wondered if they heard any of these pieces. It's true Ives was experimenting with things in 1905 that Arnold Schoenberg didn't “invent” until 1921 or so, but in addition to being a stubborn Yankee, Ives was also something of a visionary who had little patience for “the little old ladies of both sexes” who didn't have the ability (or willingness) to understand his music.

(This helps explain why so little of his music was performed or published in his day, but I'll get to that a little later.)

But he was far from “untrained” or an amateur, even though his own teacher may have chalked Charlie Ives off as one of those students you just never get through to. A star baseball player as a grammar school and college student, nobody took his interest in music too seriously – except his father, a Civil War bandmaster who taught him how to “stretch his ears” by teaching him how to sing in one key and play the accompaniment in another; how to conduct one meter in one hand and a different meter in the other; how one could notate the sound of hearing two brass bands marching down the street in different directions, playing different tunes in different keys, meters, and tempos. But unfortunately, shortly after Charlie'd gotten himself settled at Yale, word arrived his father had died.

What Charles Ives was was determined. Yes, he composed some pieces for his composition lessons that would appease the old-fashioned sense of what he was expected to learn – he'd written on one of his assignments, “Organ Fugue for Prof. H.W. Parker, a stupid fugue on a stupid subject” – and then there were things like his setting of Psalm 67 (originally dating from 1894, even before he went to Yale, but finalized in 1898, his senior year) in which the women sing in C Major and the men in G Minor, often creating amazing dissonances that few people would not have thought more than just “wrong notes” (though Jan Swafford, in his highly recommendable biography of Ives, describes the psalm's effect as “a cosmic barbershop choir”). His father had tried it out and thought highly of it; his teacher, not so much...

I'll offer one frequently mentioned quote from the mature Ives (writing in 1920) which may set the stage (if not the unacquainted ears) for the experience of hearing his Piano Trio, especially if it's your first time:

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“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.”
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And so we come to the Piano Trio Charles Ives may have begun as a college student in 1896 but certainly worked on and revised until he was 40 years old.

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Ives' original sketch for the Piano Trio's 1st movement
The opening movement's initial sketch consists of a single page (above: a photostat copy of the original manuscript, posted on-line courtesy of the Charles Ives Collection of Yale University's Music Library).

When you listen to the music, you'll hear it begins with the cello and the piano playing only with the right hand which sounds like a “first theme.” This is then followed (at 2:14 in the clip below) by a passage that could be a “second theme” with the violin and the piano playing only with the left hand. It isn't until they start playing together – violin, cello, and both hands of the piano (at 4:00) – that we realize we are now hearing the cello and right hand phrase being played simultaneously with the violin and left hand phrase! And they do not sound in the least bit arbitrary (at least to someone familiar enough with Charles Ives' music). (Talk about “learn your counterpoint, boy!”)

Ives: Piano Trio – 1st Movement (Moderato) with the Stockholm Arts Trio (1987)

This brief and rather stentorian introduction sets up the second movement in much the way a philosophical discussion might be answered by the students' less than serious responses. In traditional musical terms, it might be called a quodlibet; today, we'd refer to it as a “mash-up.”

As Ives' wife, Harmony – yes, her name was Harmony Twitchell – wrote in 1948 in response to a request for program notes for the trio's belated premiere,

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“...the Trio was, in a general way, a kind of reflection or impression of his college days on the Campus now 50 years ago. The 1st Movement recalled a rather short but serious talk, to those on the Yale fence, by an old professor of Philosophy – the 2nd, the games and antics by the Students on the Campus, on a Holiday afternoon, and some of the tunes and songs of those days were partly suggested in this movement, sometimes in a rough way.”
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In the manuscript, he had subtitled TSIAJ as “Medley on the Campus Fence.” In fact, Ives described the entire Trio on its title page as

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"Trio Yalensia & Americana - for Violin Cello Piano - Fancy Names" 
"Real Names = Yankee jaws - at Mr. (or Eli) Yale's School for nice bad boys!!"
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It is fun, of course, to play “name that tune” with so much of Ives' music since he frequently quotes or suggests “pre-existing” material – in this case, popular songs of the day – the way other composers would quote folk songs. One could mention “Marching Through Georgia,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” the “Pig Town Fling,” “Sweet By and By,” and “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay.” As most student parties go, it is a rowdy event and, musically – certainly to the genteel listeners of Ives' day – sheer, maddening chaos! Not to mention, then, that nose-thumbing cadence at the end with its chuckle of a dominant-to-tonic chord (after all that!)...

Here is a live (and lively) performance by a no doubt ad hoc ensemble called the TSIAJ Trio with violinist Stefan Jackiw, cellist Jay Campbell (now a member of the JACK Quartet with its own acronymic title) and pianist Conrad Tao:

Ives: Piano Trio – 2nd Movement (TSIAJ) – Presto

In later years, the composer recalled (in a collection of Memos quoted by Jan Swafford) how these “serendipitous quodlibets” came about:

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“While in college, some things were written and played by the Hyperion Theater Orchestra... Some had old tunes, college songs, hymns etc – sometimes putting these themes or songs together in two or three differently keyed counterpoints (not exactly planned so but just played so) – and sometimes two or three different kinds of time [meter, like ¾ or 4/4] and off-tunes, played sometimes impromptu [presumably throwing in your own spontaneous mistakes]. ...The pianist (who was I, sometimes) played his part regardless of the off-keys and the off-counterpoints, but giving the cue for the impromptu counterpoint parts etc. … Some similar things were tried in the [fraternity] shows but not very successfully as I remember … – though Prof. Fichtl, in the theater orchestra, would get students in the audience whistling and beating time (sometimes) to the off-key and off-time tunes.”
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It is also interesting that, while the manuscript bears the inscription TSIAJ, his wife mentioned in her note for the premiere in 1948, “he isn't quite sure about the TSIAJ over the 2nd movement – he thinks it hardly anything but a poor joke...”

Subsequently, the longer third movement comes like an atonement, “partly a remembrance of a Sunday service on the campus – Dwight Hall – which ended near the 'Rock of Ages.'” There are moments of sheer Romanticism that would remind one of Schumann (and at one point, I can almost hear Tchaikovsky - for instance, at 6:44 into the clip below) that, then, suddenly veers off into harmony neither Schumann nor Tchaikovsky could ever even have imagined, but all with a kind of beatific fervency about it – until we get to “Rock of Ages” (at 10:28)  which (too soon) concludes the trio in a mood of utter transcendence, complete with the distant tolling of bells and echoing overtones.

Ives: Piano Trio – 3rd Movement (Moderato con moto) with the Stockholm Arts Trio (1987)

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It is interesting to recall one unexpected glimmer of support in the career of a composer who gained little if any public recognition for his music.

As a student of Horatio Parker's, Ives was expected to take German poems that had been set to music by the likes of Schumann and Brahms – and so we have Charles Ives writing highly Romantic settings of “Ich grolle nicht” and “Feldeinsamkeit.”

George Whitefield Chadwick, one of the leading composers in America, teaching in Boston, and a former mentor of Parker's, had come to New Haven for a visit and Parker invited him to sit in on a composition class. After hearing these two songs Ives had composed for this assignment, Parker said he preferred “Ich grolle nicht” since it was closer to the Schumann model; he didn't care much for “Feldeinsamkeit” which he thought “modulated too much.” (Swafford calls “Ich grolle nicht” by comparison “a stodgy song.”)

Chadwick, however, said he preferred “Feldeinsamkeit”: “The melodic line has a natural continuity – it flows – and stops when [rounded out] as only good songs do... In its way, it's almost as good as Brahms.” Then, winking at Parker, he added “That's as good a song as you could write.”

Granted, these are overly Romantic pastiches, but one could imagine how a college senior, soon to be thrust into the wider world, must have responded to that bit of an endorsement! True, both Parker and Chadwick would have fainted dead away had they heard any of those “theater orchestra medleys” like the one that turned into the Piano Trio's TSIAJ movement. As it was, Parker had an already low opinion of Ives' penchant for quoting hymn tunes since he already considered the hymns of Lowell Mason “vulgarity tempered by incompetency” and railed how they “had no place in music” – “Imagine,” he once lectured, “in a symphony hearing suggestions of street tunes like 'Marching Through Georgia' or a Moody and Sankey hymn!”

Instead of going to Germany to finish his studies as Parker suggested, Ives got a job as a church organist in New Jersey within commuting distance of Manhattan where he and several of his Yale friends rented an apartment, and he found work as a clerk in a Mutual Life Insurance office. Later, he and a friend would form their own insurance company and become successful businessmen as a result.

The details of Ives' musical career – or, rather, the lack of it – is a sad but complicated story, surprising only from the respect his music has earned him posthumously, something that would no doubt flabbergast him, if he knew. So many respected musicians refused to consider what he wrote music – one, the former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic who claimed he was a friend of Richard Strauss (and therefore well attuned to “contemporary music”), ran out of the house practically screaming after looking at two of Ives' violin sonatas.

What could've been a big break almost came in 1911 – Ives was then in his mid-30s – when Gustav Mahler, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, accidentally noticed a manuscript copy of Ives' rather tame 3rd Symphony and took it with him back to Europe, intending to perform it. Unfortunately, Mahler died soon after he returned, before that ever came about: imagine what might have happened if Ives had found a champion in a conductor like Mahler?

Charles Ives, 1942
(This photograph, perhaps the most famous image of Charles Ives, then 68, was taken in 1942 by Eugene Smith. Initially, Ives was "terrified" of Smith's camera. Grandson Charles Ives Tyler said "that's the way he looked when he was getting ready to play a joke on someone.")

Considering the melee of popular tunes in Ives' scherzo, I thought it might be interesting to offer this performance of the complete trio, since the work to conclude this concert of American piano trios is Paul Schoenfield's “Café Music,” which I'll save for the next post. Schoenfield's title basically explains all you need to know to enjoy his lively piece, written in 1987, and inspired by his turn as a substitute “house pianist” playing at Murray's Steak House in Minneapolis.

Here, then, is Ives' Trio, recorded live in 1989 with the Gabrielli Trio, consisting of violinist Andrew Jennings, cellist Michael Haber, and... pianist Paul Schoenfield!


- Dick Strawser

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