So much of Charles Ives’s music has its origins in the small-town New England of his youth. His fertile period roughly corresponded with the first two decades of the 20th century, and as America hurtled through that turbulent and transformative era, Ives sought to preserve in his compositions certain memories from his past: bands belting out patriotic tunes as they marched down Main Street, a congregation singing on a Sunday morning, the sounds of a church bell ringing or a fiddler fiddling or a crowd cheering on a village green. This was the world of Danbury, Connecticut, in the late 1870s and ’80s. It was the world of his father (who had led a band during the Civil War and later became the town’s bandmaster) and that of his distinguished grandparents, who had kept company with the transcendentalists. Ives’s style allowed for a generous amount of quotation—of hymns, marches, popular songs, and other kinds of American vernacular music. Thus was he able to evoke, in a singular, visionary way, a world that had seemingly been lost.
Take, for example, Ives’s Holiday Symphony, comprised of four movements composed independently of each other, each depicting a different seasonal American celebration. Parts of the work are iconoclastic, so rhythmically and harmonically complex that you could never say that Ives was trafficking in mere nostalgia. This is music that combines memory and radical innovation, nowhere more so than in the symphony’s third movement, The Fourth of July.
The Independence Day celebrations of Ives’s youth were wild affairs, to say the least, raving drunkenness and altercations being the order of the day. On July 4, 1874, the year of the composer’s birth, several fights broke out in Danbury. One man was stabbed, another suffered injuries in a fireworks mishap, and a fire broke out in town, one of four in the region that day. The typical Fourth would also have included quite a bit of oratory, with speakers intoning the glories of the Founding Fathers and touching on other patriotic topics. Ives’s musical Fourth of July preserves all of the tumult but none of the sober high-mindedness. “It’s a boy’s Fourth—no historical orations—no patriotic grandiloquence by grown-ups—no program in his yard,” Ives wrote, shortly after completing the work in the summer of 1912.
But [the boy] knows what he’s celebrating—better than some of the county politicians—and he celebrates in his own way—with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism.
It starts in the quiet of the midnight before and grows raucous with the sun … cannon on the green, village band on Main St., firecrackers under tin cans, shanks mixed on cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, church bells, lost-finger, fifes, clam chowder, a prize-fight, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs. Beaver Brook Boys), pistols, mobbed umpire, Red White and Blue, runaway horse—and the day ends with the sky-rocket over the church steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town Hall on fire.
In classic Ives fashion, he goes on to suggest in this program note that the piece may not really be about any of these things—that the music may be purely abstract—but what is never in doubt is the ingeniousness of this work: jarring and discordant, jubilant and sly.
It’s a brief piece, lasting no more than six minutes, and it does indeed seem to begin in the dark hours after midnight, with the strings playing a hushed melody vaguely, distantly related to “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.” This patriotic tune lies at the heart of the piece. It was an important melody for Ives, who would quote from it 15 times over the course of his compositional career, perhaps most famously, and in full-throated bombast, in his magnificent Second Symphony. Here, the mood is somnolent, but then the double basses enter, and though they attempt to tease out “Columbia” in a more coherent fashion, it all amounts to fits and starts, a few bold but aborted attempts.
Now the raucousness begins in earnest, as Ives renders the Independence Day parade—a drunken, lurching revel with horses on the loose and church bells clanging and a fife-and-drum corps playing intentionally off-key (recalling those lusty if decidedly amateurish New England bands Ives knew so well from his youth). There are quotations galore, some 15 of them, from such popular tunes as “Battle Cry of Freedom,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Reveille,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “Dixie,” in addition to “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” which the trombones deliver with gusto, though many of the tunes are distorted, distended, or truncated. All of these fragments furiously collide with each other, creating an exhilarating swirl, a feeling of polyrhythmic, harmonic chaos. The underlying philosophy here is a democratic ideal, that everything has its place in a piece of music: high art and low, consonance and dissonance, simplicity and mind-boggling complexity—everything goes. So complicated is the score that a second conductor is needed (in some performances, even a third). And in truth, Ives himself never knew if he’d ever hear this work performed. As he later wrote, “I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this, that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do. … And I wrote this, feeling free to remember local things, etc, and to put [in] as many feelings and rhythms as I wanted to put together. And I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps could never be played.”
After the parade comes a moment of respite, and then Ives gives us the sound of a rocket being launched and the full blazing glory of a fireworks display, the strings sliding up and down their keyboards like mad, the percussion section hammering discordant rhythms, and the pianist banging out clusters of notes using his or her forearms. “I worked out combinations of tones and rhythms very carefully,” Ives wrote, “by kind of prescriptions, in the way a chemical compound which makes explosions would be made.” After a climactic bang, the fire and smoke begin to dissipate, and we hear the strings play two brief measures: phrases like dying sparks, a final quiet flickering.
I listen to this piece every Fourth of July, along with Ives’s Second Symphony and usually one of his sonatas for violin and piano—one of several seasonal musical rituals at my house. But as I listen to The Fourth of July now, I am hearing in it something far more harrowing, menacing even, than I ever have before. Blame the present moment, I suppose. That great cacophonous cloud at the center of the movement seems less like an outpouring of joy than a vision of a nightmare, all those quotations of Americana suddenly sounding like snarling, angry taunts, each fragment crying out to be heard above the others, brash and brutal and bullying. I can’t help imagining this terrifying chaos as an apt metaphor for today’s America, one in which the distorted lines of “Columbia” or the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” suggest not nostalgia but something far more sinister. Perhaps it is a measure of a piece’s greatness that it allows us to read into it all of the fears and anxieties of our own era. At any rate, even the work’s final two measures seem somehow transformed, those phrases played by the strings, hesitant, unresolved, enigmatic, conjuring up a last trail of dying light in the evening sky—they seem to ask an unsettling, unanswerable question: Where do we go from here?
Listen to Michael Tilson Thomas lead the San Francisco Symphony in Charles Ives’s Fourth of July:
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