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A Concord Symphony (orch. Henry Brant)
Program Note: About A Concord Symphony
“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.”
Ives was obsessed with the riddle of the universe, and in his great Concord Sonata he honored four soul-mates, representatives of New England Transcendentalism, devoting a movement each to Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. This sonata’s sonorities and scale seem created for a large ensemble. They inspired maverick American composer Henry Brant to orchestrate the work.
Before you listen, take a minute to focus on the soundscape around you. Notice the way various sounds come and go around you – and perhaps from within you, in your memory. Ives strove to recreate these multi-layered experiences in his music; it produces what critic Alex Ross calls “hyperrealistic reproductions of everyday sonic events.”
Listen to the opening of the first movement, Emerson, and notice the reference to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Ives: A Concord Symphony I. Emerson (Opening) by SF Symphony
Ives described the reason for using Beethoven in this tribute to Emerson:
“There is an “oracle” at the beginning of the Fifth Symphony–in those four notes lies one of Beethoven’s greatest messages. We would place its translation above the relentlessness of fate knocking at the door, above the greater human-message of destiny, and strive to bring it towards the spiritual message of Emerson’s revelations–even to the “common heart” of Concord–the Soul of humanity knocking at the door of the Divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened–and the human become the Divine!”
The second movement is Hawthorne; as Ives put it:
“The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical–so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they–but a greater artist.”
First, listen to an excerpt of this movement from the original version for piano. Pianist Jeremy Denk explains what’s going on:
“Hawthorne” is essentially and fundamentally a joke. It is a fusion of several “supernatural” episodes from Hawthorne’s short stories, including particularly that of the “Celestial Railroad.” In this story, passengers book a cheap ticket to Heaven on a train, where much celebrating and drinking is going on; the passengers laugh at the slow-moving pilgrims outside the window, singing their hymns; but of course, their cheap ticket does not exactly take them to Heaven. This is the “theme” of the movement perhaps, this dialectic, the constant interplay of the profane and sacred.”
Ives: “Concord” Sonata II. Hawthorne (@ 1:19) by SF Symphony
Denk describes “shifting back and forth from ragtime to marching band to hymn to unearthly filigree, the movement never sits still; it is insatiably associative.”
What kinds of associations come up for you in this “insatiably associative” movement? Now listen to Brant’s orchestration and compare:
Ives: A Concord Symphony II. Hawthorne (@ 1:35) by SF Symphony
The third movement is a tribute to The Alcotts
“There is a commonplace beauty about “Orchard House”–a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint picturesqueness–a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something aesthetic fibered in the Puritan severity–the self-sacrificing part of the ideal–a value that seems to stir a deeper feeling, a stronger sense of being nearer some perfect truth than a Gothic cathedral or an Etruscan villa.”
“Beth is playing at the spinet; she plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, of course, but she does not discriminate; she plays hymns, too; later she is playing Scotch airs, and Mendelssohn’s wedding march; this movement very overtly and obviously fuses classical themes with popular ones. This fusion results in a triumphant arrival, towards the end, in C major, of the “transcendental theme of Concord;” the recurring Ur-Theme of the whole piece, though perhaps we hadn’t known it until now. The emergence of this theme is a moment of clarity and understanding. To borrow a phrase from Emerson, it’s a glorious shining forth of the piece’s ‘Over-soul.’”
First listen to this moment from the sonata:
Ives: “Concord” Sonata III. The Alcotts (@ 4:08) by SF Symphony
Now compare it to Brant’s orchestrated version:
Ives: A Concord Symphony III. The Alcotts (@ 5:10) by SF Symphony
In the last movement, Ives turns to Thoreau and creates a series of scenes of a day on Walden pond, beginning with dawn.
“Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear “the Symphony.” The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude.”
Listen to the opening of this movement. How has Ives captured the sights and sounds of dawn?
Ives: A Concord Symphony IV. Thoreau (Opening) by SF Symphony
MTT describes Ives’s music this way: “He thought of his pieces as worlds of sound with independent streams flowing through them expressing the wonder and the riddle of life.”
As you listen to this piece, find those places where the “wonder and riddle of life” are most profoundly expressed for you. Don’t be afraid to create scenes in your imagination. As Ives once said: “Is not all music, program-music,–is not pure music, so called, representative in its essence?”