Ives: Piano Sonata No 2 (‘Concord, Mass., 1840-60’), 3rd movement, ‘The Alcotts’  [6’22”]

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano

26 Orchard House, Concord, Mass.

Orchard House, Concord — the spruced-up Alcott home today

I suppose you could call the towering American Original Charles Ives (1874–1954) a folk-inspired composer too, even a folk-nationalist, though since his national culture was a young immigrant one, hymns and European classics had to stand for the immemorial traditions of a Grieg or Janáček.  The diversity of his sources fits right in with his general attitude to musical material, which was that anything is permissible providing it works – an inclusive rather than exclusive concept, and an identifiable step towards the total non-selectivity of the mature John Cage (to whom absolutely everything  was in principle permissible) decades down the line.  The permission in Ives’s case came from his father George, a musically adventurous if humble enough small-town bandmaster and organist.  “It’s all right to do that, Charlie,” he responded to his precocious child’s wilder excursions on the family piano – “if you know what you’re doing.”  Ives senior was himself given to arranging for marching bands to set off from different points of the town playing different tunes in different keys, just to hear what would happen when they collided in the middle.  The kind of thing that did happen may be heard in many of Ives junior’s works, which are striking above all for this incorporation, often in bold juxtaposition, of borrowed music, notably hymns and popular tunes – a startling innovation that would influence later composers up to our own day

Given such radicalism in his upbringing it’s not hard to understand why Ives felt a kinship with the fellow-New Englanders to whom he pays homage in the four movements of his nigh-on 50-minute Concord Sonata.  All were residents of the town (then village) of Concord, Massachusetts half a century and more before he composed it.  The first movement is concerned with Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet and prophet, leading light of Transcendentalism, and gravitational centre of this whole intellectual circle; the second with Nathaniel Hawthorne, still-remembered author of The scarlet letter among other novels; the last with Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, penetrating freethinker  and perennial thorn in the side of conventional American society.  The third movement, with which we are concerned, Ives called “a sketch of the Alcotts”, father and daughter.  Amos Bronson Alcott was born at the very end of the eighteenth century yet was a vegan and a feminist as well as (like Thoreau) a committed abolitionist.  His daughter Louisa May Alcott was the famous author of Little women and other books “responsible,” as Ives put it, “for starting off many little minds with wholesome thoughts and many little hearts with wholesome emotions”.  It must be admitted that it’s not entirely clear how the music of the sonata relates to its various human subjects, and I’m not sure Ives’s lengthy Essay before a sonata, devoted to explaining that very thing (and nowadays freely available thanks to the splendid Project Gutenberg – something he and they would have heartily approved), is all that much help.

The Alcotts is comfortably the easiest movement to come to grips with, and to do so thoroughly is to acquire a handy key to the others, especially the complex, craggy textures of the first two.  What there is a dissonant, often bitter struggle here appears in a domestic setting, straight and easily digestible.  Though the sonata uses quotation, it is relatively ‘pure’ from that point of view and Ives standbys such as Turkey in the straw, Yankee doodle and the rest are thin on the ground.  The most important borrowing by far, permeating the whole work, is a portmanteau affair exploiting a certain similarity between the hymn tune Missionary chant, extremely well known in America, and the famous ‘fate knocking at the door’ opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  We hear this composite ‘epic motif’, as it has been called, at the very start of The Alcotts, though it’s not until after 1’24” that Beethoven unmistakably comes knocking.  At 3’01” we reach the movement’s central section with its beautiful melody, full of simple tenderness and indeed “wholesome emotions”.  Following a continuation this gets repeated at 3’52”, with absolutely radiant playing by the brilliant Pierre-Laurent Aimard at this point in our version).  A mild struggle ensues (4’30”) and leads to a grand restatement (5’15”) of the movement’s opening, rising at 5’33” to a fervent peroration – surely expressing what Ives in discussing this movement referred to as the “strength of hope that never gives way to despair”.  To my mind, simple as this passage is, it is the crowning glory of the whole sonata, though the final pages may be more profound.

For the benefit of interested readers, it may be worth just placing a magnifier over the central section of the movement to show how in this work quotation, though less conspicuous than elsewhere, remains the lifeblood of Ives’s mosaic-like language.  The melody beginning it at 3’01” is, as far as I understand, 100% Charles Ives.  According to the citation sleuths, however, it is succeeded by three appropriations one after another.  At 3’13”, though my ear can’t pick it out in any version, the “but me and my true love” bit of Loch Lomond.  Then at 3’21” the bridal march from Wagner’s Lohengrin (“here comes the bride”) – I suppose so, if you insist.  Finally, at 3’25”, and this must be significant in view of the Beethoven, apparently an old song (like most of the quotes in the Concord, dating from the period specified in the sonata’s subtitle), Stop that knocking at my door, just about recognizable from Uncle Dave Macon‘s characteristically down-home take.

As well as a goodly choice of versions of this work, which is especially welcoming to different interpretations (Ives could never play the same thing twice), Spotify hosts a fascinating CD of all Ives’s own piano recordings.  The final track is his rendering of this Alcotts movement entire, as he felt it in New York City on Saturday 24 April 1943 – a day, as it happens, the city nearly went up in smoke.  Amazing the things you learn on this site, don’t you find?

There follows next a sequence of five little piano jewels (none much longer than a minute and a half), which I intend to treat with corresponding brevity.

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