Program Notes By Ed Rutschman
Variations on America
(organ solo 1891; orchestrated 1963)
Charles Ives (b. Danbury, CT, 1874; d. New York, 1954)
Orchestrated by William Schuman
(b. New York, 1910; d. New York, 1992)
Charles Ives held professional positions as a church organist in New York and elsewhere for more than a decade, but he eventually turned his back on the musical establishment, feeling a lack of support. In his improvisations and compositions Ives often cultivated a late-nineteenth century musical style, onto which he grafted audacious musical surprises, such as seemingly incongruous quotations from hymn tunes or patriotic songs. At first his forward-looking, sometimes even radical compositions made an impression only on his immediate circle, but his music has had a profound influence on later generations of composers. Ives essentially gave up composing in the 1920s; he finally received major recognition in 1947, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony #3–a work that premiered in 1946, although Ives had completed it more than forty years earlier, in 1904. In 1963 William Schuman, a major American symphonist, important arts administrator, and recipient of the very first Pulitzer Prize for Music (1943), called additional attention to Ives’ work by orchestrating Variations on America.
In the Variations on America, Ives shows his sly sense of humor, as he clothes “My Country, ’tis of Thee” in various costumes. There are musical evocations of marching in a parade, dancing the polonaise, attending the circus and singing popular “barbershop” harmonies. There are also sections where two keys appear at once—audacious behavior for 1891, the year in which Ives introduced his organ piece–naturally, at a July 4 celebration.
Appalachian Spring (1944)
(b. Brooklyn, 1900; d. Westchester, 1990)
In several of his best-known works Aaron Copland cultivated an image of rural America; the ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo and the opera The Tender Land depict stories of the American midlands and West. Similarly, the title of the ballet Appalachian Spring, a cornerstone on which Copland’s reputation rests securely, calls up a geographical location. It may come as something of a surprise, then, to learn that America’s most famous composer of the wide-open spaces was born in Brooklyn of parents who had emigrated from Russia. Educated in New York and at the famous studio of Nadia Boulanger in Paris, Copland absorbed diverse cosmopolitan musical influences. He became greatly enthused about the work of Mussorgsky, a composer who cultivated a deliberately “Russian” musical style in a world largely influenced by European composers far to the west. Copland set about to cultivate a similarly deliberate “American” style, succeeding brilliantly in such works as Appalachian Spring.
The scenario depicts a young couple as they marry and settle into the life of their community. Since the composition begins and ends in the same quiet, ethereal mood, there is an implication that we are witnessing a single, complete statement of an ongoing life cycle. During the cycle we eavesdrop on quiet moments, vigorous community dancing and noble deeds. In the best-known part of the ballet, a simple statement of faith glows in the form of variations on a traditional Shaker tune known as “Simple Gifts.” The Shakers, or Shaking Quakers, originated in England in the 18th century but are now found mainly in the U.S. They practice celibacy, accept new members by conversion, hold common ownership of property and engage in a strict, simple way of life that includes dancing as a form of religious expression.
When Copland presents the Shaker tune in Appalachian Spring, he invites us to view the rarified world of “Simple Gifts” through a cosmopolitan lens. In a sense the entire ballet is a similarly stylized, artful view of an American rural world as seen by a supremely cosmopolitan composer. Copland originally called the work A Ballet for Martha (Graham), who danced the first performance in 1944. Ms. Graham gave the work its present title, recalling a phrase from Hart Crane’s poem The Bridge. Copland soon fashioned the music into a suite and expanded the orchestration of the thirteen-instrument original into a version for full orchestra. In this form Appalachian Spring has become one of the composer’s most popular works. In 1945 Copland received the Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring.
Symphony #5 in C Minor, Op. 67 (1807-08)
Ludwig van Beethoven
(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
The reception history of Beethoven’s Symphony #5 in C Minor has seen successive generations reinvent the work for themselves. Beethoven reportedly answered a query about the meaning of his symphony with the words “thus fate knocks at the door.” During World War II the symphony’s famous rhythmic motif (short-short-short-long) became “V for victory” in Morse code. And the 1950s brought Chuck Berry and “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Modern day audiences still respond to different elements in the music. There is the logic of the first movement, where the first four notes generate everything else to follow. There is the reassuring tune used for variations in the second movement. There is the disturbing music of the Scherzo and its relationship to the final movement. E.M. Forster gave a magnificent description of some of these elements in his novel Howards End: “It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it.” Forster then describes a few of these sorts and their conditions of satisfaction by giving a catalog of the audience at a performance of the work. Helen, the Romantic in search of a programmatic story, “sees heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood,” while her sister Margaret, representing the Classicist steeped in universals, can “only see the music.” Cousin Tibby makes a point of displaying his technical understanding of the art of counterpoint by consulting Beethoven’s orchestral score, prominently resting open on Tibby’s knee. Mrs. Munt waits patiently for her favorite part of the music, so she can “tap surreptitiously when the tunes come.”
Helen says, “Now comes the wonderful [third] movement: first of all the goblins, and then a trio of elephants dancing; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back.” Forster continues [abridged]: “The music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendor or heroism in the world. As if things were going too far, Beethoven took hold of the goblins and made them do what he wanted. He blew with his mouth and they were scattered! He brought back the gusts of splendor, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and of death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to its conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things. Helen pushed her way out during the applause. She desired to be alone.”
The influence of Beethoven’s Symphony #5 on later composers was enormous. Its inner logic appealed to composers such as Brahms, while its possible programmatic aspects (“fate knocks”) captured the imagination of figures such as Liszt and Wagner. Brahms, Liszt, Wagner, Forster, Berry–Thus fate knocks at the door.
Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.