Around the turn of century, the time when Charles Ives (1874–1954) – an insurance agent from New York who moonlighted as a composer – wrote his Symphony No. 2, the American tradition of art music had only recently been established. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, now one of the most important orchestras in the United States, was founded only 20 years before the symphony was published. Similarly, the Chicago Symphony was founded ten years before, and the Philadelphia Orchestra was founded the year before the publication of the symphony – all of these during Ives’ lifetime.
Interestingly, one of the first important American works to be written in the twentieth century was essentially a retrospective on centuries previous. The work, Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, draws inspiration from western European tradition, but interprets them in a uniquely American way, and in this way can be seen as representative of much of American culture. The piece contains countless references to various popular folk songs, hymns, and marches from Ives’ childhood. It is these types of music that many of Ives’ melodies are heavily based, in a similar style to Dvořák’s New World Symphony, which was published only eight years before, in 1893. Among the songs quoted is America the Beautiful (at the time one of the US’s unofficial national anthems), which provides the basis for the third movement. The patriotic song Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean and Stephen Collins Foster’s Camptown Races and Old Black Joe, are also included, and are given a prominent role in the fifth and final movement. Some other music referred to by Ives include the popular song Long Long Ago, as well as Beethoven’s fifth symphony and Brahms’ first.
By quoting these so many famous tunes, Ives was able to achieve a few things. Firstly, he effectively depicts small town life and culture in the rural north of the United States. In no way does Ives’ symphony represent all of American culture, and Ives was quick to admit this. According to the program notes to the symphony’s debut performance (given in 1951 by the New York Philharmonic under the great conductor Leonard Bernstein) Ives once noted to his friend, “There’s not much to say about the symphony. It expresses the musical feelings of the Connecticut country… the music of the country folk. It is full of the tunes they sang and played.” Despite the humble origins of the music, the Second Symphony is a pioneering piece of music, because it is one of the first times that rural American life had been depicted in serious art, which had previously been more focused on higher class European life. Ives also managed to make the art form of the symphony – a very European musical format associated with the upper class – relevant to the average middle class American. In fact, it could be argued that it is in this piece out of his entire repertoire that Ives best succeeds at doing this, as it is this symphony that is largely seen as the most palatable of his works; written before he made many of his forays into polytonality and other more foreign compositional techniques. The attempt to make art relatable is a theme that crops up repeatedly, not only in American music, but in American art in general.
The original program notes to Bernstein’s premier performance:
A recording of one of the symphony’s first few performances:
Leonard Bernstein discusses Ives’ Second Symphony at a concert with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra:
Wikipedia’s article on the symphony:
A couple of other articles concerning the work: