Ives' Songs From A To Z
What could be a better way of celebrating the Fourth of July than watching a parade, seeing the fireworks, and listening to songs of the great American composer Charles Ives? Ives (1874-1954) wrote over 200 songs of great variety throughout his composing career. The songs range in style from German lieder to American parlor music to some of the most wildly dissonant and original works Ives composed. Alternatively sentimental, romantic, quirky, patriotic, religious, or philosophical, Ives's songs capture in short compass the welter of his achievement as a composer.
This CD is the first of a new cycle of Ives's songs on the budget-priced Naxos label. The format of the series mirrors the audacity and creativity of the music. The songs are arranged in alphabetical order which presents them in a way which is musically random. Songs from Ives's youth are interspersed with works of his maturity. In addition the songs are performed by a collection of young singers, ranging from bass to soprano with a countertenor included for good measure. There is a similar variety of pianists and other accompanists. Thus, this recording features 13 vocalists accompanied by four different pianists, a string quartet,an organ, and a glockenspiel on 29 Ives songs beginning with the "A"s (actually with the numbers in a half-minute song called "1.2.3" and ending in the "C"s with an Ives Lullaby, the "Cradle Song" of 1919. It is a raucous, thoroughly enjoyable mixture.
Ives set texts from a variety of authors, including on this CD, himself, his wife Harmony, James Fenimore Cooper, Tennyson, Longfellow, Walter Savage Landor, Robert Lowry, members of his family, and others. The songs on this CD range from traditional hymn-like works such as "Abide with Me" (1897) and the famous setting of "At the River" (1915) to sentimental ballads including "Because of You,"(1898), to Christmas carols of 1894 and 1925,(the latter carol includes the part for the glockenspiel) to works of complex rhythm, thought and tonality and difficulty for pianist and singer, such as the setting for voice, piano and string quartet of Walter Savage Landor's poem "Aeschylus and Sophocles" (1922).
When he wished to do so, Ives could write a beautiful melodic vocal line. The songs "Allegro" (1899) and "Berceuse" on this CD are excellent examples of songs that combine lyricism with a compositional style that is distinctly Ives's own. Other songs that I enjoyed a great deal include Ives's short 1921 portrait of "Ann Street" in New York, his meditative song "The Sea" of 1921, the reflective "Autumn" of 1907 which sets a text of his wife's, the tale of the cowboy Charlie Rutlage (1920), and Ives's setting of three stanzas of Longellow's poem "The Children's Hour" (1912) The Fourth of July parade I saw today came to life in Ives's early song, "The Circus Band" (1894) with its flamboyant piano writing and joyous marchlike melody and text(written by Ives himself.)
The CD was recorded at Yale University and all of the many performers seem to have some affiliation with the Yale School of Music. The CD includes good program notes but no song texts. The texts are available online. This is a rambunctious, free-spirited, and collage-like introduction to Ives's songs. I think the composer would have loved it. I am looking forward to the next volume in the series.