Monday, December 16, 2013

Charles Ives: Essays Before a Sonata

Though his prose is often as challenging as his music, the writings of Charles Ives (particularly his Essays Before a Sonata and Memos) are of particular importance to the study of American Poetics, as they scrape at some difficult principals.

A central paradox of Ives's art is that, for all of the inventive technical breakthroughs of his music (so many that they have provided musicologists with enough tenure grist to feed several careers), his goals were never primarily technical. Innovation for innovation's sake, tempting though it might have been to countless composers who followed, couldn't have produced his art, nor would it have provided a significant enough goal to pull his substantial musical intellect through the uncharted waters he sailed.

In many ways, Ives is one of those extremely rare musicians whose intellectual orientation was more literary than musical. Richard Wagner is often discussed in a literary and philosophic light, placing him in a line of intellectuals running from Hegel and Kant through Schopenhauer to Nietzsche. This view of Wagner is so compelling that it can make his musical surroundings of Beethoven, von Weber, Liszt, Bruckner, and Mahler seem decidedly secondary--a mere happenstance of medium when considering his impact upon history. Ives's impact upon American and world history cannot be considered as immediate or as far reaching as Wagner's, but in his own way he occupies a similar position within American Poetics. It's Ives, arguably more than any purely literary followers, who expanded the vision of the New England Transcendentalists and their implications, relating these to different aspects of American culture and thought.


His Essays Before a Sonata represent a serious engagement with Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne especially, in an era that was already backlashing against 19th century thought. His arguments against using European categories such as "classic" or "romantic", combined with a constant reaching into the technical unknown to scrape at expression beyond his chosen medium, has earned him a troubled spot in music history. Those made uncomfortable by his beliefs (musical, political, philosophical, or religious) have been quick to brand him as a "primitivist" or some sort of rustic, homespun genius, often overlooking his basic technical brilliance to do so. But Ives is not so easily dismissed as that. His philosophies of art, especially, show the resiliency of the poetic outlook strongly stated by Longfellow and Lowell: that pragmatic materialism, whether expressed politically or economically, were inadequate not only for art, but for humanity. That a prototypical "modernist" could so forcefully express what are often considered "romantic" spiritual values is an instructive paradox--reaching beyond the false political dichotomies that dominate so much public discourse. An engagement with Ives intellectually--looking beyond the difficulties of how he has been caricatured and taking the substance of his thought seriously--reaps major rewards for both the American artist and anyone who would seek to develop their understanding.

As with my earlier survey of Lowell (who he is not shy about criticizing), I think it's best to simply quote from Ives, and whet the appetite for those interested. (All of the following quotes are taken from the Norton edition, edited by Harold Boatwright, reprinted in 1999). Its important to know that Ives, for all his talk of resisting false goals of economic success and fame, lived them seriously as an artist. Like Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Ives's brilliant and massive Concord Sonata along with the accompanying essays, were initially self-published and long ignored by the intelligentsia.


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The main path of all social progress has been spiritual rather than intellectual in character, but the many by-paths of individual materialism, though never obliterating the highway, have dimmed its outlines and caused travelers to confuse the colors along the road. A more natural way of freeing the congestion in the benefits of material progress will make it less difficult of the majority to recognize the true relation between the important spiritual and religious values and the less important intellectual and economic values.     ["Emerson" pg.34]


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[Leaders], for the most part, have been under-average men, with think skins, and hands quick with under-values--otherwise they would not have become leaders.    ["Emerson" 34-35]


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Like all courageous souls, the higher Emerson soars, the more lowly he becomes. ["Emerson" 32]


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Some accuse Brahms's orchestration of being muddy. This may be a good name for a first impression of it. But if it should seem less so, he might not be saying what he thought. The mud may be a form of sincerity which demands that the heart be translated rather than handed through the pit. A clearer scoring might have lowered the thought. ["Emerson" 22]


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There are many who like to say that [Emerson]--even all Concord men--are intellectuals. Emerson's outward-inward qualities make him hard to classify--but easy for some. Perhaps--but intellectuals who wear their brains nearer the heart than some of their critics. It is as dangerous to determine a characteristic by manner as by mood.   ["Emerson" 23 ]

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The same well-bound school teacher who told the boys that Thoreau was a naturalist because he didn't like to work puts down Emerson as a "classic," and Hawthorne as a "romantic." A loud voice made this doubly true, and sure to be on the examination paper. But this teacher of "truth and dogma" apparently forgot that there is no such thing as "classicism or romanticism." One has but to go to the definitions of these to know that.  ["Emerson" 24]

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If Emerson's manner is not always beautiful in accordance with accepted standards, why not accept a few other standards?  ["Emerson" 24]

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[Emerson's courage was] not a self courage, but a sympathetic one--courageous even to tenderness. It is the open courage of a kind heart, of not forcing opinions--a thing much needed when the cowardly, underhanded courage of the fanatic would force opinion. It is the courage of believing in freedom, per se, rather than of trying to force everyone to see that you believe in it--the courage of the willingness to be reformed, rather than of reforming--the courage teaching that sacrifice is bravery, and force, fear--the courage of righteous indignation, of stammering eloquence, of spiritual insight, a courage ever contracting or unfolding a philosophy as it grows--a courage that would make the impossible possible. ["Emerson" 32]

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Any comprehension of Hawthorne, either in words or music, must have for its basic theme something that has to do with the influence of sin upon the conscience--something more than the Puritan conscience, but something which is permeated by it. ["Hawthorne" 41]

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[Thoreau] sang of the submission the Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity--a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature, which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism, which teaches slavery. ["Thoreau" 51]

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There comes to memory an old yellow-papered composition of school-boy days whose peroration closed with "Poor Thoreau; he communed with nature for forty odd years, and then died." "The forty odd years"--we'll grant that part, but he is over a hundred now, and maybe, Mr. Lowell, he is more lovable, kindlier, and more radiant with human sympathy to-day, than, perchance, you were fifty years ago. it may be that he is a far stronger, a far greater, an incalculably greater force in the moral and spiritual fibre of his fellow-countrymen throughout the world today than you dreamed of fifty years ago. You, James Russell Lowells! You, Robert Louis Stevensons! You, Mark Van Dorens! with your literary perception, your power of illumination, your brilliancy of expression--yea, and with your love of sincerity, you know your Thoreau--but not my Thoreau--that reassuring and true friend, who stood by me one "low" day, when the sun had gone down, long, long, before sunset. ["Thoreau" 67 ]

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Music may yet be unborn. Perhaps no music has ever been written or heard. Perhaps the birth of art will take place at the moment in which the last man who is willing to make a living out of art is gone and gone forever. In the history of this youthful world, the best product that human beings can probably boast is Beethoven, but, maybe, even his art is as nothing comparison with the future product of some coal-miner's soul in the forty-first century. ["Epilogue" 89]

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It may be that many men...have been started on the downward path of subsidy by trying to write a thousand dollar prize poem or a ten thousand dollar prize opera. How many masterpieces have been prevented from blossoming in this way? A cocktail will make a man eat more but will not give him a healthy, normal appetite (if he had not that already). If a bishop should offer a "prize living" to the curate who will love God the hardest of fifteen days, whoever gets the prize would love God the least. Such stimulants, it strikes us, tend to industrialize art rather than develop a spiritual sturdiness... ["Epilogue" 93]

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Everyone should have the opportunity of not being over-influenced.

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Every language is but the evolution of slang... ["Epilogue" 94]


        

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