21M011 (spring, 2006)
Ellen T. Harris
A truly distinctive American voice in classical music only began to arise at the end of the
nineteenth century in conjunction with the movement toward nationalism. Charles Ives
(b. 1874) is as avant-garde, if not more so, as any composer we have studied.
experimental and anti-traditional tendencies were furthered in the work of Varèse (b.
1883) and Cage (b. 1912). At the same time, his attachment to the incorporation of
American folk tunes, dances and hymns found resonance in the music of Copland (b.
1900). American jazz began to develop around the same time as nationalism (beginning
with ragtime [Scott Joplin (b. 1868)] and continuing with contributions from some of the
greats represented in Kerman: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles
Davis). Jazz had a huge impact on classical music in Europe and America.
1898) and Bernstein (b. 1918) were both strongly influenced by jazz.
Bernstein also wrote
music that carried political and social critiques (
West Side Story
is an example).
(b. 1929) expands the sound structures of music to create sound images, some of which
) are highly politicized. Reich (b. 1936) deliberately reduces his
musical materials, using simple melodic material and repeated rhythmic motives
(minimalism), creating a kind of hypnotic sensation. (Minimalistic operas by Philip Glass
and John Adams have continued to explore political themes.)
The Rockstrewn Hills
This movement from Ives’s
falls into a kind-of rondo form, where
fragments of recognizable tunes (dance, cakewalk, march) are rejected until the hymn tune
The fragmentation is reminiscent of the Funeral March from Mahler’s
Symphony No. 1, 3
Mahler provides a narrative: first one hears the funeral
march (“Frère Jacques” in minor); this fades into a section with fragments of dance
phrases (from the Jewish klezmer tradition), which seem to be memories of happy
moments with the deceased; the funeral march cuts back in briefly, leading to a real song
of mourning; finally the funeral march resumes.
(Mahler and Ives were not far apart in
age; they were born respectively in 1860 and 1874.)
Ives’s fragmentation is less nostalgic
than Mahler’s and more dismissive, moving through various types of popular music until
accepting the hymn tune.
In its rejection of motives, the Ives movement is more like the
last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where the cellos and basses (in effect)
call for music, but angrily reject fragmented reprises of the first three movements in turn.
Finally, they accept the “Ode to Joy” (hymn/chorale), which then becomes the basis of an
extensive set of variations.