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Carnegie Hall Premieres: Ives’s Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting”

Since its 1891 opening, Carnegie Hall has been home to thousands of first performances of great works. Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, and R. Strauss’s Symphonia Domestica are just a few of the works that were first shared with the world at the Hall. Imagine being able to take a journey back in time. If you set your time machine to April 5, 1946, you would be able to attend the world premiere of a work by (as Michael Tilson Thomas dubbed him) an American maverick: Charles Ives.

The History of Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting”

Charles Ives’s (1874–1954) unique musical journey began with music lessons from his father. George Ives was a music teacher and bandmaster who performed in and around Danbury, Connecticut. He was fascinated by unconventional musical sounds and was known to have members of his band march in opposite directions while playing different tunes. He taught his son to sing in one key while accompanying him in another. The resulting quirky harmonies and surprising dissonance helped open young Charles’s ears to limitless musical possibilities. The elder Ives also exposed his son to amateur fiddle players, country bands, and singing at camp meetings (outdoor religious gatherings). At age 14, Charles was working as a church organist and immersing himself in hymn tunes. The experiments of his father, popular music styles, and Protestant hymns all resonated with him and formed the threads with which he later wove some of the most daring tapestries of sound in American music.

Ives studied composition at Yale University with composer Horatio Parker, who was firmly rooted in the 19th-century Romantic tradition. After graduating in 1898, Ives moved to New York City. It was there that a Yale connection introduced him to a career in insurance. Ives’s primary occupation for the 30 years that followed was in the insurance business, though he did not give up his musical career. He worked as an organist at New York’s Central Presbyterian Church and composed works in the spirit of Parker. After the lukewarm reception of his cantata The Celestial Country, he resigned his organist post and vowed to compose no more. Thankfully, his wife encouraged him to return to music, and he began spending his evenings and weekends composing.

Composing “The Camp Meeting”

Ives began writing his symphony sometime around 1908 and continued revising it until it was completed in 1911. Subtitled “The Camp Meeting,” the easy-on-the-ear three-movement work is scored for small orchestra and is less than 20 minutes long. Each movement has a subtitle and conjures scenes from a religious camp gathering. The meditative first movement, “Old Folks Gatherin,’” quotes hymn tunes, while the second movement, “Children’s Day,” is an exuberant romp. The contemplative final movement, “Communion,” also turns to snippets of hymns and ends quietly with the sounds of distant church bells.

More than 30 years passed before the symphony was performed. On April 5, 1946, composer Lou Harrison (a great Ives advocate) conducted the New York Little Symphony in a program that also included the world premiere of his own Motet for the Day of Ascension. Harry Hewitt and Carl Ruggles also had music on the program. The performance took place in what was then called the Chamber Music Hall, now Weill Recital Hall.

Charles Ives’s Music Today

Thanks to the advocacy of pianist John Kirkpatrick and composers Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell, Ives’s works are now justly regarded as cornerstones of American music. Leonard Bernstein introduced countless audiences to the music and Michael Tilson Thomas continues to perform and record these thrilling works. At Carnegie Hall, Ives’s music has had more than 500 performances—an impressive statistic for a composer who didn’t win widespread acclaim until the second half of the 20th century. His crunching dissonances and exuberant quotations of traditional music resonate today with composers in all genres.

Experience the 1946 Concert and More Ives Works

Our Carnegie Hall Premieres: Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3 playlist features the beautiful symphony and additional works heard at the 1946 concert. You’ll also hear more of Ives’s iconoclastic music in this playlist.

Fast Facts About Ives and His Symphony No. 3, “The Camp Meeting”

  • Ives’s father, George, was the youngest bandmaster in the Union Army during the American Civil War.
  • Ives and his business partner, Julian Myrick, opened Ives and Co. in 1907, an insurance company that reformed the business. Within years of opening, the company sold more insurance than any other firm in the nation.
  • Ives quotes hymns and some popular tunes throughout his Third Symphony work. In the outer movements, there are snippets of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” and “Just As I Am.” The central movement quotes the hymns “Now from the Altar of My Heart” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and the popular song “There’s Music in the Air.”
  • Before composer Gustav Mahler returned to Vienna in 1911 after his years of conducting the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, he had a copy of Ives’s symphony made at his own expense. It is believed he rehearsed the symphony before his death.
  • In 1945, Ives was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1946, the New York Music Critics’ Circle recognized his Symphony No. 3 with a special award. The following year, Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the work. Ever the curmudgeon, Ives dismissed all musical awards, calling them “badges of mediocrity,” but close friends reported that he displayed the awards in his home.

Ives in 1950 by George Tyler, courtesy of The Charles Ives Papers, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University.

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