Carl Ruggles was uncompromising, as disdainful of the “mainstream” as it was of him. He scraped together a living from playing the violin, engraving, teaching, conducting, and private patronage. He left a catalogue so small as to make Webern seem prodigal, a catalogue of pieces endlessly fussed over and brought as near to perfection as he knew how. He conducted some and was an able painter. Henry Cowell summed him up: “irascible, lovable, honest, sturdy, original, slow-thinking, deeply emotional, self-assured, and intelligent.” His music, rarely performed until the last years of his life, was admired by colleagues like Ives and Varèse. More often it met with incomprehension and hostility. Michael Tilson Thomas is the composer’s greatest champion, and he is chief among the artists in the recording, just re-released on the Other Minds label, of all of Ruggles’s published works.
Ruggles began Sun-treader in 1926 for a concert to be presented in New York that fall. It was 1931 by the time he completed the score. The title comes from Robert Browning’s “Pauline”: “Sun-treader, Light and Life be thine forever”—the words are a paean to Shelley. Ruggles had no interest in Shelley. What got to him was the giant-steps imagery that Browning’s grand word evokes, and we hear his response to that in the vivid opening gesture of striding brass over pounding kettledrums. Sun-treader is a work of potent and dramatic contrasts, sections of uncompromising steadiness setting off long-range accelerations, roaring rhetoric being spelled by pages of serene lyricism.
The colleagues with whom Morton Feldman was most aesthetically aligned were the painters of the New York School, a group of artists of the 1950s and ’60s whose work ranged from potent Abstract Expressionism to gentler Color Field painting. Feldman’s closest colleague among these artists was Philip Guston, but he counted others as friends, too: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, and Mark Rothko. The impression of momentary gestures inhabiting a flat plane became a Feldman hallmark. One might imagine him defining his temporal workspace much as a painter would stretch a canvas onto a frame and then paint within the defined area. Feldman fills that time frame with sounds, delicately for the most part, as if he were dabbing tones onto his canvas with a brush of the finest bristles.
From 1971 to 1979, Feldman produced eight large-scale orchestral works that he called his “still-life titles.” One of these was Piano and Orchestra. Calling a piece Piano and Orchestra reduces our expectation that it will be a “concerto for piano and orchestra,” a work of multiple movements in different tempos and a display of digital dexterity from the soloist. The two sound-producing units in this work—the piano and the orchestra—maintain distinct characteristics. The piano strikes a contemplative pose. The orchestra usually keeps very quiet, and Feldman uses its forces selectively. These two elements find a point of mediation in the orchestral piano part, which at times is a voice in the symphonic texture, and at other spots is more aligned to the solo piano.
At the beginning, the solo piano intones what passes for a melody: 12 soundings of the identical note D-flat, and then a three-note chord that drifts away. Even with such minimal material, the listener senses the beginning of a narrative. But timbre, rather than melody or harmony, is the principle structural device in Piano and Orchestra. The most pervasive drama is the gradual but constant shift of color as one instrument (or combination of instruments) cedes to another.
Of Feldman’s series of “Instrument and Orchestra” still lifes, Piano and Orchestra may be the most chaste. Listening to this piece is an exercise in observing and recognizing similarities and differences among moments of sound. We hear notes sustained by a single instrument, by a small assemblage of similar instruments, and by instruments of essentially different character. We encounter notes or chords touched on and silenced quickly, and we hear others held out to a particular length or allowed to decay as they are sustained after other participants have fallen silent. No sound endures for long, and nothing is predictable.
—James M. Keller
Charles Ives’s maverick path was already clear during his Yale years, from 1894 to 1898. There he studied organ with Dudley Buck and composition with Horatio Parker, who hoped classical training would rein in what they viewed as errant musical proclivities. After graduation, Ives took a position with an insurance firm. His business success, combined with health concerns, led him to pursue composition in private. He was not pleased that most of his works went unperformed, but at least his finances enabled him to go on composing. Because Ives did not work under deadline, he tended to revise incessantly.
Even by the standards of Ivesian gestation, the “Concord” Sonata crept forward over an unusually extended span. Ives’s most concentrated work apparently occurred in the period from 1916 to 1919. He published it in 1920, but his changes grew so extensive that he brought out a greatly modified edition in 1947.
Henry Brant had been staking his bona fides in the musical avant-garde since the 1930s, but he became most famous for his spatial compositions, which he began to write in the 1950s. This idea grew from Ives’s The Unanswered Question. As he got to know the “Concord” Sonata, Brant sensed “that here, potentially, was a tremendous orchestral piece. It seemed to me that the complete sonata, in a symphonic orchestration, might well become the ‘Great American Symphony’ that we had been seeking for years. Why not undertake the task myself? What better way to honor Ives and express my gratitude to him?”
The sonata’s four movements relate to a group of writers centered in Concord, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, in the mid-19th century. They bonded beneath the flag of transcendentalism, a world-view that exalted non-conformity and proclaimed that individuals might achieve breakthrough understandings via communion with nature.
Ives wrote a rambling preface to the sonata, published in 1920 as Essays Before a Sonata, in which he clarified his intention: “The whole is an attempt to present (one person’s) impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.”
“Emerson” is a muscular movement, with passages of gentle contrast. It is often thorny and dissonant (as is much of the “Concord” Sonata), its themes so strongly etched that the ear seizes them easily. Ives wrote original themes, but sometimes developed them from pre-existing tunes. He quotes at least 11 works in the sonata, from Beethoven and Wagner to hymns and popular songs. In “Emerson,” we cannot escape the “da-da-da-daaaa” of Beethoven’s Fifth, which appears in each of Ives’s four movements. Ives thought of those four notes as an “oracle” bearing “one of Beethoven’s greatest messages,” something akin to Emerson’s thinking. Ives heard that message as “the soul of humanity knocking at the door of the divine mysteries, radiant in the faith that it will be opened—and the human become the divine!” “Emerson” unrolls rhapsodically, yet remains cohesive. It is not cast in any kind of sonata form—Ives said the composition was “called a sonata for want of a more exact name”—and its energy leads to a quiet conclusion.
Most of us got to know Nathaniel Hawthorne through The Scarlet Letter, but he also published numerous short stories. Ives stated that he tried “to suggest some of his wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.” This movement related to Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad,” a dream journey obviously dependent on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Visions collide: scurrying “phantasmal” music, a peaceful hymn (“Martyn”), a riotous march (Ives’s own Country Band March), and “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.”
After these dense movements, our ears relax to the comparatively gentle strains of “The Alcotts.” Today we remember Louisa May Alcott as author of Little Women, but her family enjoyed all-around intellectual respect, beginning with her father Amos Bronson Alcott, a transcendentalist educator, abolitionist, and vegan. Hearth and home infuse this movement. Picture the family singing hymns and parlor songs.
The serenity moves outside for Ives’s finale, a tribute to Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond. Debussy seems to haunt this movement, although the principal quotation comes from Stephen Foster’s song “Massa’s in de Cold Cold Ground.” Passion swells at the movement’s center, but elsewhere the music is emotionally distant. At the end, the sounds of the flute hover in the ether.
—James M. Keller