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huck finn modern book cover

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. mark twain

In that book, nearly every theme that identifies our art as American is established and explored: migration, race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and the comfortable informality that marks us as a people.

It’s as if Huck Finn were the instruction manual for how to be American. In that, Twain is just as clearly American as Debussy is French or Basho is Japanese. john smith We often look to our art for clues to national identity. But although Twain gives us Americanness in concentrated form, most of the arts made on this continent, from Capt. John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624) and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, all the way up to this week’s latest rap song, partake in certain common traits.

What are they? First, we need to eliminate some of the things we like to think are particularly American, such as patriotism or respect for family. Every culture feels these qualities are particularly their own, but in fact, they are universal.

Even such negatives as bigotry and racism have their American coloration, but they are evils found in every culture.

It needs to be noted, too, that what we admire in ourselves is not necessarily admired elsewhere. Americans are direct, which others often see as rude. We are informal, which others translate as slobbishness. We are optimistic, which can be taken as arrogance. We believe in individualism, which others see as selfishness. But there are six things that we can see as particularly American: migration, individualism, optimism, religiosity, informality and expansiveness. source_28

Migration

The one thing all Americans share is that we are immigrants.

Even Native Americans, although they hate to think so, came here from somewhere else, whether it is across an Arctic land bridge or up through a sipapu.

It is the parent fact that gives birth to all our other traits. jumping a freight Even after our ancestors came here from far shores, we have never ceased from peregrinating. First we moved West, populating the great wilderness.

Now, we move away from home to college or career, and find our parents retired to Florida and our siblings spread across four time zones.

To Europeans or Asians whose families have lived in the same villages for centuries, we must seem utterly rootless.

So it can hardly be surprising that the central metaphor of Huck Finn is a journey: The book is many things, from its hero’s double negatives and “ain’ts” to his climactic choice to follow his instinct instead of his schooling about runaway slave Jim, but first and foremost, it’s a “road book,” marking the peripatetic nature of American life.

Much of our art reflects this continuous travel. From the moment we arrived on the Atlantic Coast we began moving west. As art, The Godfather speaks of the immigrant experience, but so does every B Western ever filmed.

All the other traits we think of as American ultimately owe their birth to this constant moving: It gives birth to our self-reliance, our willingness to risk tomorrow on faith, and our freedom from many of the cultural straitjackets found back in the Old Country. It’s all there in the art. All either necessary for immigration or fostered by it. high noon

Individualism

Make that “rugged individualism.”

We trust our own instincts, like Huck Finn, rather then the wisdom of the group. We are Mr. Smith in Washington, Gary Cooper at high noon, Ellen Ripley blasting aliens.

The single most potent distillation of this individualism can be found in John Wayne, love him or despise him. But Wayne didn’t spring up ex nihilo; rather, he grew from the soil: He was originally Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: self-reliant, unschooled but wise and practical, with an unshaken faith in his own code of behavior. He’s Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett saying, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead,” which is just a pop culture simplification of Henry Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Sometimes it’s shocking to realize how of a piece our cultural heritage is. davy crockett march

The flip side of individualism is our tendency to isolationism: “Good fences make good neighbors,” as Robert Frost ironically wrote. Going it alone is usually seen as a virtue.

The downside of this self-reliance is our anti-intellectualism. We trust our own ignorance more than someone else’s knowledge. This is nothing new: It’s why Andrew Jackson was elected president. It’s Huck Finn fearing to be “sivilized” by his Aunt Sally. It’s why one of the most powerful political factions of the 19th century was called the “Know-Nothings.”

It’s a trait of national identity that we should never misunderestimate. oklahoma!

Optimism

Against all reason and the evidence of history, Americans believe they can do anything. It is our “can-do” attitude, and you find it in the barking joy of Walt Whitman’s poetry and the songs of Oklahoma!Doris Day

To others in the world, this makes us look naive and foolish; fatalism is not part of our makeup.

Which is why America is home to pop psychology and Doris Day. As a corollary, for Americans, the future only holds a better world. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” Annie sings. “Make it new,” said poet Ezra Pound, and although he was speaking of literature, he could just as well have been speaking of Thomas Edison, the Chrysler Building or Elvis Presley.

Take what you’re given and do something new with it. Never accept the past as the final word. billy sunday preaching

Religion

Many peoples are religious, but in America, religion is something else.

From the utopian religious communities of the 19th century to today’s fundamentalism, there is a glint of zealotry in American spirituality. Elmer Gantry would not be thinkable in France.

We have gone through at least four “Great Awakenings,” in which we rediscover the old-time religion and the narrow virtues of belief. rev whitefield

It was, after all, religion that founded this country, whether it is Congregationalists in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland. Each of them came here for religious freedom, although they were perfectly willing to oppress any religion not their own.

The separation of church and state in our Constitution is there not because we were an agnostic nation, but because everyone was so nuts on the subject and we wanted to keep from each others’ throats.

You hear the religion in the symphonic music of Charles Ives and in Negro spirituals. It echoes in Moby-Dick, and even the window behind the dour couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. leaves of grass frontispiece

Informality

“I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass,” Whitman writes in a poem of expansive informality, turning his back on the formal expression of European art: No villanelles for Americans, no Rime Royal.

In Europe, you have Oedipus, in America, Stanley Kowalski.stanley kowalski Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in colloquial American English and even put a note about it at the beginning of the book. Take that, Henry James!

“Whatever is not of the street,” wrote novelist Henry Miller, “is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” And he wasn’t using the word as a compliment.

You can see it in the portrait of Whitman at the front of his book, Leaves of Grass: There he is, sleeves rolled back, collar unbuttoned, hips shifted comfortably, hat at a rakish angle. You could never imagine Tennyson like that. manifest destiny gast

Expansiveness

Everything in America is supersized, whether it’s fast food or our landscape.

In America, bigger is better: We drive SUVs and watch blockbuster movies. It’s a Texas mentality. Star Wars isn’t big enough; we need a director’s cut, added scenes, a DVD packed with extras. A movie isn’t a success unless it makes $200 million. And the TVs on which we watch those DVDs continue to grow; soon they’ll cover our living room walls. larry hagman with cash

One Marilyn Monroe isn’t enough; Warhol must print her by the dozens, just as Babe Ruth must eat hot dogs by the score.

The tall tale is our national mythology, from Paul Bunyan to Jim Carrey’s face.

Of course, how could it be otherwise with the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains? Our very landscape calls out for grandiosity and grandiloquence. Over the top is America’s starting line, and the next frontier is our constant goal.

OH, AND AMERICANS LOVE LISTS:

Most-American Americans

John_Wayne - overland stage raidersJohn Wayne: Love him or hate him, we can’t think of him as merely an actor. He has become an icon, the movie roles and the man bound into one, indivisible: the lone, laconic hero, man of action rather than words, graceful and bullying in turns.

4 more:

Louis Armstrong: American as soul.

Eleanor Roosevelt: American as do-gooder.

Babe Ruth: American as appetite.

Thomas Edison: American as inventor.

Most American Movies godfather

The Godfather Saga, Francis Ford Coppola, 1977: The conflated version of the first two Godfather films tells the immigrant experience writ large: family, business, love, loyalty, betrayal and the move west, told with the force and mythology of opera.

4 more:

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Star Wars, George Lucas, 1977: Good vs. evil supersized.

Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick, 1939: History whitewashed.

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989: Race will not go away.

American Contributions to global culture constitution go

The Constitution: Our “governmental instruction manual” has become a model for the world, and its first 10 amendments have become the guiding principles of many an emerging nation. It’s more than merely political, it’s at the center of our culture, and the one thing the world really does want from us.

4 more:

Jazz: From which all popular music ultimately derives.

Hollywood: America’s secret plan for world domination.

Technology: The physical evidence of the can-do spirit.

Coca-Cola: Las aguas negras del imperialismo.

Most American Novels

huck finn book coverHuckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: The Great American Novel, filled with everything, good and bad, about ourselves: race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social climbing, moneygrubbing and our comfortable informality.

4 more:

On the Road, Jack Kerouac: An essential national theme takes center stage.

Beloved, Toni Morrison: The evils of slavery haunt even the freed.

The Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper: The invention of John Wayne.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Money, glamour, celebrity and loss.

Most American Plays angels in america

Angels in America, Tony Kushner: The hugely ambitious “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” takes on more American themes than anything since Huck Finn: politics, sex, generations, religious revelation, Reaganism, bigotry and forgiveness; so expansive a single night can’t hold it.

4 more:

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller: The underside of the American dream.

Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein: Gushy, American cornpone classic.

Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams: Torn T-shirts and sweaty thighs.

Fences, August Wilson: Black view from Pisgah.

American Classical-music compositions

ives album coverThree Places in New England, Charles Ives: The crusty New England composer reinvents classical music to make it more American: loud, brash, nostalgic and patriotic at turns, and finds its subject in landscape and history.

4 more:

Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin: Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Chopin and Carnegie Hall.

Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland: Shaker hymn goes mainstream.

Symphony No. 3, Roy Harris: The type of the American symphony.

New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak: Is the Most American Symphony written by a Czech?

American Architecture

monticello stampMonticello, Thomas Jefferson: Just as equivocal as its owner and designer, this icon from the back of the common nickel is both paean to Europe’s classical past and the American’s love of invention, gimmickry and nature: Palladian windows and a moose head.

4 more:

Chrysler Building: American industrial dynamism with grace.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland: Architecture as play-pretend.

Fenway Park: So cranky we actually love it.

Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright: Built over a waterfall like a diving board.

American Poems

Whitman at 50Song of Myself, Walt Whitman: The “good gray poet” could not have arisen anywhere else; he is completely American, from his deification of democracy to his catalogs of diversity to his “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

4 more:

Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Closest thing we have to a national epic poem.

Poems, Emily Dickenson: Nothing more American than her quirky New England eccentricity.

Howl, Allen Ginsberg: “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!”

Mending Wall, Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

American Visual arts

American gothicAmerican Gothic, Grant Wood: This iconic painting is more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa: encomium of hardcore American values or satire of Midwestern provincialism? Conservative or avant-garde? He’s not telling.

4 more:

Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley: Art ripped from the headlines, circa 1777.

Marilyn Monroe multiple, Andy Warhol: If one is good, a dozen must be better.

Dogs Playing Poker series, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge: Now, that’s OTT!

Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell: Turkey, potatoes and lots of corn.

American Popular music

shenandoahShenandoah: A folk song of undetermined origin, this is the quintessential song about migration and loss; with its odd strophic form and 19th-century sentiment, it borrows elements from Irish shanties and African-American blues.

4 more:

One O’Clock Jump: Count Basie and swing.

Born to Run: Rebels on wheels, a la the Boss.

Hound Dog: Elvis frees America all over again.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The suffering of a people, caught in the throat.

Ives portrait

The music of Charles Ives has been thought gnarly and noisy, difficult and dissonant. And it is, for sure. But it is also profoundly nostalgic and deeply American.

Instead of avoiding his music because it is so “modern,” you should let the music steep inside your consciousness and let it dredge up all your most inkept feelings of loss and childhood. Ultimately, his music is not so much avant-garde as it is heartbreaking. Fireworks, parades, summer vacations, church picnics — it’s all there in the music. And all the more potent for its evocation of the New England that Ives grew up in.

For Ives, New England was America. He was born from the soil of New England and finally was returned 79 years later to that same soil. He inherited the culture of Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne and turned it into sound.

His piano sonata Concord, Mass. 1840-1860, his Holidays Symphony and his Third Symphony (Camp Meeting) all grow from his New England roots, full of the marching-band tunes, patriotic airs and revival-meeting hymns he heard as a boy.

But one piece above all sums up his New England experience, and it is one of his easiest to digest and, therefore, most popular. It is Three Places in New England, and it describes in music three very precise landscapes.

Sometimes called the “New England Symphony,” it was written by Ives between 1903 and 1911. It contains three movements that are unforgettable impressions of the land and people.

Landscape plays a big part in the history of painting and hardly less in literature. We can visit the very square foot of land in Canada where painter Frederic Edwin Church stood to paint his monumental Niagara Falls or we can tour the Lake District that inspired William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

But it is not often that landscape inspires music. There is the occasional Moldau or La Mer, but scene-painting in sound is not often as precise as a painting. Smetana takes in the whole river, not a single view, and Debussy’s ocean is any ocean.

Yet Ives gave us in his Three Places three distinct sites that can be visited and enjoyed and compared with the sound portraits.

Shaw Memorial, Boston

Shaw Memorial, Boston

The SHAW MEMORIAL, Boston

The first section in Ives’ music is titled ”The St. Gaudens in Boston Common” and is subtitled ”Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment.”

The St. Gaudens is a Civil War monument, considered by some people to be the best American example of memorial sculpture. It was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and unveiled in 1897 at the northeast end of Boston Common, across the street from the Massachusetts Statehouse.

The deep-relief sculpture commemorates the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and its commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who died in the Civil War.

The 54th was unusual at the time because its enlisted ranks were composed entirely of African-Americans. On May 28, 1863, the largest crowd in Boston’s history came out to see the 54th march off. They saw the thousand Black soldiers marching, accompanied by their White officers on horseback.

A souvenir of the day quoted Byron: ”Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”

Two months later, Shaw and a third of his command were dead, killed in the attack on South Carolina’s Fort Wagner in Charleston Harbor. Their charge had failed, but the soldiers had fought so well that they legitimized what had been considered a questionable idea: African-Americans in combat.

Shaw initially was buried in a common combat grave with his dead troops, and after the war, when plans were made to exhume the gallant young officer and give him an official ceremony in a Massachusetts cemetery, his parents refused, writing that they could hope for ”no holier place” for him than ”surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers.”

Saint-Gaudens, America’s premier sculptor at the time, was commissioned in 1883 to monumentalize Shaw, and briefly considered a standard equestrian statue, but finally decided that the Black troops deserved the memorial as much as Shaw and devised plans to include them.

He wanted to represent the soldiers accurately; some were as young as 16, others were bearded grandfathers. So he hired African-Americans to pose for him and made 40 heads as studies. Sixteen went into the final bronze.

So Shaw rides his horse in front of a rhythmical line of marching soldiers, their heads, sleeping packs and rifles creating a visual drumbeat.

Ives’ 8-minute portrait of the monument is a diffuse, dissonant wash, as though not only the images of the Civil War but also its very idea were obscured in the haze of memory and history.

”Moving — marching — faces of souls! Marked with the generations of pain, Part-freers of a destiny, slowly, restlessly swaying us on with you towards other freedom!” Ives wrote in his score.

The monument was only a few years old when Ives began writing about it, and the layers of time show through in the music: the war, the remembrance of war, the causes and unfinished business of the war in a conflicting mass of sound.

Often, in the welter, you can make out a familiar tune: Marching Through Georgia or Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Then it all fades away into the nostalgic past.

Today, the sculpture is nearly black in its patina. It sits on its granite plinth looking vaguely like a plaque on a headstone. The tour buses stop, and the tourists pour out with their cameras. Some shoot the gold-domed statehouse, others shoot the St. Gaudens.

One bus unloads two dozen Japanese tourists. They also point their cameras. The amplified sound of a tour guide overpowers the street noise — but in Japanese — and I cannot possibly know what she is saying or what the Japanese tourists can make of the racial complexity involved in the war, the monument and American history.

Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut

Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut

PUTNAM’S CAMP

The second movement is called ”Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut.”

Gen. Israel Putnam, like most American generals in the Revolutionary War, was better known for strategic and tactical retreats than for victories. Charged with holding the Hudson Highlands in 1777, he lost Fort Monroe and Fort Clinton while backing up into Connecticut.

He and his troops wintered near Redding, Conn., in 1778, undergoing much of the same privation and hardship Washington endured at Valley Forge.

But Ives isn’t remembering the Revolutionary War in his music. Rather, he is remembering his childhood, when he used to visit the site of Putnam’s Camp and fantasize what it must have been like in the winter of 1778-79.

He also recalls the patriotic Fourth of July picnics he attended there and the brass bands that played.

”Long rows of stone campfire-places still remain to stir a child’s imagination,” Ives wrote.

What he hears is a grand cacophony of marching bands, playing different tunes at the same time. It is loud, bouncy and ear-blasting, getting louder and louder, with strains of The British Grenadiers and other songs, and ending in a misquoted bar and a half of reveille.

It is all a jolly 6-minute joke but the kind of music Ives loved best. ”Pretty sounds are for pretty ears,” he said, deriding those who wanted pleasant melodies from his orchestra.

Once, upset over the hoots and boos of an audience listening to some modern music, Ives got out of his seat and exhorted the unappreciative crowd to ”Stand up and take your music like a man!”

Putnam’s Camp is today a state park, half on the east side of Connecticut 58, half on the west. It is the eastern half that is most visited; it has a lake, a parking lot and picnic tables, and many of the people who come there probably give little thought to the Colonial army that once wintered there.

On the other side of the road, there is a path through the woods that passes the lines of camp hearths and a hilltop cemetery full of the unmarked graves of those who died fighting for American independence.

At the lake, a man — who looks like he’s playing hooky from work — casts his fishing line into the water. The fall remnants of waterlily leaves are curled and brown on the water, and a few Canada geese honk on the lawn.

The sky is overcast, and the woods are brown as tweed, with neither shadows nor highlights. And the old-fashioned New England Fourth of July patriotic and religious picnic is as much a part of the past as Putnam’s war.

Housatonic River, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

Housatonic River, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

HOUSATONIC at STOCKBRIDGE

The last section of Three Places in New England is perhaps the most moving. It is ”The Housatonic at Stockbridge.”

That is, the Housatonic River at Stockbridge, Mass.

The Housatonic is one of those alternating lazy and cascading streams that run from north to south, along which New England’s factories were built in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

It begins at a small pond in Washington, Mass., and wends its way 149 miles to Long Island Sound at Stratford, Conn.

Along its banks are both towns and woods. Ives honeymooned in the Berkshires in 1908 with his new wife, Harmony, and one Sunday morning, they strolled near Stockbridge and the river.

”We walked in the meadows along the river,” he wrote many years later, ”and heard the distant singing from the church across the river. The mist had not entirely left the riverbed and the colors, the running water, the banks and the trees were something that one would always remember.”

The 4-minute movement that Ives wrote captures the quiet and the mist: It is ambiguous tonally and melodically, like a remembered dream, builds to a climax that evaporates abruptly, uncovering the quiet chords playing on the orchestral strings as if they had been sounding all along, but drowned out by the noise.

Like the strings in Ives’ Unanswered Question, which are drowned out by chattering woodwinds, the final quiet strings in Three Places are the eternal harmonies of nature.

Ives liked his piece well enough that he turned it into a song later, with words by poet Robert Underwood Johnson:

”Contented river! In thy dreamy realm — the cloudy willow and the plumy elm.”

It is an elegy to nostalgia.

Stockbridge has changed since the Iveses visited. It is now a prime tourist destination, full of gift shops and art galleries, with frozen yogurt. It is also the home of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell made his home there and used Stockbridge natives as models for his magazine-cover paintings.

The river eases in and out of town, crossed by four or five small bridges. The Housatonic is an average of only 35 yards across in Stockbridge, hardly more than a brook.

On a cloudy day in October, it also is hidden by the grayness. I have visited every spot along the river in town and enjoyed its quiet but missed its beauty.

Until late that afternoon when I stand on the hill by the Rockwell Museum looking over the river out at Pleasant Hill and a chink in the clouds widens, throwing a spotlight on the meadow across the water. The bare winter sycamores along its banks suddenly stand out like neon, and the band of sunlight sweeps from left to right, finally in its passing leaving the scene in gray once more.

And the riverbed and the colors, the running water, the banks and the trees were something that one would always remember.

DEEP TIME 

The search for Ives’ three places has turned into a pile of time on time, present on past, past on deeper past, all wound up in a single point of geography.

It is as if the Indians, who were in New England before the Pilgrims came, had a deeper understanding of reality. When something happens, they believed, it is always happening. Time is not a straight line but a basket full of harvest, all piled in together.

So that I cannot see this single piece of real estate, the Housatonic, the Yankee military camp or the St. Gaudens statue, without thinking of history, memory, my past and my nation’s past, all balled up into a single, complex thing.

All happening at once and all happening in my eye, looking at the past.

And I know it is not just true for these three places, caught in Ives’ web of meaningful noise, but for all places and all times.

Charles and Harmony Ives

Charles and Harmony Ives

CHARLES IVES

Charles Ives is the father of American music.

Before him, what American composers wrote for the concert hall was a dim reflection of European — and especially German — art music, with its sonatas and symphonies. After him, it was possible to feel truly American.

You can see his influence in the folk tunes that show up in Aaron Copland, the spare orchestrations and open harmonies of Roy Harris and the avant-garde fun John Cage has with noise.

Ives was a funny duck. Born in 1874, he studied composition at Yale, but instead of becoming a poverty-stricken composer, he became a wealthy insurance executive. Ives and his partner, Julian Myrick, founded a successful agency that pioneered much of the industry’s modern practice. Myrick had the business sense, Ives brought the creativity.

Together they prospered, ultimately becoming the largest insurance agency in America. In 1929, the firm sold $49 million worth of insurance.

But he was also a genius in music, taking little stock of what he learned from his stuffy college professors and feeding large on the oddball music education he received from his father, George Ives, who was bandmaster for the small Connecticut town of Danbury.

George Ives loved to experiment with sound, playing with microtones, out-of-tune instruments, polytonality and organized noise. That enthusiasm for experiment, which in George was a variety of practical Yankee inventiveness, became for his son a creed and a muse.

Yet although Charles Ives’ music was more modern than Stravinsky’s and more dissonant than Bartok’s, he really was not concerned with fitting into the long history of European art music. It is obvious in the music; Ives was not writing about modern things.

For although the music is filled with ear-splitting dissonances, it is unabashedly nostalgic. Ives felt a powerful nostalgia for the past — his past — and his music drips with bits of the music he heard when he was a boy: old hymn tunes and marching-band music.

No matter how loud and incoherent Ives sounds at first, at long last, it settles into Bringing in the Sheaves and Columbia the Gem of the Ocean — not whole but in snippets, as if half-remembered.

Ives wrote the bulk of his music in the first years of this century. His business and his ailments — he suffered from a poor heart muscle — kept him from concentrating on composition after 1918.

Or perhaps, as Ives’ early biographers, Henry and Sidney Cowell, suggested, ”The war was a shock of the first magnitude to a man whose life was based on his confidence in human progress.”

He lived on until 1954, becoming for many American composers a kind of father figure and rallying point.