Monday, October 20, 2014

Happy 140th Birthday, Charles Ives - Symphony No. 2 - Robert Browning Overture

The American master and trailblazer Charles Ives was born 140 years ago, October 20th. This Naxos disc from 2000 won much critical acclaim and it is easy to see/hear why. I figured it would be nice to offer one of his Symphonies and an Orchestral work that is not heard as much as some others (The Unanswered Question, Central Park In The Dark, Three Places In New England etc..). 

The Robert Browning Overture is unlike any other work in the Ives canon. It is a densely dissonant, almost expressionistic work. Rather than employing Ives' characteristic "layered" dissonance, the piece seems to progress in a manner more like works such as "Men and Mountains" or "Sun Treader" by Ives' friend Carl Ruggles.

In many regards, the Symphony No. 2 represents the pinnacle of Ives' success as a respectable composer. By "respectable," in this symphony Ives was working within the confines of a clearly defined formal tradition. More broadly speaking, by "respectable" it is also meant that this work sounds more acceptable to folks regularly listen to Romantic composers like Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. In fact, people who usually don't like Three Places in New England-much less the Fourth Symphony-often point to the Second and hold it up as something a bit more palatable--Ives without the cranky eccentricities.

Later in his life, Ives regarded the symphony as one of his "soft" works, because it lacks many of the dissonant and rhapsodic characteristics that appear in his later works. But that attitude sells the work short. Keep in mind that Ives probably began the work while he was still at Yale! So, it is not a work of his full maturity. Sure, Ives doesn't try to scale the transcendent heights and catch a glimpse of the divine like he does so often later, but it's still a fascinating work. Don't forget too: Many of the original features of Ives' later and best works are already in full display by the time he composed the Second. Enjoy..

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