"You goddamn sissy... when you hear strong masculine music like this, get up and use your ears like a man!"
The angry speaker was composer Charles Ives. He was at a concert in New York's Town Hall on Jan. 10, 1931, at which Nicholas Slonimsky conducted Mozart, Henry Cowell, Robin Milford, Carl Ruggles and Ives. While Slonimsky was conducting Ives' "Three Places in New England" there had been boos and jeering and hisses, through all of which Ives had sat quietly without making a sound. But when, in the course of Ruggles' "Men and Mountains," members of the audience near Ives began to hiss, it lit his short fuse and he leaped to his feet to shout those furious words.
Ives did not go to many concerts. In his early years as a composer, he said, "I found that listening to music (especially if in the programs there were things with which I was not familiar) tended to throw me out of my stride.... I remember hearing something of Max Reger and when I got back to what I'd been working on, I was conscious of a kind of interference or lapse (something you feel when writing a letter and someone butts in and reads his letter to you when you're trying to write yours.)"
The Town Hall concert in 1931 was played when Ives was 56. His "Three Places" was the first major orchestral work of Ives to be played publicly, as it was the first to be published. It will be heard tonight in Lisner Auditorium in the third of five different versions of it that now exist. This is precisely the version Slonimsky used in the historic Town Hall concert. It is scored for solo flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, English horn, trombone, two horns, two trumpets, percussion, piano and about 14 strings (divided into four violins, two violas, two cellos and two double basses). It is the final work on the program of a new ensemble called the Chamber Orchestra of New England, whose conductor is James Sinclair.
Those with good memories (which do not have to be long) may remember an all-Ives concert Sinclair led in the Kennedy Center during the Bicentennial season, a program that turned out to be one of the most entertaining and exciting evenings in years. Sinclair is also curator of the Ives Collection at Yale University.
His musical worlds are, however, by no means limited to Ivesiana, or even the music of this country. Tonight's program opens with one of the jolliest Rossini over-tures, "Il Signor Bruschino." From there it moves on to the third of the Brandenburg Concertos by Bach before offering the "Concierto de Aranjuez" for guitar and chamber orchestra by Joaquin Turina, with Sharon Isbin as soloist.
The Ives will make an ideal climax to the program in this, the 25th anniversary year of the death of the man who must be counted as the most unusual and extraordinary genius among this country's early composers.
How many Americans, of whatever century, age or profession, become millionaires years before reaching their 59th birthdays? Ives did it in the insurance business to which he brought concepts that were, in that field, almost as novel and original as the music he was writing on his weekends away from his office in lower Manhattan. Those weekends were the other reasons he gave for going to so few concerts: "Being in business for so many years, I had only evenings, Saturday afternoons and Sundays, and summer vacations of two or three weeks, in which to work," he wrote around 1930. "I got out of the habit of going to concerts, especially in the evenings."
Not only did Ives not to go concerts, but he felt no obligation to know everything that was going on in the music world of his day. "I find that most musicians, critics, etc., take it for granted that a man who composes music must, as a result, be conversant with all the music that has been written in the world up to last night," he wrote in his memoirs. "So many apparently seem surprised, and can't understand why I don't know this piece or that piece of this composer or that composer, especially if it had just been played by the last conductor from Europe who had appeared on the scene with the score in his vest pocket."
There is no question that Ives did know the great traditions of his profession. His memos are filled with references to Bach and Beethoven, if he had reservations when it came to Brahms. He had heard Gustav Mahler, both as a composer and conductor. It is one of history's bitter ironies that Mahler, becoming interested in Ives' Third Symphony in 1911, took a good ink copy of the score back to Europe with him only weeks before he died. That copy was subsequently lost.
In Ives' early songs and his First Symphony it is not hard to hear influences of German and French romanticists. And the word "impressionism" is a legitimate label for describing the atmosphere of the third and final section of the "Three Places: The Housatonic at Stockbridge," with its mists and eddies.
One of the things that gives Ives a sound that is unmistakably American -- though European musicians who do not know these old tunes try to insist that Ives does not sound "American" -- is his use of gospel hymns, band marches, barn dance tunes and Negro spirituals. It seems utterly natural to us that Leonard Bernstein would call Ives "the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln of American music."
It is understandable that a Dutch poet would say he did not "experience Ives as an especially American composer." But the non-American conductor, or, for that matter, the American conductor who does not know "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" or "Bringing in the Sheaves" or "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," is not going to find the key to unlock a great performance of the Second Symphony by Ives.
When Ives died 25 years ago, much of his music was left in a mess: Manuscripts were incomplete or lost, or resting in the collections of such friends and admirers as the late Goddard Lieberson; or there were discrepancies that could only be figured out by exhausting hours spent in comparing different versions, or proceeding into an unfinished portion of a work from the known materials surrounding it.
Yet those years have brought to an ever-increasing number of enthusiasts impressive performances of the songs, piano works, chamber music and orchestral compositions of Ives, thanks to the long researches and frequent construction jobs done by such men as John Kirkpatrick and Sinclair, who have helped to provide full, clear working scores. Washington, which has been fortunate in the past, thanks to the pioneering efforts of Richard Bales and Antal Dorati in the rich fields of Ives, will have a new opportunity tonight to hear one of his first great scores in a definitive version.