At the end of Charles Ives’s great orchestral fugue on the hymns “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” and “All Hail the Power,” the trombone plays a phrase or two from “Joy to the World.” Is it a droll incongruity thrown in as more than a lagniappe, one of the composer’s many japes? I believe it was put there by the composer to crown the whole affair with a frisson of the transcendent — as if to prove that one can indeed experience the numinous from the old and familiar as well as the rich and strange.*

While I suppose most listeners would be repelled by the other movements from Ives’s Symphony No. 4 — especially the second movement, marked “Comedy” (a rhythmically complex and harmonically dissonant scherzo) — this movement will probably please most ears, at least of anyone who can listen to music without hearing somebody mumble-sing words into a microphone, accompanied to electric guitars and a relentless drum kit. No guitars here, and no vocals either. The choir sings in the first and final movements. There is a timpani, though — just not a drum kit, or “trap set” as we called it in band.

I love the whole symphony, for what it is worth. But I recommend to most people — especially those familiar with traditional Protestant hymnody — to listen to just this third movement. Maybe more than once. Then read the liner notes to the CD you have obtained (classical albums almost always have extensive liner notes), and then listen to the whole symphony, from beginning to end. Ives is one of those composers who it does help to understand the context of what he was doing. There is something like a program to this symphony, and it helps to be familiar with it.

The symphony was first performed when I was a kid, though the composer died a few years before I was born, and this symphony had been composed decades earlier.

There are several recordings of this work, now, as difficult as it is to perform, and as expensive as it is to produce. I do not think I have heard a bad performance — something I cannot say about his 2nd and 3rd symphonies, that is for sure.

In 1944, in one of his private notes, composer Arnold Schoenberg — he of Verklärte Nacht and dodecaphony and the great unfinished opera Moses und Aron — wrote this: “There is a great Man living in this country — a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.”

Ives tried, it seems to me, to “let heaven and nature sing” through his music.


IMG_3720* In the first version of this fugue, which can be heard in the composer’s String Quartet, No. 1, “From the Salvation Army,” the tune “Joy to the World”  is not present. The Christmas hymn was written by Isaac Watts, but who composed the music is not clear. Because the famous phrase quoted by Ives appears as part of Messiah, it has often been attributed to Georg Frideric Handel. The problem I pose about this interpolation — jape or transcendence? — need not be exclusive, one or the other. With Ives, the joke and the numinous are often so closely juxtaposed, and the method of delivery so similar between the two, that the distinction might not even be valid.