NPR logo

Charles Ives' Rambunctious 'Fourth Of July'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92196531/92268046" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Charles Ives' Rambunctious 'Fourth Of July'

Charles Ives' Rambunctious 'Fourth Of July'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92196531/92268046" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This Fourth of July Weekend, a lot of patriotic American music will be heard. However, one of America's greatest composers will get very little airtime, even though he wrote a piece called "Fourth of July." Charles Edward Ives was born in 1874. He lived until 1954. And Weekend Edition's classical music commentator Robert Greenberg joins us from the studios of KQED in San Francisco to tell us why we may want to reconsider listening to this piece over the holiday.

ROBERT GREENBERG: Ives is perhaps the first great truly American composer in that Ives drew from the American tradition of popular music. He drew from his classical training. He drew from his New England upbringing a tremendous amount of experience. And despite the modernity of his music, it's one of the paradoxes of Ives. The music basically describes his upbringing in this kind of idealized, almost mythologized New England surrounding in the late 19th century.

(Soundbite of song "Fourth of July")

Mr. GREENBERG: So Ives is not just the first American composer to really draw on American materials in his music but he was such a great experimenter, and as a wealthy man, such a great supporter of the musicians that he has become an icon of, I think, what American music should be, and what a benevolent patron of the arts should be, as well.

HANSEN: You said his piece describes the Fourth of July from dawn to dusk. Does it follow a particular narrative?

GREENBERG: It does. It's program music in the 19th century sense, in that it is intended to give us a sensibility of what the Fourth of July is all about from dawn to dusk. But it's a very interesting approach. It's just a six-minute piece. It's the third movement, by the way, of a four-movement piece called "Holiday Symphonies," which is supposed to describe, according to Ives, a boy's experience - a New England boy's experience, of these holidays. And Ives actually gave us quite an extensive description, which I'd be happy to read if you'd like me to.

HANSEN: Sure. Go ahead.

GREENBERG: (Reading) It's a boy's Fourth. No historical orations, no patriotic grand eloquences by grown ups, no program in his yard. But he knows what he's celebrating better than most of the country politicians, and he goes at it his own way, with a patriotism near akin to major than jingoism. His festivities start in the quiet of the night and grow ruckus with the sun. Everybody knows what it's like: cannon on the green, village band on Main Street, firecrackers, shanks mixed on comets, strings around big toes, church bells, lost fingers fights, clam chowder, a prize fight, drum corps, bird (unintelligible), parades in and out of step, saloons all closed, no more drunks than usual, baseball games, pistols, mobbed umpire, red, white and blue, runaway horse, and the day ends with the sky rocket over the church steeple just after the annual fireworks explosion sets the town hall on fire.

(Soundbite of song "Fourth of July")

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENBERG: That's the program, and of course, it's a mishmash of experiences and that's what Ives' music is all about. It's experiential.

HANSEN: You described Ives' musical philosophy as transcendental. Where do we hear it in this music?

GREENBERG: His philosophy that all things are related under the great over-soul of the universe allows him to be inclusive in his music, to stack all of this unlike stuff together to create a whole a thousand times greater than the sum of its parts.

(Soundbite of song "Fourth of July")

GREENBERG: One might listen to parts of the "Fourth of July" and say, oh, my goodness! What a cacophonous chunk of noise. How could anyone do that? Others might listen to it and say, whoa, that is so fabulous. The associations are creating whole new perceptions in my ear.

(Soundbite of song "Fourth of July")

HANSEN: So the music that is kind of jarring to listen to in this piece, this was intentional on Ives' part.

GREENBERG: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Listen, Ives objected mightily to what he considered beauty in music. That is, he felt - and I've got another quote and I'll just read it because it tells us where he's coming from. He wrote, "Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair. When a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep." Unquote.

For Ives, beauty had to do with substance. It didn't have to do with mere prettiness, and he had zero tolerance, Liane, for the wimps and mollycoddles who shuddered, or even worse, hissed at new music. He was famous for standing up at concerts and bellowing at just such offenders, stand up and take your dissonance like a man.

(Soundbite of song "Fourth of July")

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENBERG: So there is a lot of machismo in Ives' music, and there's a lot of machismo in this American culture that produced him. One of the things that makes Ives interesting and very different was that he was an amateur composer. Now, he was a man of professional ability but he never composed for a living and he refused to take money for his compositions when they started getting popular.

He was an insurance executive and that's how he made his career and that's how he made a lot of money, as an insurance executive. He believed, like Thoreau believed, that the best way to proceed is not to make men buy your baskets, but rather to create a circumstance by which you didn't have to sell them. So he felt free to compose whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, however he wanted, and never had to respond to market issues or the need simply to make money and please an audience. And so, he didn't.

HANSEN: Music historian Robert Greenberg. He's with San Francisco Performances and the Teaching Company which markets recorded lectures in the arts and sciences. He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Thanks as always, Robert.

GREENBERG: My great pleasure.

(Soundbite of song "Fourth of July")

HANSEN: You can hear a complete performance of Charles Ives' "Fourth of July" by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the music section of our web site, npr.org. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.