Daily Archives: May 15, 2012

American Originals

Among the composers represented at the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra “American Originals” concert I attended on May 12, two stand tall for their groundbreaking work.

Charles Ives (not Burl Ives), composer and insurance executive, was the son of Civil War bandmaster George Ives. George Ives was a musical tinkerer, who taught his son to actively listen to whatever was going on around him. Born in 1874, Charles Ives grew up in rural New England. The music of his youth—hymn tunes, parlor ballads, marches—appears as quotes throughout Ives’ compositions. The intense listening his father taught is there, too. If the choir of his home church sounded like it was singing in two keys at the same time, then Ives wrote music that incorporated two simultaneous keys.

Saturday night the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra performed Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” A string orchestra played on stage, while a woodwind quartet and solo trumpet performed from the back of the auditorium. The three groups kept their own tempo and key, the trumpet asking and the flutes responding to questions that have no answers. Ives’ biographer Jan Swafford wrote of Ives, “Obsessed by the past, he wrote a music of the future.”

The Edgewood Symphony Orchestra presented a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” made by John Wilson for trumpeter Roger Dannenberg and the Orchestra.

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, twenty-five years after Ives. While Ellington and Ives both shared a belief in the importance of the vernacular—melodies “hummed while men are at work and at play, and that are handed down from generation to generation,” as an Ellington interview from 1930 states—it is the contrasts between these two creators that feeds my curiosity. Specifically, each composer worked in a method unique to his temperament.

Ives composed in virtual isolation. Much of his music was imagined and lived in his own fantasies before taking form on the page. In contrast, Ellington’s creative output nearly always reflected his daily work with his orchestra. Rehearsals with his players shaped his compositions. Pieces were continually tempered and amended by his musical associates.

Ives musical laboratory was the whole world around him, his experiences steeped in the cauldron of memory. He invited no one else to share his musical pondering. Ellington tried out his compositions on everyone with whom he worked. Today we would say he workshopped his music.

Though neither of these men represented mainstream ideas about how a composer works, Ives and Ellington have emerged as two of our greatest American originals.

For further reading:

The Duke Ellington Reader

Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music


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