Music Made From Memories Charles Ives' Holiday Symphony


“Why don’t we play part of this piece of Ives,” Harnisch, the violist, asked. “No,” the conductor Reber Johnson replied. “We must think of the audience.”


The musical experiments Ives tried in ‘Washington’s Birthday’ set off some explosive reactions. Typical was that of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a wealthy friend of the family:

coolidge Mrs. Sprague Coolidge

“Either in the summer of 1913 or 1914, Mr. and Mrs. Sprague, with their daughter, Mrs. Coolidge, stopped to see us at Redding on their way to Pittsfield. After dinner daughter says to writer, “Are you still keeping up with your music?” Writer says, “Well, yes.” So former asks writer to play some of it, and came into the little room with the piano, behind the dining room. I happened to have on the piano the score or the sketch of the Black March. I started to play a little of this—daughter’s face grew sour. ‘Do you like those awful sounds?’ she said. So I stopped and played something I thought might be a little less rough on her, which was the first part of ‘Washington’s Birthday.’ That made her walk out of the room. In getting into the car, headed toward Pittsfield, she said, ‘Well, I must say your music makes no sense to me. It is not, to my mind, music. How is it that –studying as you have with Parker—that you ever came to write like that?’ The above nice lady has since become a quite celebrated patron of music. Every year she gives somebody something real nice for something—or something else.”

A recipient of one of Mrs. Coolidge’s commissions (for the ballet Appalachian Spring), Aaron Copland was much more positive in his 1937 review of the piece for Modern Music:

copland Aaron Copland
(Modern Music, 1937)

“Another score of interest is the first movement from Charles Ives’s Symphony of Holidays—‘Washington’s Birthday,’ composed in 1913. What unique things Ives was doing at that time. And what a shocking lack of interest to this very day on the part of our major symphonic organizations in this true pioneer musician. A score like his can best be judged from actual performance. What is most striking from a mere ‘reading’ is the contrast between the ‘homely’ program attached to the piece and the incredibly complex means for achieving it.”

But despite Copland’s endorsement, most people in and out of the music business remained unconvinced by Ives’s techniques, especially that of using regular old tunes in something as highbrow as a symphony:

ives Charles Ives

“Some nice people, whenever they hear the words ‘Gospel Hymns’ or ‘Stephen Foster’ say ‘Mercy Me!’ and a little high-brow smile creeps over their brow—‘Can’t you get something better than that in a symphony?’ ... As one routine-minded professor told me, ‘In music they should have no place. Imagine, in a symphony, hearing suggestions of street tunes like ‘Marching through Georgia,’ or a Moody and Sankey hymn!’—etc.”

But characteristically, Ives fired back with a little explosion of his own:

ives Charles Ives

“Well, I’ll say two things here: (1) That nice professor of music is a musical lily-pad He never took a chance himself, or took one coming or going. (2) His opinion is based on something he’d probably never heard, seen, or experienced. He knows little of how these things sounded when they came ‘blame’ off a real man’s chest. It was the way this music was sung that made them big or little—and I had the chance of hearing them big. And it wasn’t the music that did it, and it wasn’t the words that did it, and it wasn’t the sounds—but they were sung ‘like the rocks were grown.’ The singers weren’t singers, but they knew what they were doing—it all came from something felt, way down and way up—a man’s experience of men!”

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