Valentina Lisitsa, piano
CD 477 9435
Also available as download
First releaesed in the US and Japan 11. Oct. 2011
Charles Ives wrote many memorable works, but the first of his compositions I ever heard was his set of lyrical and evocative sonatas for violin and piano. Something about the way they juxtaposed melodies—some familiar, some not—with unexpected harmonies and rhythmic themes captivated me. At the outset I was particularly drawn to Ives’s Third Sonata, so when I was assembling my next recital program with my duo partner Valentina Lisitsa, that piece was a natural choice.
When we got our hands on the sheet music, we attempted to read through it. That effort quickly stalled. Ives’s music may sound at times transparent, but his notation turned out to be tremendously complex, filled with exacting markings for accents, articulations, disjointed dynamics, rhythmic intricacies, and changes of tempo. Clearly Ives knew what he wanted at every point—and he wanted to make sure his performers would know, too. Squinting together at the piano score, Valentina and I struggled to understand which notes went together with which, where phrases began and ended, and how to produce the expression Ives wanted while at the same time playing the notes he had written. It felt like we were deciphering a musical code that was only vaguely familiar. As we attended one by one to the details, however, the big picture of each movement and then of the whole sonata emerged as if of its own accord.
A piece of music eventually has to get out onstage, in front of audiences, for its performers to see its true colors. That time came for us in 2008, when we took Ives’s Third Sonata on tour around the world. The more we played it for various audiences, the more the details and refinements Ives wrote into his score became ingrained in our musical consciousness, and the freer we became to explore additional expressive possibilities. Since we were attempting different approaches with every concert, the piece became for us a shape-shifter: always evolving, ever intriguing. All along the way, audiences—for whom this century-old sonata was a new discovery—let us know that they would welcome more Ives.
So we returned the following season with a tour program that featured the remaining Ives sonatas (nos. 1, 2, and 4). Performing three of the four on one concert was terrific. We could sink into the similarities among them while having fun playing up the differences. What is remarkable about Ives’s writing from an interpretive perspective is the sense it gives that something tangible and interesting is always happening, or has just happened, or is about to happen. That may seem inconsequential, but, for a performer, that makes the music a pleasure to play night after night: expression can take any number of turns at any given moment.
Late in that second tour, realizing how attached we had become to these four sonatas, Valentina and I began planning this recording. Ultimately, in June 2010, we reconvened in upstate New York for four days to immerse ourselves in the musical world Ives had created. Recording sessions, monomaniacally focused, have the power to drain one’s enthusiasm for even the most touching and carefully crafted pieces. But for us, these sonatas never flagged. Their brooding, plotted beauty, their wit, their quicksilver modernity, and the dreams they evoke of a changing time and place, drew us through every hour. As we release this album, Valentina and I hope that the many virtues of the Ives sonatas will come through clear and heartfelt, and that listeners will join us in our affection for these rich and original pieces for violin and piano.
Ives and His Sonatas for Violin and Piano
If anyone can be said to be the father of American classical music, it’s the Connecticut-born visionary Charles Ives (1874–1954). Combining the classical tradition of Brahms and Beethoven with the vibrant, self-reliant spirit of an optimistic, growing, still-young United States, Ives’s music parallels and in many ways outpaces the European modernism of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. At the same time, he was in part a homespun populist, tapping into America’s day-to-day musical life by quoting hymns, dances, and patriotic tunes known to nearly every listener. The four violin sonatas are emblematic of Ives’s highly original and immediately engaging music. Although virtually unknown at the time they were written, the sonatas are now performed alongside Beethoven, Franck, or Schumann. And yet, in whatever context, the music is still bracing and fresh, still sounds “new.”
The enduring Ives legacy began to take root only late in the 1940s, culminating during his lifetime in the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony, a piece then more than three decades old. This latter-day recognition was the case for most of Ives’s music: the four symphonies, Three Places in New England, The Unanswered Question, and various other tone poems have caught on only gradually, for various reasons. One of these is that during the composer’s most productive years, he was publicly focused on running one of the most successful insurance agencies in the country. This pursuit was in line with the family tradition—his brother Moss was a lawyer and a judge—while music had been his father George Ives’s passion and livelihood.
Charles Ives grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, where George Ives, a bandleader fascinated with music’s possibilities, was his son’s first music teacher. He encouraged Charles to experiment with polytonality, quarter-tones, unusual scales, even to perform completely different pieces at the same time. He also instilled in his son the idea that music is fundamentally a social medium. (This concept is one of the keys to Charles Ives’s mature music, enriched as it is with the songs of his own life.) At fifteen, Charles became the youngest professional church organist in the state. He went on to study music at Yale with the German-trained Horatio Parker, who was cordially unsympathetic to Ives’s forays into the strange and the difficult, but who furthered his pupil’s grounding in traditional craft.
Although Ives continued to perform as an organist, after Yale he pursued the inherited Ives family trade of the community-minded businessman while composing in his spare time. Most of what are now his best-known pieces were written between about 1900 and 1920; after that, he spent his time consolidating, revising, and preparing works for performance rather than conceiving new ones. All four of the violin sonatas were completed in the middle 1910s, but their origins are even earlier. Historians are not absolutely certain about the dates of the first public performances; the New Grove Dictionary has the Second, Third, and Fourth premiered in New York City in 1924, 1917, and 1940, respectively, and the First in San Francisco in 1928.
In his Memos (W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), Ives relates that his relatively conservative First Sonata was written “in 1903 and 1908,” describing it as “a kind of mixture between the older way of writing and the newer way.” Harmonies are dense but mostly tonal, with some new sonorities, such as chords in fourths. The hymn-like melody of the substantial slow introduction undergoes unexpected harmonic shifts. Its motives carry over into the Allegro vivace; among other quotations here is the very evident “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The big Largo cantabile second movement “tries to relive the sadness of the old Civil War days” (Memos). The violin at times assumes an obbligato role to the piano’s dark chords and Lisztian orchestral effects. The lively Allegro finale is an evocation of a “farmer’s camp meeting” featuring the tune of “Watchman,” which plays a big part in Ives’s Symphony No. 4.
The Second Sonata’s three movements are in the unusual slow-fast-slow pattern, and each has an evocative title. “Autumn,” marked Adagio maestoso, strongly recalls the beginning of the First Sonata, but here the Adagio turns quickly to Allegro moderato. “In the Barn” is a “ragtime” movement originating in about 1902–04, with fiddle-dance syncopations of “Turkey in the Straw,” “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and other energetic tunes. “The Revival” begins as a Largo quoting substantially from the hymn “Nettleton” (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”). A much faster Allegretto takes over the tunes, but the movement ends as it began.
Ives wrote that the circumspect Third Sonata was finished in fall 1914, with an earlier middle ragtime movement from 1905. The first and third movements originated with organ preludes written down in 1901. The most individual from a structural standpoint, the Third aims to “express the feeling and fervor—a fervor that was often more vociferous than religious—with which the hymns and revival tunes were sung at the Camp Meetings held extensively in New England in the 70s and 80s” (Memos). The large, predominantly slow first movement is a gorgeous hymn in four “verses,” each followed by a brief refrain. The quick second movement begins with piano alone in dance-type music, suggesting “a meeting where the feet and the body, as well as the voice, add to the excitement.” The finale, Adagio (Cantabile), begins with what Ives calls a “free fantasia,” from which the movement’s tunes gradually clarify. It is as big as, and more complex than, the first movement, and includes a lengthy piano solo.
The Fourth Sonata’s subtitle “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting” closely links its narrative to the Third Symphony. (There are many such cross-references in Ives’s music.) Dating from the end of 1916, it was originally intended for his nephew Moss White Ives, then eleven years old, to perform, and is consequently lighter in mood and smaller in scope than the other three sonatas. Ives wrote, in a note included in the score, “The subject matter is a kind of reflection, remembrance, expression, etc. of the children’s services at the outdoor summer Camp Meetings held around Danbury and in many of the farms in Connecticut in the 70s, 80s, and 90s . . .” During the outdoor services some of the boys would get restless, turning march-like hymns into real marches. Ives’s father encouraged Charles to accompany them at the melodeon in a key distant from the one in which they poorly sang. The second movement combines the hymn “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” with “out-door sounds of nature on those summer days—the west wind in the pines and oaks, the running brook . . . and maybe . . . the distant voices of the farmers across the hill . . .” The brief finale, Allegro, makes the most of the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River.” As with many old and pleasant memories, this one is slippery, fading, hesitating, and finally stopping altogether, as though we find ourselves drifting off in mid-thought.