I am writing this blog in the sky. I am on a small plane bound for Nashville, where I will meet my daughter Meriwether Brown and her family and spend the night. Tomorrow we will begin an adventure. We will journey to Wisconsin by car and see whooping cranes. That will be the subject of another blog or two, I’m sure. But for now I want to return to the subject of the Ives songs, albeit briefly.
Sometimes I think I am foolish to continue to record these songs. As of now, we have about 50 of them in the can, about 35 of which are edited. Counting all of the alternate versions, Ives wrote a total of 201 pieces for solo voice. At this rate I figure it will take fourteen years to complete the project. Since it is unlikely that any of us involved have fourteen years to devote to this, even intermittently, and I am committed to doing it, the only alternative is to speed up. To do that in a significant way would require the time and money to isolate ourselves for an agreed-upon period of time and simply do it. While I ponder this, let me say a few more things about this music.
Peter Dickinson said, back in 2009 at the Ives Vocal Marathon, that he didn’t really enjoy hearing all of the unknown early songs of Ives. (They are published as Forty Early Songs, edited by John Kirkpatrick and James Sinclair.) He was familiar with them, of course. He found too many of them trivial or boring or both. Peter felt that Ives himself had already gone through the material, picked the best of the lot, spiffed them up and included them in 114 Songs. He has a point. Some of these pieces drive me crazy, actually.
But most of the early, non-114 songs are quirky and interesting — even lovely. At least that’s the way I hear them. A case in point is “In Autumn,” which David and I recorded on Thursday. This song is not to be confused with “Autumn,” which most who know it would agree is an uncontested masterpiece. To begin with, literally, “In Autumn” has an odd introduction. Kirkpatrick/Sinclair suggest that the first verse be introduced the same way the second verse is, with a pretty routine four-measure phrase. But Ives actually wrote a truncated version. Who knows if it was shorthand for the complete phrase, but K/S (who are very good about truth in packaging) clearly indicate, with smaller notes, that the first two measures or so are an editorial suggestion. The brief, asymmetrical introduction (what Ives wrote and what I play) throws the whole thing delightfully off-kilter.
The first verse is a stereotypical sentiment, stereotypically expressed:
The skies seemed true above thee,
The rose true on the tree,
The bird seemed true the summer through
But all proved false to me.
But the second line of the second verse ends with a clunk, revealing that the song is almost a joke:
World, is there one good thing in you,
Life, love, or death, or what?
Since lips that sang “I love thee”
Now say “I love thee not.”
In retrospect the three “true”s in the first verse are a tipoff that we shouldn’t take this young man’s plight too seriously. If, when it’s over, it’s not entirely a joke — after all, he has been jilted — at least one can chuckle a bit and walks away with a smile.
Ives is the master of this kind of gentle irony. It’s almost as if “In Autumn” were a study for “In the Alley.” Needless to say, the music underlines the gentle irony of the text from start to finish, once one is clued in. Who wrote this text, pray tell? K/S say “author unknown,” but I suspect it was Ives himself. And there is no doubt that he wrote “In the Alley,” a far greater song, if greatness is what counts with this material.
Concerning other songs — David and I have produced what is surely the most successful recording to date of “Naught that country needeth,” a problematical song if there ever was one. After almost ten years of fooling with the thing we have it flowing along, reaching a viable climax, and generally making sense of what might appear to be a rambling mess. Beth and I have done “Grantchester” better than we’ve ever heard it done (if we do say so ourselves). Flush with enthusiasm, we exclaimed, almost at the same time, “We have to do this again!” And if someone gives $50,000 (more or less) we can do just that!
CODA: Rereading these comments, I realize that many of my readers may not be familiar with the Ives songs, or the Ives Vocal Marathon, and in any case this doesn’t have much to do with my piano music — except that the way I write for the piano can be heavily influenced by Ives, but that’s a topic for another day. If you are reading this blog and are curious about my involvement with the Ives songs, I suggest you check out the website of the Ives Vocal Marathon:
This was a five-year project that culminated in a complete, contiguous performance of all 201 Ives songs in three days. The four principal singers were Johana Arnold, Elizabeth Saunders, Gary Harger and David Barron. The entire series can be heard on iTunesU. We decided to go in the studio and record the whole shooting match — but it’s taking a long time!
CODA SECUNDA: I’m actually posting this a day late. (Internet access problems.) So the aforementioned adventure with the Brown family has begun. I write most of this in the air, but I am posting it on the ground in Wisconsin.