Violin Sonata 1, S. 60 and Violin Sonata No. 4, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” S. 63
November 15, 2015 – Jeremy Denk, piano; Stefan Jackiw, violin
In his four violin sonatas, as in much of his music, Ives drew on scraps of hymns, popular songs, band tunes, patriotic songs, and ballads of nineteenth-century America, familiar from growing up in Danbury, Connecticut. These he combined with his own original blend of traditional and nontraditional harmonies, “wrong-note” dissonances, clusters, and very free counterpoint. The sonatas are groupings of many individual violin and piano movements that Ives worked on from c.1906 to 1919. Definite similarities exist among the violin sonatas. All are conceived in a three-movement form and all end with a large-scale coda based on a hymn tune, played by the violin in altered form.
The First Sonata, which Ives assembled around 1914 or 1917 using some materials from as early as 1906, shows an intriguing unification by key scheme and motives that neither Second nor Fourth Sonata demonstrates; the Third again uses cyclic procedures. Not only does Ives preview the key of the next movement’s opening motive in both the first and second movements, but he also emphasizes two main keys across movements. Further, he brings back the first movement’s opening at the end of the third movement, and he plays on the melodic similarities between some of his borrowed tunes, such as “Shining Shore” in the first movement and “Watchman” in the third.
Other remarkable features of the First Sonata are its types of cumulative settings—unusual even for Ives—in its first and third movement. Cumulative is the apt term, coined by scholar J. Peter Burkholder in his 1983 doctoral dissertation, referring to the manner in which Ives introduces motives that he elaborates and combines until he presents the final “accumulated” setting toward the conclusion. Here in the First Sonata Ives bases his first movement primarily on the hymn “Shining Shore,” which has a contrasting middle section. He not only lets its main theme accumulate through the movement, but similarly treats a countermelody made from the hymn’s contrasting melody. Further, he begins with an introduction that returns at the end, encapsulating the cumulative setting.
The slow movement, like much of Ives’s Second Sonata, draws on what is commonly referred to as his “Pre-First” Violin Sonata, which he may have begun as early as c. 1901–02 and worked on at various times between 1908 and 1913. Here, as in that slow movement, he freely varies “The Old Oaken Bucket” in its outer sections and bits of the Civil War tune “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp” in its livelier middle section. The loud violin passage at the end previews the main theme of the third movement.
In the third movement’s cumulative setting—even more ingenious than in the first—Ives starts to treat fragments from the tune “Work Song” and interrupts this “development” by beginning a different cumulative setting as a middle section (on the tune “Watchman”). He then resumes the initial setting and takes it to its full-blown conclusion—thus creating a unique three-part form.
Ives jotted down the following colorful description of the First Sonata on his score: “This sonata is in part a general impression, of kind of reflection and remembrance of the peoples’ outdoor gatherings in which men got up and said what they thought, regardless of the consequences—of holiday celebrations and camp meetings in the 80s and 90s—suggesting some of the songs, tunes, and hymns, together with some of the sounds of nature joining in from the mountains in some of the old Connecticut farm towns.
“The first movement may, in a way, suggest something that nature and human nature would sing out to each other—sometimes. The second movement, a mood when ‘The Old Oaken Bucket’ and ‘Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching’ would come over the hills, trying to relive the sadness of the old Civil War Days. And the third movement, the hymns and the actions at the farmers’ camp meeting inciting them to ‘work for the night is coming.’”
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Ives assembled the material of the Fourth Sonata between 1911 and 1916. It was the only violin sonata for which he actually supervised publication: he had it privately lithographed in 1914–15 in a four-movement version. It was later republished in 1942, without the fourth movement and with certain revisions of the other movements. The omitted movement became the finale of the Second Sonata.
The Fourth Sonata, Ives said, was “an attempt to write a sonata which Moss White, then about twelve years old, could play. The first movement kept to this idea fairly well, but the second got away from it, and the third got in between. Moss White couldn’t play the last two and neither could his teacher.” The 1942 publication provided Ives’s vivid commentary on the work, taken “mostly from remarks written on the back of some of the old music manuscripts,” which is quoted extensively here for his unique description of his own childhood experiences and how they influenced the work’s construction:
“This sonata . . . called ‘Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting’ . . . is shorter than the other violin sonatas, and a few of its parts and suggested themes were used in organ and other earlier pieces. 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 farm towns in Connecticut, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. . . .
“The first movement (which was sometimes played last and the last first)—was suggested by an actual happening at one of these services. The children, especially the boys, liked to get up and join in the marching kind of hymns. And as these meetings were ‘outdoor,’ the ‘march’ sometimes became a real one. One day Lowell Mason’s ‘Work for the Night Is Coming’ got the boys going and keeping on between services. . . . In this movement . . . the postlude organ practice [Ives was an accomplished organist] . . . and the boys’ fast march got to going together, even joining in each others’ sounds, and the loudest singers and also those with the best voices, as is often the case, would sing most of the wrong notes. . . . The organ would be uncovering ‘covered 5ths’ breaking ‘good resolutions’ faster and faster and the boys’ march reaching almost a ‘Main Street Quick-step’ when Parson Hubbell would beat the ‘Gong’ on the oak tree for the next service to begin. Or if it is growing dark, the boys’ march would die away, as they marched down to their tents, the barn doors or over the ‘1770 Bridge’ between the Stone Pillars to the Station.
“The second movement is quieter and more serious except when Deacon Stonemason Bell and Farmer John would get up and get the boys excited. But most of the movement moves around a rather quiet but old favorite hymn of the children [“Jesus Loves Me”], while mostly in the accompaniment is heard something trying to reflect the outdoor sounds of nature on those summer days—the west wind in the pines and oaks, the running brook—sometimes quite loudly—and maybe towards evening the distant voices of the farmers across the hill getting in their cows and sheep.
“But as usual even in the quiet services, some of the deacon-enthusiasts would get up and sing, roar, pray, and shout but always fervently, seriously, reverently—perhaps not ‘artistically’—(perhaps the better for it). . . . At times these ‘confurorants’ would give the boys a chance to run out and throw stones down on the rocks in the brook! (Allegro conslugarocko!)—but this was only momentary and the quiet Children’s Hymn is sung again, perhaps some of the evening sounds are with it—and as this movement ends, sometimes a distant Amen is heard—as the mood of the Day calls for it. . . .
“The third movement is more in the nature of the first. As the boys get marching again some of the old men would join in and march as fast (sometimes) as the boys and sing what they felt, regardless—and—thanks to Robert Lowry—‘Gather at the River.’”
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In 1914 Ives invited accomplished German violinist Franz Milke to try out his First and Second Violin Sonatas, before he made revisions several years later. As the composer reported, “He didn’t even get through the first page. He was all bothered with the rhythms and the notes, and got mad. He said ‘This cannot be played.’ . . . He couldn’t get it even after I’d played it over for him several times.” This, coming after Ives had experienced a number of similar reactions to his music, prompted him to wonder, “Are my ears on wrong?” Though they still contain challenges, his violin sonatas have long been recognized by performers and listeners alike as among the most original and important pieces of violin music by an American composer.
© Jane Vial Jaffe