Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Housatonic at Stockbridge

Whenever I read about Charles Ives I find myself intrigued by the stories of his father George. As a seventeen year old, George’s musical talents were noticed by Ulysses S. Grant, who told Lincoln that the band of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery led by Ives senior was the ‘best in the Army.’ Some of the ways in which George Ives went on to influence his son’s music are described here. A good example is the second of Ives’ Three Places in New England, ‘Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut’ which was inspired by an experiment of George Ives in which he arranged for his band and another one to march in opposite directions around the town square playing conflicting tunes. In Alan Rich’s book American Pioneers, there is a memorable image: ‘George Ives held a lifelong fascination with the notion of experimentation, spending long hours playing musical instruments across a nearby pond to study the nature of echoes…’

The third of Ives’ Three Places, ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ records the memory of a walk that Ives took with his wife, Harmony, along the banks of the Housatonic River. As critic Alex Ross notes, ‘there are dissonances and ambiguities in the river’s flow. This is the New England landscape that generated not only Norman Rockwell’s small-town idylls but also the American apocalypse of “Moby-Dick.”’ There is a Robert Underwood Johnson poem that accompanies the music but more interesting perhaps is a brief note that Charles Ives himself wrote (quoted from a Charles Ives site):

… River mists, leaves in slight breeze river bed--all notes and phrases in upper accompaniment . . . should interweave in uneven way, riverside colors, leaves & sounds--not come down on main beat . . .

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