Charles Ives’s Sets for Chamber Orchestra

About This Recording

Charles Ives (1874–1954)
Complete Sets for Chamber Orchestra • Set for Theatre Orchestra

This album is a demonstration of, and tribute to, the remarkable breadth of Charles Ives’s imagination. A composer of wide-ranging orchestral works, he was also a master of miniatures. Well-focused, short ideas were a perfect fit for Ives’s busy double life as an insurance executive and weekend composer. Many of his songs are strikingly brief (for example At Sea and Luck and Work) – their average length is barely a minute-and-a half. And it is on his songs that the Sets for Chamber Orchestra are largely based. The Sets vary in their brevity from No. 3’s three-movement two-and-a-half-minutes to No. 1’s sixmovement nine minutes. But in those brief spans, Ives creates a breath-taking panoply of style and technique. As a whole, these Sets may be the greatest showcase of his kaleidoscopic creativity, and the most colorful outings in all of his output.

Ives was steeped in the scrappy tradition of the local theatre orchestras. He reveled in their flexibility, seat-of-the-pants musicianship, and team spirit. In the post-face to his Set for Theatre Orchestra, Ives writes:

“The make-up of the average theatre orchestra of some years ago, in the towns and smaller cities, in this part of the country [New England], was neither arbitrary nor a matter of machinery. It depended somewhat on what players and instruments happened to be around. Its size would run from four or five to twenty, and the four or five often had to do the job of twenty without getting put out. Sometimes they would give as much support ‘during the rescue’ as the whole town band. Its scores were subject to makeshifts, and were often written with that in mind. There were usually one or two treble Wood-Wind, a Trombone, a Cornet, sometimes a Saxophone, Strings, Piano and a Drum – often an octave of High Bells or a Xylophone. The pianist usually led – his head or any unemployed limb acting as a kind of Ictusorgan. However, a separate conductor, in these pieces, is a rather necessary member. The piano player might object to him; the other players probably would not, and the composer would vote for him.”

Ives also owed to the theatre orchestras of Danbury, New Haven, and New York City his awareness of the orchestral instruments’ range and colors, and of their combined sounds. There he learned to experiment, on the spot, with the willing instrumentalists. In his 1930s Memos, Ives writes:

“While in college, some things were written and played by the Hyperion Theater Orchestra, New Haven, some short overtures and marches, some brass band pieces, and short orchestra pieces. Some had old tunes, college songs, hymns, etc. – sometimes putting these themes or songs together in two or three differently keyed counterpoints (not exactly planned so but just played so) – and sometimes two or three different kinds of time and key and off-tunes, played sometimes impromptu. For instance, a kind of shuffle-dance-march (last century rag) was played on the piano – the violin, cornet, and clarinet taking turns in playing sometimes old songs, sometimes popular tunes of the day, as After the Ball, football songs, Ta-ra-ra-boom-deay – something in the way of the second movement [of the] Theatre Orchestra Set. The pianist (who was I, sometimes) played his part regardless of the off-keys and the off-counterpoints, but giving the cue for the impromptu counterpoint parts, etc.”

From this non-academic but professional tradition, Ives’s imagination was emboldened and nurtured. One particular result was his willingness to encourage the substitution of instruments. In every one of these Sets, he suggests a possible change of the designated solo instrument to one or more others. In Set No. 1, for instance, Scherzo: The See’r offers to substitute the cornet with trumpet or French horn, and change the alto horn to French horn, trombone, or tenor saxophone. The Set’s Like a Sick Eagle movement invites the English horn to be changed to oboe or basset horn; its last movement can feature the solo line played by an English horn, trumpet, or basset horn.

The distinctively Ivesian genre he called a Set is a collection of usually independently-written pieces that he joined with an eye to programmatic connections and musical complements. Of the ten Sets for Chamber Orchestra, the first three are based on manuscripts (from the 1910s) and pre-date the songs that were derived from most of the movements. Set No. 1’s fifth movement Calcium Light Night and Set No. 2’s second movement “Gyp the Blood” or Hearst!? Which is Worst?!, and Set No. 9’s The Unanswered Question are purely instrumental creations. The remaining Sets for Chamber Orchestra are based on individual numbers in Ives’s 114 Songs (self-published, 1922). For these, Ives marked up pages in the printed songbook, citing the make-up of the group that would play a given planned arrangement, and adding annotations such as “Strings here”, “Trombone”, “more Woods”, “Basset on solo line”. These were clear enough indications for an amanuensis such as the intended Nicolas Slonimsky or – much later – myself, Kenneth Singleton, and David Porter, to do realizations of Ives’s intentions. For some of the arrangements, Ives found it necessary to supplement with a manuscript page, as he did for Swimmers and Charlie Rutlage.

Almost the whole of the Sets for Chamber Orchestra is “Songs without Words” (note the subtitle of Set No. 8). However, the song texts offer great insights into Ives’s thinking as he molds the character of the pieces and makes them aptly eventful, moment to moment, and a rounded musical shape in miniature that needs to be taken in with full attention. One of the delights within the Sets for Chamber Orchestra is Ives’s reuse of several of the pieces in slightly different treatments: The Indians is heard in four versions, New/Ruined River in three, and two each of Ann StreetAt SeaThe Last ReaderLike a Sick EagleLuck and Work, and The See’r.

The movements within the Sets are rife with musical borrowings and allusions, especially of hymn tunes. For instance, Set No. 2’s Andante: The Last Reader uses BethanyCherith, and ManoahSet No. 3’s Adagio sostenuto: At Sea in its short time alludes to AzmonBethanyCome, ye disconsolate, and Missionary ChantSet No. 7’s ever-so-brief The Pond alludes to David (or Hexham) and touchingly references Taps at its close.

Set No. 1 – the anguished Like a Sick Eagle was written while Ives’s wife, Harmony, was in the hospital (eventually losing their only chance for a biological child). A Lecture is a hybrid where the purely instrumental portion leads to an ending that later became a song (Tolerance); Ives pictures the rustle and excited anticipation of students before a lecture by a Yale professor (the trumpet). Calcium Light Night recalls a traditional parade around Yale’s Old Campus on fraternity Tap Night; each of the four wind instruments representing a separate organization, the parade starting at a distance, passing by, and disappearing into the night, the marchers carrying limelight torches.

Set No. 2 – “Gyp the Blood” or Hearst!? Which is Worst?! depicts the elusive murderer Harry Horowitz (nicknamed “Gyp the Blood”) in the dodging, ragtime-y piano while the yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst pounds out daily sensational headlines about the search for Gyp, or as Ives puts it “Gyp, a prominent criminal, gets the gallows … Hearst, another prominent criminal, gets the money.”

Set No. 7 – The Pond (known as a song as Remembrance) is an elegy for Ives’s father and great mentor, George, who died at the beginning of Ives’s freshman year at Yale.

Set No. 9 – The Unanswered Question is here in its original, intended seat. It is the best known of all the music in these sets. The strings represent an unseen, unperturbable presence (be it God, the universe, the Harmony of the Spheres, or the “Silence of the Druids,” as Ives puts it). The trumpet poses a question and the woodwinds react, at first lazily, then mocking, and at last fiercely angry. The question is asked again, answered by the eternal silence.

About the Set for Theatre Orchestra, Charles Ives writes in his Memos:

The first [movement, In the Cage] is a result of taking a walk one hot summer afternoon in Central Park with [Yale classmates] Bart Yung (one-half Oriental) and George Lewis (non-Oriental) when we were all living together at 65 Central Park West [New York City] in 1906 (or before). Sitting on a bench near the menagerie, watching the leopard’s cage and a little boy (who had apparently been a long time watching the leopard) – this aroused Bart’s Oriental fatalism – hence the text in the score and in the song. … A drum is supposed to be the leopard’s feet going pro and con.

The second movement, In the Inn, uses No. 1 of Ives’s Four Ragtime Dances as a platform for capturing the old theatre orchestra practice of adding popular tunes on top of given compositions; the movement is thus subtitled Potpourri. In In the Inn Ives uses the popular songs After the BallPush dem Clouds AwayReuben and Rachel, and Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay, and the hymn tunes Bringing in the Sheaves and Welcome Voice.

The third movement, In the Night, is a quiet elegy; a distant mesh of sound surrounds the French horn intoning an old song. Ives writes:

“The words under the Solo Horn staff are not to be sung. They are from an old song (suggested in a general way in this part), which was often sung in the travelling ‘Minstrel Shows’ popular in the 80s and 90s – a form of ‘theatricals’ that unfortunately has almost disappeared.”

The source of this verse is unknown to the writer.

James Sinclair