Music Appreciation: The Alcotts (Concord Sonata) by Charles Ives

After a lot of band and orchestra music, let’s move on to something completely different: a piano solo.

Charles Ives, 1913

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

Specifically, The Alcotts by Charles Ives, an American composer who lived from 1874 – 1954. He had a “day job” at an insurance company while pursing music in his free time – something many musicians (including myself) can relate to. His father, George, was a bandleader, and he encouraged Charles’s musicality. The story I’d heard in college was that George would play a song in one key and make Charles sing the same song in another key at the same time. Combined tonalities and other experiments certainly show up in a lot of Ives’ music – if he was arranging something as simple as “Mary had a little lamb”, I’m sure he’d manage to have Mary singing in one key and rhythm while her lamb was off cavorting in some other key and rhythm. And yet it would all make an absurd sort of sense.

Like so many other pieces I’ll talk about on the blog, I was first introduced to Ives’ music in college band. We’d played his Circus Band March, then later on played an arrangement of The Alcotts. This piece is the third movement in his second piano sonata (the “Concord”). The four movements are inspired by literary figures from New England: I) Emerson, II) Hawthorne, III) The Alcotts and IV) Thoreau.

Although the sound quality on this recording is a bit fuzzy, I really wanted to use this particular one as it is Ives himself playing his own piece. If you’d like to follow along with the sheet music, check out the PDF at

As you listen to the piece, note that Ives uses the famous motif of Beethoven’s fifth symphony frequently. This motif appears in each of the four movements of the sonata. Ives also quotes other pieces throughout, and I’ll admit I don’t know them all. But I guarantee you’ll recognize one other later in the piece.

We don’t often think of musical works such as sonatas or symphonies having a cast of characters, but this is one of the exceptions. To me, the main character of this piece is Beth Alcott’s piano. As Ives himself wrote in Essays Before a Sonata:

“And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony…

…And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms – the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day – though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above) – a strength of hope that never gives way to despair – a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.”

We hear the Beethoven’s Fifth quote right away. Gently, though, and expanded with beautiful harmonies underneath. The theme also relates to two hymn tunes: “Martyn” and “Missionary Chant.” There’s a bit of tension at 0:26, but it doesn’t last long. The bass line (left hand on piano) begins to play repeated chords which, to me, feel rather like a drone. On top of that we hear what Ives calls the “human faith melody” (0:33), a tune that he uses in the other movements as well. The melody lasts until 0:57, and includes quotes from both Beethoven’s fifth symphony and piano sonata no. 29 (as per James B. Sinclair).

At 0:58-059, do you hear the “chime”? Ives plays it very quietly, so you may have to crank the volume to catch it. To me, it’s reminiscent of a grandfather clock, or perhaps a distant church bell. It’s one of those moments where Ives seems to reinforce the idea of a girl playing piano in the parlor of her home, with all the other sounds of daily life happening around her.

We move on with a short bit of new melodic content which leads us into another statement of the human faith melody at 1:08. This time, the melody gets louder and a bit more frantic. We don’t get to finish the entire theme, as Ives spends time developing the Beethoven motifs. Listen for the repeated rhythm while he changes which pitches are used. We continue to get louder and faster – Ives’ written direction in the score actually says, “in a gradually excited way”.

At 1:46, we hear the first climax of this section, with a repeat of the Beethoven’s Fifth motif. Here’s another instance of Ives painting a mental picture for us. Do you hear the seemingly random little plinks of high notes here? The “wrong” notes are very much correct and intentional. These notes were explained to me as recreating the idea of the old family piano, with tuning issues and some sticky keys, which lead to hearing some sounds that weren’t meant to be played. Another image that comes to my mind is a young child who is “helping” the pianist out by slyly pressing keys near the end of the keyboard (chances are, if you’ve played a piano near a youngster, you’ve had this happen!)

The music continues to work itself into a frenzy, getting faster and louder until we reach the real climax of the section at 1:59. Notice that we still get some rogue plinks here. But we quiet back down and hear another snippet of the human faith melody (2:09). Ives changes it up a bit at 2:14-21, but we do go on to hear the rest of the theme with some interesting harmonies added to it. We finally rest a bit at 2:37 on a dominant seventh chord (B♭, D, F, and A♭) that helps us to transition into the next section of the piece. (In the printed music, there’s another plink here, but I’m not hearing it in the recording. I’m not sure if it’s because it just doesn’t come through in the recording or if Ives didn’t play it. I’ve read that he didn’t always play this piece the same way.)

The section beginning at 2:41 pays homage to the other songs that Beth played. I love this melody. It’s rather straightforward, but Ives includes some tasty harmonies. At 2:51, we hear a snippet of “Loch Lomond” (“…never meet again…”, but in a slightly different rhythm), which leads into the quote I know you’ll recognize: “Here Comes the Bride” (Wagner’s Bridal Chorus, 2:56) We move a bit faster with new melodic content, ending on that same dominant seventh chord at 3:11 (this is another spot where the printed music has a plink but I don’t hear it in the recording).

We’re treated to that lovely melody from 2:41 again, this time beginning at 3:15. We hear most of it, but again Ives doesn’t let us finish the theme and takes us into some more developmental material. We start working into a frenzy again, this time using moving melodic lines instead of block chords. But the idea is similar – it moves us toward the final climax of the piece. We get closer at 4:01; to me, I feel we gain a bit more stability here, with solid chords in the bass and repeated rhythms in the upper notes. Those repeated notes coincide with the pattern found at the beginning of the human faith melody, and that melody is what we get at 4:04. It’s the slightly altered version we heard back at 2:09, but we get to hear the entire theme this time. The final climax occurs at 4:22, with huge, powerful chords playing the Beethoven portion of the human faith melody. That power continues until 4:38 or so, when we settle back down into the gentleness of the beginning of the piece and finish the human faith melody. Ives finishes the piece with a lovely bit of melody that takes us down into a soft and satisfying C major chord.

For that era, Ives was quite experimental in his work. In this piece, he rarely used time signatures or barlines, which lends to the ebb-and-flow feel of the piece. At one point, he has different key signatures for the right hand (two flats) and the left hand (four flats). He uses standard key and time signatures during the homage, which seems to befit the notion that Beth is playing from some songbooks. And while he has used standard time signatures, he’s also not afraid to use an unusual one: 4½ over 4! (It’s “legal” – you just have four and a half beats (4½ quarter notes = 9 eighth notes) with the quarter note getting the beat).

And there ends my discussion of The Alcotts by Charles Ives. Check out the bonus features post for some other renditions of the piece.

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Cheer the Snowy Weather When You Hear This Favorite Winter Hit

Hearing the opening bars of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride immediately evokes mental images of snow, Christmas, or just winter in general. Certainly not a summer heat wave! Yet Anderson composed this classic winter song during a heat wave in the summer of 1946. This demonstrates his skill in using musical imagery to great effect in his works. Sleigh Ride is no exception.

Old-fashioned horse and sleigh

Old-fashioned horse and sleigh
(used under CC0 license)

Anderson’s music falls into the category of “light classical”. If you’ve heard anything by the Boston Pops (notable conductors include Arthur Fiedler, John Williams and Keith Lockhart), you’ve heard light classical. The lines can be a bit blurry as to what makes something “light” classical versus “serious”, but I think of it like the movies: the “serious” pieces are the heavy-hitting dramas that get nominations for Best Picture at the Oscars; the “light” pieces are your romantic comedies and such. Or literary fiction compared to a cozy mystery. It’s wonderful that we so much to choose from!



The introduction throws us immediately into this winter wonderland, with the jingling sleigh bells and bouncy trumpet call, followed by flute snowflakes. I like the horn tension underneath the trumpets at the beginning.

Then we get on our merry way, with the horse trotting through the snow. The main melody is so happy and light!  There’s a smooth, longer line in the mid-range instruments that my bassoonist friend likes to say is the road the sleigh is traveling over. Listen for the reply in the trombones and bass voices after the first statement of the theme (0:20).

The next section adds some temple blocks for the “horse hoof” effect. Not quite as funny as a pair of coconuts, but it gets the image across just the same. There’s a nice little countermelody going on in this section. It sounds like it’s in the violas, but I’m not positive on that as I’ve only performed the band version (do any of my readers know?). Then we hit a sforzando-piano chord at 0:42 (it’s suddenly accented then immediately softer) in the horns, which grows louder (crescendos) as the xylophone gives us a transition back into the main theme.

Dashing through the snow

This time, the theme is played by the trumpets as the high woodwinds and strings create snow flurries by playing a short trill on each note. After this time through the melody, we move into a syncopated transition and the ensemble gets quieter for the next part.

Here we get another toy from the percussion – the “whip”. You might think, “how hard can that be to play?”. Well, you need to be absolutely on time with those whip cracks! After a buildup in volume from the rest of the ensemble, there’s one beat where no one else plays – if the whip doesn’t sound there, it’s rather obvious. After the successful whip crack, Anderson brings us back down to piano (soft) in order to crescendo again into another whip crack. With the distraction of the whip and the liveliness of the melody, it’s easy to miss some neat chord changes that are happening during this bit after the second whip crack (1:13).

The next transition harkens back to the beginning of the piece, but adds some echoes and uses shorter segments of that trumpet theme (1:33) before restating the “flute snowflake” theme (1:40). But for the next statement of the main theme, Anderson makes it 20% cooler by jazzing the whole thing up. The trumpets do their jazzy thing, followed by the trombones’ more bombastic reply (1:47). Then everyone gets to jump in: the upper voices get a fun doodle and the basses have a great moving line.

Heading home

After the excitement of the jazz section, the ensemble settles back down for the rest of the ride. We hear familiar themes and accompaniments as the pieces winds down. Anderson doesn’t let us get completely comfortable, though, as he interjects a brief call-and-answer between the instruments (2:30). This begins the lead-up to the most famous part of the piece: the horse whinny, courtesy of a solo trumpet player. We then hear a quick salute to the clip-clop of the horse hooves and one more whip crack before the entire orchestra announces the end.

I’ll close this post with a fun arrangement of Sleigh Ride. Remember how we had that odd-metered section in Armenian Dances? The one in 5/8 time? Well, here’s Sleigh Ride in 7/8. The seven beats might not be easily heard right away, but the intro has a 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 rhythm, so you’ll hear three long pulses then one short pulse. This sequence happens four times (four measures’ worth) before the melody starts. Whether or not you can hear those seven quick notes per measure, you should feel a bit of a lilt to the rhythm.

Happy and safe holidays, everyone!

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