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Travel to Concord with Ives’s “The Alcotts”

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 have Mary singing in one key and rhythm while her lamb was off cavorting in another key and rhythm. And yet it would all make an absurd sort of sense.

Like so many other pieces featured on this 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.

The sound quality on this recording is a bit fuzzy. But 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 IMSLP.org

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Quoting Beethoven

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.”

Let us begin

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”.

The right wrong notes?

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.)

Listening to Beth play

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). This 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 power of music

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 befits 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 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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Lori Archer Sutherland

Lori Archer Sutherland earned a Bachelor of Music in Theory and Composition degree from the Ohio State University and a Master of Library and Information Science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She composes, performs, and teaches clarinet. She plays bass clarinet with the Crystal Lake Community Band and the Woodstock City Band, clarinet with Winds Off the Lake Woodwind Quintet, and is the founder and organizer of the Knock on Wood Clarinet Choir, where she plays an even bigger clarinet. Check out her site and podcast at tonaldiversions.com

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