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Bellamann’s Program Note to the 1927 Premiere of the Prelude and Comedy Movements

James B. Sinclair
Thomas M. Brodhead

Ives’s voice can be heard clearly in the 1927 program note otherwise written by Henry Bellamann.1 The note reveals a different—perhaps the original—order for the movements.

Bellamann’s Note

TWO MOVEMENTS FROM A SYMPHONY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Charles E. Ives
(First Time)

Mr. Ives is an American, born in Connecticut, and educated at Yale. He studied with Horatio Parker, but an extremely individual manner of musical thought was evident even in the student fugues and sonatas of that period.

An examination of his unpublished scores reveals a gradual evolution with no sharp transitions. Some of the larger works written many years ago employed polytonal and atonal devices, with quarter tone experiments and harmonic developments which precede in point of time the innovations of the extreme modernists. Mr. Ives’ Music, it must be remembered, rests upon the secure foundation of a sound musical education. It is actually far more logical than Schoenberg, and equally uncompromising. It is of New England—the New England of a granitic Puritanism—and reflects a strangely introspective and profoundly philosophic temperament in its extreme unsensuousness and in its closely knit and irrefutable logic. Almost it would seem that the New England spirit of the forefathers has come incredibly into an adequate artistic expression.

This symphony, the fourth, was written for the most part in 1910 and completed about ten years ago. It consists of four movements,—a Prelude, a majestic fugue, a third movement in comedy vein, and a finale of transcendental spiritual content.

The aesthetic program of the work is that of many of the greatest literary and musical masterpieces of the world—the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life. This is particularly the sense of the prelude. The three succeeding movements are the diverse answers in which existence replies.

One word should be spoken here of the peculiar place hymn tunes held in the consciousness of the old New Englanders of the country and the smaller towns. Religion was the only emotional outlet of these earlier Puritans, and hymns the only expression in art medium. All of the repressed humanity of those rock bound souls was poured into fervent renditions of them. Some of these hymns were fine, some very poor, and many were the worst of musical compositions, but we cannot take any account of the emotional workings of the mind and heart of the Puritan without an admission of these themes as vehicles.

The texture of this symphony is threaded through with strands based on old hymns—not quotations from them, but thematic material derived from them. Most auditors will be surprised to discover that many of the hymn tunes are in a pentatonic scale (fourth and seventh either omitted or used sparingly on weaker accents). This characteristic makes it quite natural to interweave them, and is at the same time productive of atonal aspects of the musical development.

The prelude is brief, and its brooding introspective measures have a searching wistful quality. It would seem to derive from the silence of a Sabbath hour when the soul, beset and weary of earthly vexations, turns toward the Infinite, toward life and in upon itself with questions of the ultimate meaning of existence.

It is scored for strings, voices, trumpet, celesta, piano with a distant choir of harp and muted strings. The Fugue, omitted in this performance, is an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism.2

The succeeding movement, the one being played at this concert, is not a scherzo in any accepted sense of the word; but it is a comedy. It is comedy in the sense that Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad is comedy. Indeed this work of Hawthorne’s may be considered as a sort of incidental program in which an exciting, easy, and worldly progress through life is contrasted with the trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through the swamp. The occasional slow episodes—Pilgrims’ hymns—are constantly crowded out and overwhelmed by the former. The dream, or fantasy, ends with an interruption of reality—the Fourth of July in Concord—brass bands, drum corps, etc. Here are old popular tunes, war songs, and the like.

The movement is scored for flutes, piccolo, clarinets, trumpets, cornet (in the impromptu manner of the soloists in the old bands)[,] trombones, percussion groups, solo piano, a second piano used orchestrally, high and low bells, and strings.3

Melody, harmony, orchestral color and thematic development are used as contributing factors to the rhythmic structure which is of unprecedented complexity. There is a simultaneous movement of quasi-independent rhythms on four or five planes. These are not meant to be heard separately. The blend of the cross rhythms, of long and short rhythmic curves, promotes the intricate and exciting movement.

These rhythmic clashes and contradictions are in the nature of rhythmic dissonance, if a phrase may be coined to describe them.

Basically there is a rhythm marked by gongs, and deeper metallic timbres. Above that the drums, then smaller drums, and an Indian drum. Above these the wood wind is used rather as percussion—brass similarly. There is notable absence from the score of the lyrical voices of oboe and French horn. The solo piano plays the role of leader.

The use of long groups of seven, eleven, and thirteen in the last movement as rhythmical units without intramensural accents may be noticed. In nearly all of these cross rhythms the parts begin on unaccented beats. Sometimes these units coincide on the initial beats, more often they have only a paragraphic coincidence.

This is music of hard bone and tough sinew. It is bound into technical unity by the most extraordinary mastery of material that is often crabbed and fractious.

This expression of Dionysian frenzy, written, it must be remembered, some years ago, is a curiously apposite portrayal of contemporary mental and moral excitement.

Notes

1 Most of the program note would appear to have been written or dictated by Ives. Bellamann may have been solely responsible for paragraphs 1, 2, 11, 12, 15, and 16 (though still based on thoughts from Ives). The presentation of this program note is unedited, save for an added [bracketed] comma and the elimination of a single comma following the word “years” in the final paragraph.

2 Here would be the likely location of Ives’s oft-quoted and revelatory sentence, “The last movement is an apotheosis of the preceding content, in terms that have something to do with the reality of existence and its religious experience.” In his own Memos, Ives attributes that comment to Bellamann’s program note, yet the sentence is found nowhere in Bellamann’s text. This strongly suggests that Ives drafted or ghost-wrote most of the note for Bellamann. More importantly, it underlines the significance of the entire note for understanding Ives’s own philosophical thesis for the symphony.

3 The list overlooks the presence of bassoon, tuba, and celesta.