Ives may have been the first sound-mass composer, albeit achieving those walls of sound not with static harmonic clusters, but with rapidly moving melodic lines (e.g., #2vs. $4sections in the Comedy: mm. 200–207 and mm. 211–217). But even in those sections, the instruments play at different dynamic levels, where certain instruments are clearly intended to “cut through” (Ives’s phrase in his Conductor’s Note) the rest of the material. And so it goes for the entire symphony, which is a celebration of melodies: certain lines must stand out in each passage, else the music risks becoming an inpenetrable thicket of sound lacking anything for the listener to hang his or her hat on. It’s therefore important to consider in each section what are the predominant lines and how to emphasize them.
Ives’s indications for indistinct dynamics (“…barely perceptible…”) seem at times theoretical concepts: if an instrument is all-but-inaudible to the conductor, will it be audible at all for listeners in the balcony, or even for listeners just a few rows back from the front of the auditorium? If a line is interesting to the conductor/interpreter, it seems wise to ensure that it can be heard by all.
Ives was also a composer steeped in the Romantic tradition, and as detailed as his modernist ideas were, his music will suffer if a mechanical interpretation is applied to it. Phrasing is key to an engaging performance of Ives; his attention to tempos and temporal transitions alone attest to its necessity. As such, an agogic extension of certain measures will help convey the alternately intriguing and beautiful sounds that they contain.
What follows is therefore a listing of elements in the score that may require special interpretive or rehearsal attention (or both, as the case may be).
m. 20, 22, 24: Perhaps allow “breathing room” and exposure for the Solo Piano in each of the poco tenutos in these measures. (The ak4 in the Solo Piano in m. 24 is the “Glory-beaming Star” of the Watchman hymn; it’s no coincidence that the Basses begin the Finale using Aks when intoning “Bethany,” nor that the final note in Violin I at the end of the Finale is ak4.)1
mm. 7–15: Perhaps employ an audible dynamic for the two soli Violins here; they are in dialogue with the Solo Piano and Quarter-tone piano, and thus should be heard as easily by the audience as the Pianos will be.
mm. 38 onward: The one or two soli Violins might likewise be best played audibly here.
mm. 43–46: Despite being marked mp, the unison Clarinet triplets and trills in the Upper Orchestra may overpower the ff Flutes and Piccolo, which have the loudest dynamics in between the tutti chords in this passage. It may be worthwhile, therefore, to instruct the Clarinets to play the triplets and trills soft enough so that they themselves hear the Flutes and Piccolo through m. 47, at which point all Upper Orchestra instruments play at unified fortissimo dynamics.
mm. 59–60: Notice that the 1st and 2nd Trumpets have the loudest dynamic, and in m. 61 the Solo Piano then takes the dynamic lead.
mm. 107–111: Notice that the Tenor Saxophone and the Primo Piano play the same #16metrics as the Trumpets (all renotated to fit the $4 meter). It may be wise during rehearsal first to ensure the Trumpets can play their rhythms, then the same for the Saxophone and Primo Piano, and then finally combine them as a group.
mm. 112–114: The High Bells have the loudest dynamic and their top line is the principal melody; it may be wise to ensure that it stands out.
mm. 115–120: The Clarinets, Trumpet I, Trombone I, and Violin II have the principal melody (“In the Sweet Bye and Bye”), albeit each at a different dynamic level. The rest of the instruments in the IN 5 group are punctuating “Come, Thou Fount of Evr’y Blessing” at ff, but it is doubtful that their melodic line could be made to stand out. Bringing out the dynamics of the Clarinets, Trumpet, Trombone, and Violin II to emphasize their tune—a principal theme in the composition of the movement—seems a stronger interpretive choice.
mm. 123–138: The Flutes and Piccolo are marked to sound “at pitch,” but the Piccolo’s notes are inaudible when fingered/played an octave lower than printed in the full score (and as faithfully rewritten in the part). If a Flute were to play the Piccolo’s part at sounding pitch, however, it would easily sound above the music below. Thus, it might be wise to have the 2nd Flute player—who has cues for the Piccolo part for this passage—replace the Piccolo here, playing its part in its sounding octave, and have the Piccolo resume playing in m. 139.
mm. 123–135: The accents in the Secondo Piano, Solo Piano, Cellos, and Basses might provide a good rhythmic counterpoint to the melody in the Trumpets; Ives writes of the accents, “as a drum…struck and left.”
mm. 141–145: To maximize the difference in tempi between the “static tempo” group and the main orchestra, it would be wise to execute a greater decelerando in the main orchestra than indicated in the score, perhaps reaching t=80 or less in m. 145.
mm. 141–145: The Solo Piano is ff and should emerge from the texture as the “static tempo” group dissolves (the “static tempo” percussion are initially at f, and they should initially stand out, as they represent the slowing of the train’s wheels in the Celestial Railroad program of the movement).
mm. 161–165: The ragtime of the Solo Piano, reinforced by Trumpet I, should likely be set in dynamic relief.
mm. 178–180: Even with paper covering the bell, the Cornet line should sail above the rest of the orchestra, being overtaken by the Trombones in m. 180.
mm. 181–190: The accented notes in the Trombones, Secondo Piano, and low strings should likely punctuate the material below the soaring line of the Violins.
mm. 200–207: The leading melody in the #2orchestra is in Trombones I & II (cued in III & IV, if needed for emphasis), and the corresponding leader in the $4orchestra is the Cornet, which is doubled by the Ether Organ; Ives states in the Conductor’s Note to the movement that the Cornet should “cut through” the texture.
mm. 213–215: Here again, the Cornet & Ether Organ should “cut through” the texture. Also, notice that Trumpet III is optionally 8va in mm. 211–212; this may or may not be desirable provided the Cornet’s entrance in the same range in m. 213.
m. 264: The Comedy ends with the greatest Viola joke ever written (i.e., they’ve lost their place in the music); ensure that the Violas are fully exposed and caught with their pants down.
m. 19: The septuplet of the soli Violin II players may be profitably brought to the fore.
mm. 32–34: The bird calls in the woodwinds and the star-music of the D.C. are performing an antiphonal dialogue, here fulfilling the Trombone’s directive at the end of the Fugue (“Let Heaven and Nature Sing…”). Ensure that the D.C. can be heard clearly; the melody in the Violin I and the Ether Organ on the ground below should be audible as well.
mm. 50–58: The principal melody in Violin II, Flute 2, and Clarinet 1 would be good to bring out initially, then the brass in m. 54 and in dialogue with Violin II to shape this climactic passage of the movement’s rondo.
mm. 59–63: It may be efficacious for the Principal Conductor to conduct the #2parts, as the y tempo of the #2is unchanged from the previous section; using this technique, the second onstage conductor would conduct the $4parts, subdividing 4 against the Principal Conductor’s unchanged 3.
m. 64: The interplay of the thrushes in the Woodwinds and the heavens-music in the D.C. is best heard if the measure is not rushed; notice that the ^2y is equal to the $2y of the previous section.
mm. 65–70: notice that the brass, at mp, have the loudest dynamics of the section; the melody in the first Trombone would seem to deserve prominence.
m. 71: A cadential harmony emerges from the polyphony: II 6⁄5 – I 6⁄4 – V in D-major.2 Slowing this measure a bit to expose the harmony may enhance its beauty.
m. 85: Notice the encircled Roman numeral V: it is the last of five such OU-BU coordination cue numerals where downbeats between the OU and the BU align (with five numerals chosen to correspond to the five fingers of the hand, thus allowing the principal conductor to hold up corresponding numbers of fingers as a signal to the conductor of the BU). It is vitally important that the BU percussion trails off at the end—having the last word of the movement, just as it began it—so even if the other coordination numerals are not being used, this one is especially helpful for aligning the BU with the OU so that it will be at the right place at the movement’s end.
1 See Michael Jacko, Context, Ideology, and Performance in Charles Ives’s Symphony no. 4, 2014 University of Maryland PhD Dissertation.
2 See Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life with Music, p. 363, n. 34.