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The Meaning of Ives’s Conductor’s Note Essay

Thomas M. Brodhead
The encircled letters in the second movement indicate the distance from the audience an instrument is to be located. This location changes from passage to passage. Unless you are attempting a full realization of Ives’s radical plan, which would require hundreds of duplicate musicians, the encircled letters should be ignored.


The essay concluding Ives’s Conductor’s Note is a dense treatise whose meaning is difficult for readers to grasp even after repeated encounters. This is understandable, because the thicket of ideas presented by Ives is not helped by his free-associative manner of writing, which is otherwise wonderful in its mercurial style. So impressive were the ideas in the essay that Henry Cowell reprinted it (edited and shortened) under the title “Music and Its Future” in American Composers on American Music: A Symposium (1933). But it is doubtful that even Cowell grasped its actual meaning for the “Comedy” movement of the Fourth Symphony.

The essay is a footnote to Ives’s introductory sentence, “The letters (in a circle) over some of the parts indicate the degree of prominence these may take.” All the text in the essay is a therefore a gloss on that instruction. Ives’s far-reaching mind simply could not provide a concise explanation of the encircled letters A B C D E F G (the “prominence indicators,” hereafter), so he expanded upon their intended use in the Fourth Symphony to discuss how all music might benefit from the effect they denote.

Conventionally, the prominence indicators have been interpreted as sigla that rate the importance of the various threads of the orchestral fabric, much like the Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme symbols of Schoenberg. Kurt Stone, who supervised the original 1965 publication of the Fourth Symphony, assumed as much, and wrote in his review of the premiere, “How concerned [Ives] was over questions of proper balance shows itself in the scale of prominence of the different musical components (what Schoenberg called Haupthema and Nebenthema, etc.), which he added to the usual dynamic markings, a scale that goes from A all the way down to F!”1

But an examination of the music does not support this interpretation. Instrumental parts with the same prominence letter in the same passage do not necessarily share the same material. This contradicts an interpretation linking prominence with musical content. Prominence letters do not follow any consistent dynamic pattern, either: On a single page, A might be mp while C is ff and G is pp. Increasing the entropy, parts with the same prominence letter do not always share the same dynamic level: A may simultaneously comprise f, mp, and pp while D includes both fff and mf. Lastly, consecutive prominence letters are often missing in passages, where, for example, A, C, and F are employed but B, D, E, and G are absent.

Whither prominence? The cause for misinterpretation is in large part semantic. By using the word “prominence,” Ives invites the reader to infer priority, but Ives is actually referring to physical prominence, meaning proximity.

Briefly, Ives’s plan is for members of the orchestra to be seated at varying distances from the audience in order to create the effect of volume at a distance. Ives’s experiments with spatial separation of musicians is well documented for other works, and, at first blush, a discussion of his plan for the second movement of the Fourth Symphony may seem conventional. But in fact his plan for the movement is quite extraordinary, and is very much different from the scattered instructions for spatial separation found in his other works.

In his Memos Ives writes on the Fourth Symphony:

Technically, an important matter that has to do with the playing of this symphony, especially the second and fourth movements, is that of varying degrees of the intensities of various parts or groups. . . . If the players are put as usual, grouped together on the same stage, the effect of the sound will not give the full meaning of the music. These movements should not all be played in the foreground, with the sounds coming the same distance from the sounding bodies to the listeners’ ears.2

Here it is clear that Ives intends the musicians to be seated in an unconventional manner. From this it is natural to segue to the opening sentence of the Conductor’s Note essay:

To give the various parts in their intended relations is, at times, as conductors and players know, more difficult than it may seem to the casual listener. . . . In this connection, a distribution of instruments . . . or an arrangement of them at varying distances from the audience is a matter of some interest, as is also the consideration . . . to devise plans . . . so that the distance sounds shall travel, from the sounding body to the listener’s ears, may be a favorable element in interpretation. . . . Experiments . . . seem to indicate that there are possibilities in this matter that may benefit the presentation of music, not only from the standpoint of clarifying the harmonic, rhythmic, thematic material, etc., but of bringing the inner content to a deeper realization. . . .

Ives has therefore established a direct connection between prominence and physical proximity.

If the distance between the audience and the players is altered, the perceived volume of the individual parts will likewise be affected. Ives addresses this issue in the Conductor’s Note essay in this way:

It is difficult to reproduce the sounds and feeling distance gives to sound wholly by reducing or increasing the number of instruments or varying their intensities. A brass band playing pianissimo across the street is a different sounding thing than the same band playing the same piece forte, a block or so away.

Here Ives points out that our apprehension of the absolute volume of sound is constant even when our distance from the source of the sound varies. For example, the quantity of volume that is received from a trumpet playing f across the street may not be great, but the quality of the sound makes it apparent to us that the trumpet is in fact playing f. Ives is not interested in muting sounds by placing instruments far from the audience, but instead his interest is creating the effect of volume at a distance for the various parts of the score. Therefore, the dynamics printed in the score likely indicate the absolute volumes instruments should perform unto themselves and the prominence indicators define the distance from the audience where the instruments should be located.

Therefore, a part marked A should be closer to the audience than a part marked B than a part marked C, etc. But how would this affect a specific section in the score? At rehearsal 10—the “Battle of the Triplets” section—Ives employs A for triplets on the beat, B for triplets offset by an eighth rest (R), and C for triplets offset by a sixteenth rest (E). In the Conductor’s Note entry on this section Ives writes:

This passage is an illustration of a matter discussed in the footnote. If the instruments here could be grouped and placed apart from each other and at varying distances from the audience, the rhythms would better stand out in their perspective.

Varying the distances would indeed clarify this passage. During conventional performances, each successive entrance wipes out the previous one, so that when all of the triplet patterns are sounding, then typically only the topmost one is heard clearly. Distance might in fact set the three rhythms in relief.

Realizing this plan would be exceedingly difficult: Because Ives does not state exactly how the instruments are to be arranged, it becomes a matter left up to the creativity of the conductor and his willingness for experimentation; because the instruments often switch prominence levels from line to line, duplicate musicians would need to be located at different “prominence areas” so that the same instrument could be at two locations at the same time; because the instrumental forces would be excessively large, novel auditorium accommodations would be necessary; and, obviously, extra rehearsals would be mandatory to ensure effective coordination of the ensembles. In the Conductor’s Note essay, Ives addresses these issues directly:

The cost of trial rehearsals, duplicate players, locations or halls suitably arranged and acoustically favorable, is very high nowadays. The plan will seem to some little more than another way of increasing the already heavy burdens of conductors, orchestras and their management.

But does this mean that the symphony should only be performed with a novel seating arrangement of the players? Ives responds:

. . . whether the process will help or not help music presentation is another matter. Nor does anything that has been said mean to imply that music which might be benefited by a certain arrangement, etc., of players, cannot be given acceptably well in the usual way, with sufficient rehearsals and care in preparation.

But if these effects are not audible, has Ives the composer failed at his craft? Or does the fault lie in poor orchestration? Ives apparently considered these problems and answered them in his entry on the Fourth Symphony in the Memos:

. . . is a sound which is constant . . . cancelled, when another louder sound . . . comes, so that the hearer does not seem to hear the first sound? I have never yet seen any theory describing (both aurally and scientifically) the nature and processes etc. of sound waves, together with their relation to the physiology of the ear, that seemed to me absolute proof that sounds (as above) are cancelled. The Professors and musicians say—“If you don’t hear this sound (and a graph does not show the waves of this sound), isn’t that proof that they are cancelled?”—NO—How does the listener know that he doesn’t hear?3

Therefore, even if a conductor chooses a traditional orchestral seating arrangement for a performance of the Fourth Symphony—an arrangement that risks blurring many of the multi-dynamic acoustic effects in the second movement—the audience would still receive all of the sounds contained in the score and would therefore apprehend them, consciously or unconsciously.


1 Kurt Stone, “Ives’s Fourth Symphony: A Review,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1 (January 1966): 7. Notice that Stone overlooks the seventh prominence level, G.

2 Charles E. Ives, Memos, ed. John Kirkpatrick (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 67.

3 Ibid.