Sunday, August 7, 2016

Charles Ives: Violin Sonata No. 1 (1903 - 1908)

I was trying to tell someone the other day that, while opinionated, I try not to be biased or prejudiced. The reason we have minds is to judge things, of course, but the trick is to judge them well, based on knowledge and understanding, not blind bigotry. So I am going to do a few posts that might demonstrate this to some extent.

Our chamber festival is in full swing right now and it is the usual mixture of interesting and not very interesting. One of the interesting things is a pair of concerts by Jeremy Denk, a very well-known American pianist. His most recent recording is of the Goldberg Variations. The first of the two back-to-back concerts is "From Medieval to Modern Music" which will contain music by Machaut through the common practice masters to the modern masters (Cage, Ligeti, Adams) and back to Machaut. If you know your Machaut then you know exactly what piece he is likely to end with: that marvellous palindrome "Ma fin est mon commencement" ("My end is my beginning")


As the text indicates, it is a double canon in reverse!

Anyway, I will let you know if this is in fact the piece by Machaut he chooses. The second concert is even more interesting, consisting of all four of Charles Ives' sonatas for violin and piano. Here is where the overcoming bias comes in: I'm not much of an Ives fan. I like some of his music (I owned the Tilson Thomas recording of the "Three Places in New England" orchestral set way back in the 70s and thought it was a fine piece), but other pieces, like his String Quartet No. 2 and the symphonies, I find to be either uninteresting musically or outright abuse of the audience. Sometimes he tried too hard to be the Ernest Hemingway of composers! But a while ago I noticed that Hilary Hahn, my favorite violinist, had recently recorded all four of the violin sonatas and now another very reputable musician is devoting a whole concert to them (with violinist Stefan Jackiw). That's two pretty important votes. So I am going to attend the concert and in preparation, I have just gotten the Hahn CD.



After a couple of listens to the album I'm surprised to find that these pieces are very fine and interesting music. Ives himself seemed to think they were back-pedaling, going too soft on the audience (not sure why this is a vice, though), and in his Memos he called them:
"weak-minded, retrogressive"
and described the First Sonata as:
"in part a kind slump backward, though in some places it is quite the opposite"
Ives, perhaps merely in self-defence against the small-minded conservatism he constantly encountered from musicians in his early years, tended to be tough-minded to a fault.

There is no question that Ives was a visionary pioneer, to the extent that, to this day, his music is perhaps less well understood than it might be. So let's have a look at it and see if we can achieve a few scraps of understanding. Here is the first page of the First Sonata:


You can certainly see why Hilary Hahn, in her notes to the album says.
When we got our hands on the sheet music, we attempted to read through it. That effort quickly stalled. Ives's music may sound at times transparent, but his notation turned out to be tremendously complex, filled with exacting markings for accents, articulations, disjointed dynamics, rhythmic intricacies, and changes of tempo.
You need to understand that these performers, Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa, are of a level of accomplishment that there are probably not many pieces in the repertoire that they can't simply read off at sight! But this music, even over a hundred years after its composition, is still very hard to read and understand. But, interestingly enough, it is not so hard to listen to! In fact, let's have a listen to this sonata:


The first page is about the first 50 seconds in the recording. What do we notice? Let's just take the first fourteen measures, ending just before the piano solo in the third measure of the last line. The piano begins with a brief phrase that seems to start in F minor, but quickly slides away from that. The notation is a bit perplexing because we have A flats and naturals at the same time, plus we have D# and E# and then D# and C# over an odd chord of E flat, B flat (then B natural) and F#. He is constantly beginning one kind of gesture (as in the first measure) that turns into an entirely unexpected one. The music is neither tonal nor atonal, but hovers between. I am very tempted to start re-spelling half these notes to try and make sense of them. But That Would Be Wrong! Let's look at the melodic lines and see what they reveal. The piano opens with


The phrase divides into two gestures, both opening with an ascending fifth (F to C answered by C to G) and the second one descends D# C# A G. It might almost be heard as a phrase in F ending on the dominant--except that the chord below is something else entirely: E B flat, C#! The next melody in the piano is this (in two sections):


Midway through the violin enters with a phrase that begins with a backwards version of the piano's first phrase:

Click to enlarge
Why does this sound familiar? The piano opened with rising 5th, falling major third: the first three notes of the violin phrase are falling minor third, rising fourth. It is a kind of obscure "family resemblance". This continues with the falling semitone, minor third, which echoes the rising whole tone, whole tone of the piano phrase. Yes, these are not the same intervals. Hey, I said "family resemblance". I mention this because we hear the violin phrase as being a kind of answer to or commentary on the piano phrase (while the piano is introducing another commentary itself). In an odd little gesture towards closure, both violin and piano end this phrase on a C#! The piano then has a tiny little phrase that also seems to echo something from before, then the violin has a new phrase. Incidentally, the piano had a turn with two whole tones (C B flat C D) and now the violin, in longer notes, has a bit of an echo of that: C D (B natural) E. That whole tone turn returns in the piano and both instruments continue with a new phrase that, without copying them exactly, again suggests the material from before. There is also another strong reference to the tonal practices of the past because the violin exactly reproduces the opening rising fifth of the piano (F# to C#) as if it were going to be a canon at the octave. But this does not continue. As I said, the music constantly hovers between tonal gestures and the repudiation of them by continuing in an unexpected direction. This last phrase, even though it began by outlining an F# chord, ends on a G minor minor seventh chord, which almost suggest the dominant of the dominant (if we are in F). Even though this is not really tonal music, it keeps hinting at tonal structures.

So that is a very brief and perfunctory analysis of the first page (50 seconds worth) of the First Sonata! You can see why I don't do many analyses here! Even a very cursory analysis of the first movement would take the whole day. But, it is my view that just a brief look at the bones of a piece gives you a good handle on how to listen to it. So let's go back and listen to the whole piece and see where it takes us.



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