Five Things to Listen for in "The Alcotts" by Charles Ives
2017 American Pianists Awards winner Drew Petersen delves into the intricate layers of "The Alcotts," a movement from Charles Ives' Sonata No. 2, "Concord, Mass., 1840–60." Ives, a pivotal figure in modernist American classical music, is renowned for his innovative and distinctly American soundscapes. His Sonata No. 2, often dubbed the "Concord Sonata," reflects what Ives said was his “impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne."
In this video edition of Five Things, Drew shares both musical and philosophical insights into the piece:
An edited transcript follows:
Hi, everyone. I'm Drew Petersen. 2017 American Pianists Awards winner, welcoming you to Five Things to Listen For. Today, we will be exploring the glorious music of Charles Ives’ “The Alcotts” from his “Concord” Sonata.
The “Concord” Sonata is one of the cornerstones of American piano music. Perhaps, But some people would consider it to be the first truly innovative work for solo piano of large scale written by an American composer.
I had known about the piece as a child. I personally had always found it to be somewhat impenetrable. It can be thorny; it can be dissonant. There's a lot going on in many of the movements, and it took me a while to grow to love the piece. But what has always remained my favorite movement from this four-movement work has been its third part, “The Alcotts.”
So here are Five Things to Listen For:
1. Dissonance, Cacophony and Layering of Different Chords:
Charles Ives is a complicated character. He was extraordinarily experimental. He grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, son of a band director in town. And one of the perhaps apocryphal stories surrounding Ives his childhood was several, shall we say, experimental activities that his father, the band director, did with his band constituents. He would arrange for the band to be split into two groups, have one group march from one side of town to the other, while the other group would do the exact opposite.
Now what music would they be playing? They would be playing either the same or different music. But the idea would be that the key signatures that the music is written in—the kind of tonal center that all of the music is surrounding, it makes the music sound homophonous and shall we say, intelligible to many of us, would be purposefully different in the two bands.
So as the two bands converge in the center of the town, there would be this incredible cacophony. And we can say this because Ives himself relished in this cacophony and much of his own compositions could be likened to experiments where he is exploring how to layer not only different harmonies, but also different melodies. He is one of the great musical quote artists, shall we say. He takes material from all different sources.
I find it really cool to dive deeply into this movement of the Charles Ives “Concord” Sonata, because one it of course, showcases so much of this unique style of his, but it does so in a more transparent way. And I think this might be perhaps why I was drawn to this movement before even some of the other movements of the Sonata, because in this piece he succeeds in drawing upon all different influences and combining them, but he does so in a really cogent and transparent way.
2. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony Motive
There are also several themes to listen for, one of which would be familiar to anyone who's ever heard any classical music in their lives. It is not at all an American theme, this is a European theme. It is the opening motive from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
It appears several times, and the first really climactic moment in this movement—of which there are several—but the first one really is that motive with the original notes, spellings and everything. No transposition, no funny business, very direct and to the point.
Now, this is not the first time you will have heard this motive. You first hear it in a totally different guise at the very beginning, the opening of the movement: a much calmer, shall we say teaching or lecturing way.
Why is this significant? Because the Alcotts were the Alcotts. And notice there's two Alcotts, not just one. The first Alcott that is remembered very much in public consciousness today is Louisa May Alcott, the daughter of Bronson Alcott, the transcendentalist philosopher and thinker. Louisa May Alcott, known for “Little Women,” and Bronson, her father, were residents of Concord, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century.
Louisa May made it her life's work to teach the local children how to read and write and how to live useful, productive, noble and moral lives. This was a part of the public consciousness in New England—especially Massachusetts—in the mid-19th century. And Louisa May was perhaps at times a stern teacher, and she expected a lot of her students—not just intellect, but also moral character.
And a lot of the personality or the fabric of this work is exactly that. It is a lot of moral goodness and the sense of what it is to be a good human being. This movement in particular is very much related to that. Ives is expressing this through the less adventurous, less cacophonous writing in this piece. And there's a serenity about the piece that is really quite attractive.
Now that being said, that's one dimension to it. The Beethoven Fifth is perhaps may be a symbol of fate. It's a symbol of those things that are out of our control and how do we reconcile as human beings? How do the little children of Concord, Massachusetts, reconcile as human beings with the trials and tribulations and difficulties of the world? And the nature of good versus evil—how do we deal with that?
3. Bronson Alcott's Philosophical Influence and Dialogue with the Sheriff
Now, that's Louisa May. Bronson, however, appears in a bit more of a mystical and less concrete way. Bronson, being a transcendentalist philosopher, was one of Ives’ great heroes among them, the other writers profiled in this Sonata: Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau.
These guys are not so interested in moralizing or be put this way, they're not so interested in teaching the people how to be good citizens. They're more interested in thinking about how the world works and perhaps how does one deal with these questions themselves?
And now there's a great moment toward the beginning of this movement where we Bronson essentially appears, in Ives words, “thinking and living in the key of A-flat” down here in the left hand.
And then meanwhile the right hand comes in in the key of B-flat. It creates this kind of beautiful but slightly unsettled synchronicity. It's very interesting. Now, this theme in the right hand. I will come back to you later. It's very important.
A-flat is Bronson thinking, living, breathing in the key of A-flat. B-flat, in the right hand, is the sheriff of Concord, Massachusetts, Sam Staples, who meanwhile lives and breathes in the key of B-flat, in Ives words, "over the fence over there." They're talking to each other as neighbors.
You can imagine this dialog. It's probably quite entertaining, but I like to think of this as really not so much about Sam Staples as about Sam Staples representing the real world. The goings on about town. And then you have Bronson coexisting, but kind of doing his own thing off to the side and creating through that this enchanting magical atmosphere that is Concord, Massachusetts. And that Ives is really fascinated by in the Sonata.
4. Lizzie Alcott's Piano Playing and the Scottish Folk Idiom
There's another Alcott, however, who doesn't usually get mentioned so often. Lizzie Alcott, Louisa May’s sister, enjoyed playing the piano in their home in Concord, Massachusetts, the Alcott residence.
Now, what would she play? I'm sure she would play some Beethoven, hence Beethoven's Fifth, but also in the mid-19th century. A lot of folk songs from the old country, Europe, particularly England and Scotland, would make their appearances in the parlors of New England in the mid-19th century. There's a beautiful, old, tender, heartfelt, simple theme in the middle of this piece that is perhaps tinged with a little Scottish folk idiom here and there.
5. The Human Faith Theme
I mentioned before Bronson and the sheriff, the sheriff, his music that he's singing in the key of B-flat is significant. This is what Ives calls the human faith theme.
This theme appears in several guises. It appears really from the beginning of the movement. It also appears in other movements of the Sonata, but it never really appears in its entirety until the very, very end of this movement. And though it appears later on in the fourth movement, the Thoreau movement of the Sonata, it really never has the gravitas and impact again that it has at the climax of this movement and this human faith theme.
I'll play it in, shall we say, stripped down version and you'll hear me play it in the full version. In the video from my album release goes something like this here. It sounds like Beethoven. It's a pretty theme, and I think it's cool how he makes use of the Beethoven motive right in the middle of the theme. Now, what's the significance of this theme?
This really gets to the core of what this whole movement and the whole sonata is all about the triumph of the human spirit and the quiet and yet questioning what our role is as human beings and society and trying to answer those questions, never quite succeeding and always leading to more questions. And this is what Ives likes to talk about in his work, "Essays before a Sonata," which is a 150-page book that he published concurrently with this sonata and you would think it holds many clues.
You would think it would explain the whole work. It doesn't really. It just asks more and more questions. However, I would like to read a little section from this work that I think really summarizes this movement. It's import art and in particular the significance of the human face thing, because why not hear it from the master himself?
There's a commonplace beauty about Orchard house [Drew: Orchard house being where the Alcotts lived] a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint, picturesqueness, a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something esthetic fibered in the Puritan severity, the self-sacrificing part of the ideal, a value that seems to stir a deeper feeling, a stronger sense of being nearer, some perfect truth than a Gothic cathedral or an Etruscan villa.
Now, I'll just comment on this. This speaks to me in so far as Ives is now taking the puritanical kind of world that the Alcotts are living in, and he is, in a way commenting and responding to the aesthetic beauty of its stripped-down simplicity. And there is an incredible, stripped-down simplicity to this music and also to New England. And you can go to Concord, Massachusetts, now to to this day, it's a little busier than it might have been in 1850, but it still has a little bit of that esthetic core.
Now he goes on:
We dare not attempt to follow the philosophic raptures of Bronson Alcott. [Drew: That was that the guy in a flat versus say, I'm the sheriff in B-flat] unless you will assume that his apotheosis will show how practical his vision in this world would be in the next.
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 [Drew: Lizzy playing on the piano] 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.
So that I think, really encapsulates what the human faith theme is all about. Ives, in his infinite, infinite creativity, manages to transform the human faith theme into many different guises in this piece, and I really hope you enjoy exploring this quite interesting, quite passionate, quite creative path-breaking music with me.