Symphony No. 2
Charles Ives, born in 1874, a product of 18th century Puritan and Yankee heritage, was raised in rural Connecticut. His father, a Civil War bandmaster, was his principal music teacher who provided his son with a full set of rules and conventions of music theory, harmony, orchestration, along with cornet, piano, and organ instruction. He also encouraged an open attitude about music, especially in avoiding too much dependence on European musical influences. Thus, the bandmaster provided untraditional exercises to stretch the boy’s ability to absorb different sounds simultaneously. For example, while Charles played one tune, his father would sing another tune in a different key and time signature. He also encouraged Charles to listen to everyday sounds, such as uneven walking and running patterns, rain and wind hitting windows together, differing sounds emitting from moving vehicles.
At age 20, Ives entered Yale, where he studied composition under Horatio Parker. The student held his own by using his knowledge of “the rules,” but often subverted them with sudden, clashing changes in tone, key, timing, and tempo. Professor Parker’s typical comment was, “You are hogging all the keys, tempos, and time signatures to construct your music.”
After graduation, Ives knew he could not make a living as the innovative, untraditional composer he yearned to be. He thus entered the New York insurance business and quickly showed a natural acumen for sales and management practices. The rest of his time was spent in his barn, composing one work after another, which ended in stacks of unpublished, unperformed, and unshared compositions. His large, lucrative insurance business generated a million dollar income, thus providing a long life of comfort. The combination of these two demanding pursuits ultimately led to a serious heart condition. From after World War I until his death at age 80, the eccentric composer and successful businessman became a reclusive semi-invalid on his rural Connecticut farm outside of Danbury, CT.
Charles Ives developed into an authentically American composer, recognized as one of the great experimentalists and originators of 20th century music – not as a “primitive” but as a well-trained musician. He musically embraced bold harmonic dissonances, polyrhythms, and imaginative orchestral sound combinations and effects. His inspirational material was a potpourri of everyday sounds around him: enthusiastic singers singing off-key, a piano or organ accompanist playing behind or ahead of the others, tones from fiddlers sliding a bit off pitch, and the clashing together of different tunes and keys of parading bands filing by without enough silent space between their groups. Everything that made sound was music to his ears. Ives conceived musical complexities that anticipated, by ten years, similar innovations in the music of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, and other avant-gardists. A main difference was his total lack of interest in the business of marketing, performing, and publication of his music. Still, he was the prolific composer of 200 songs, 5 violin sonatas, some chamber music, 2 piano sonatas, and 5 symphonies. Most of it gathered dust in his barn, its importance not being realized by the musical public until after he died.
In writing Symphony No. 2, the 28-year-old composer was fusing a musical path between the traditional and the innovative. The work features snippets from the music of late Romantic Era composers (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák) which he interweaves or over-laps with contemporary American tunes such as “Camptown Races,” “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” and “Turkey in the Straw.” In five movements, the work unfolds as a quilt of diverse patches of many music quotations and styles, the most unsettling of which is heard in the explosive, raucous ending chord consisting of 11 notes sounded simultaneously.
Symphony No. 2 stayed “in the dark” until Leonard Bernstein brought it to a New York Philharmonic concert audience in 1951. The prospect of finally hearing his work half a century after it had been written appeared to annoy the introverted, eccentric composer who knew he had been more innovative and deserving of praise for his later endeavors. Still, the premiere received raves from audience and critics, while the composer stayed at home as one of a million radio listeners. Such is the ever-repeated story of the artist who is creatively ahead of his time.
LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990)
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
(Orchestrated by Ramin and Kostal)
From the beginning, Leonard Bernstein was a restless, adventurous soul who was raised to understand that business and success were paramount and that occupations involving the arts were off-limits. But when a relative gave the Bernstein household an old piano, his father realized that his 10-year-old son was showing an unusual talent for manipulating the piano and sent him off for formal lessons. He pursued studying piano and music through an A.B. in music at Harvard, and followed this with a year’s intensive study of composition, theory, and conducting at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. A short unemployment “drift” ended in 1940 when the ambitious musician was accepted at the new Berkshire Music Center (Tanglewood) in Massachusetts under the its first director, Serge Koussevitsky. It was here that he conducted his first professional orchestra, which led to praise and friendships with prominent leaders of the music world. By age 25, the “whiz kid” had become assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic. It was onward and upward for the ambitious, experimental dynamo with an irresistible personality. He forged together his many talents, training, and ambition, and struck out in several directions to conquer the world of music.
Bernstein left a legacy that endures and continues to thrive through an uncommonly rich and diverse catalogue of over 500 recordings and filmed appearances. His compositional output embraces every style of music — ballet, opera, choral, film scores, chamber music, Broadway shows, “classical”/symphonic traditions, and jazz. Additionally, he conducted all over the world, taught/televised at music appreciation forums, and even lent his hand to Vietnam protests and support of “Black Panthers.” Because of the latter, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI monitored his non-music involvements. The grand, all-encompassing musician finished off his career by conducting at the Berkshire Music Center where he had begun his rise to fame 50 years earlier.
As early as 1949, Bernstein and friends Jerome Robbins (choreographer) and Arthur Laurents (librettist) had batted around the idea of creating a musical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The time period was established amid the tensions of rival, lower class social groups in modern New York City. Originally intended to focus on a doomed love affair between a Jewish girl and a Catholic boy, the idea simmered for several years before the trio ultimately realized that the religious differences had become extraneous. Cultural differences and gang frictions seemed a better fit as a focus of the 1950s. The collaborators thus decided that the action would center on a ghetto in New York’s Upper West Side, where a Polish-American boy falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl in a musical plot borrowing from the story line of Romeo and Juliet.
Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was first performed by the New York Philharmonic in an all-Bernstein concert in 1961, four years after the Broadway opening of West Side Story. The songs of the musical had become popular standards, and the dance music was felt to be sophisticated and polished enough to find its way into the concert hall. The following dances from the show are included in the suite: Prologue- a rivalry between the Sharks and the Jets; Somewhere- a dream sequence in which Tony and Maria imagine a place with no strife; Scherzo- the gangs break out of the city into open space, fresh air, and sunshine; Mambo- A section of the Dance at the Gym; Cha-Cha- the lovers’ first meeting, based on the song “Maria;” Cool- the Jets anticipate a fight and try to control their hostility; Rumble- a fight ending in the death of the gang leaders; Finale- music from the final scene in which the rival gang members cooperate in slowly carrying off the body of slain Tony.
Notes researched and written by Joan Olsson