The Complete Piano Music of Carl Ruggles
Unknown Works of Charles Ives
Performed April 3, 2003
Miller Theatre at Columbia University
A subtle chain of countless rings|
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature" (1836)
Against the Grain: The Sketches of Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives
Tonight's program explores the works of two maverick American composers - close friends and colleagues Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives. Ruggedly independent and fiercely proud, the two New England Transcendentalists were nevertheless publicly ambivalent about their art. Working "against the grain" (as Joseph Reed puts it in his excellent book Three American Originals -Charles Ives, William Faulkner, and John Ford) of the popular in music and puritanical in pioneering America, they adopted defiant musical poses, yet diffident personas. Ruggles was the reclusive and cantankerous landscape painter, Ives, the patriotic insurance man and, later, champion of political causes. Behind their ambivalence toward a career in music ticked the ever-evolving constructions of brilliant originators. They sketched and revised like all composers. But they took a degree of satisfaction in the unresolved nature of their sketches. They believed that unfinished works fulfilled an artistic endstrove toward greatnessperhaps more nobly than finished compositions. "Creation is soul-searching. Nothing is ever finished," Ruggles said.
That is not to say that they did not want their works played. And their stance wasn't purely a philosophical one. Ives recast the Emerson Concerto into Four Emerson Transcriptions, various Studies, and two published versions of the Concord Sonata, because of some practical concerns of getting the music played, and because there were many forms, small and large, through which he wanted to hear variations on the same material. Ruggles campaigned for membership in the newly formed composer's consortium based in New York City, the International Composers Guild. Meanwhile, he retreated to Arlington, Vermont, where he took a painter's satisfaction in his musical sketches. He created scores on large canvasses, small postcards, charcoaled laundry cardboard, painted paper bagssometimes one musical bar to a leaf. He would stand across the room, viewing each as a portentous model that might stand alone as artistic testament.
This recital offers a tour of these artists' workshops. The pieces you will hear include some of Ives and Ruggles' most searching experiments, unfinished compositions, and personal explorations, among some works published in their lifetime. What emerges is a sense of canon. The spectrum of pieces, simple to complex, illustrates the boundaries of their complete oeuvre. From fragment to complete work, reminiscent gestures meld, and thematic excursions begin to describe their broad musical profiles.
Since this is largely a concert of unpublished music, I am indebted to the collections at The Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University and librarian Suzanne Eggleston-Lovejoy, archivist Richard Boursy, and head librarian Kendall Crilly. The program took shape as a result of editing work by the Ives Society, Inc., especially recent editions by David Porter. Five of the Ruggles pieces are conjectural realizations by John Kirkpatrick (1905-1991), the American pianist, editor, and fervent colleague to the composers. His meticulous efforts in identifying, indexing, and cataloguing loose manuscript sheets by both composers at their deaths is unquestionably one of the heroic jobs of twentieth century American music. His fastidious quest to divine playable editions of their music is a fascinatingand at times problematiccounterpoint to the composers' rough edges. Ives and Ruggles' volcanic natures and ambivalent attitudes likely served to obstruct public hearings of their music during their lives. Kirkpatrick's asserting influence brought, and continues to bring, much of that music to light, including tonight's program. After Ives died, Ruggles wrote to Kirkpatrick about a posthumous performance of the Fourth Symphony: "It's a good thing, a most fortunate thing that you are on the job. Order out of chaos!"
The John Kirkpatrick realizations of the Ruggles sketches
I first learned of Valse Lente and the other Ruggles pieces in the 1980s from Kirkpatrick. When Kirkpatrick died in 1991 his papers were left to Yale. Comparisons to the Ruggles sketches, also housed at Yale, reveal that the notes of the Kirkpatrick realizations are indeed from Ruggles' sketches. Where Kirkpatrick asserts editorial judgment is in occasional emendationsa completed phrase, a transposition, a tidied-up rhythm, an elaborated inner voice. Decisions as to sequence are largely speculations of Kirkpatrick. He detailed the sources and explained his decisions in commentary to the pieces.
Where there is no finished autograph, there is no ürtext, and this makes Kirkpatrick's editorial judgments more loaded, especially considering Ruggles' private nature. But Ruggles' many starts and variations on similar musical material present an undeniable challenge to the admirer of his very few finished public pieces. What to do with the sheets of manuscript that far outnumber the published output? Given Ruggles' belief in the power of the unfinished, is it not fair to follow the path that segued drafts of related motifs might take us?
Notes on individual works
Evocations: Four Chants for Piano
Each of the four Evocations is dedicated to a person central to Ruggles' life and career. Following the visual art model, each is a kind of "portrait" of its dedicatee. #1 is for Harriet Miller, the art patron and sculptor, whose sponsorship was crucial to Ruggles throughout his career. #2 is to John Kirkpatrick, committed collaborator, pianist, and the type of editor Ruggles would turn to for finalizing works throughout his career. Here, Kirkpatrick's whimsical side is evident. During an extended canon, the two hands follow closely in imitation, evocative of intricate musical discussion. #3 is for Ruggles' wife, Charlotte. It is marked "plangently" (like bells), and is the most impassioned of the four. #4 is for Charles Ives. It is the most mystical of the set.
Varied Air and Variations Varied Air and Variations is a short yet far-reaching set of variations. The theme is a two-hand unison melody, three octaves apart (or to the organist, Ives--"Trisdiapason") to which Ives refers as "The old stone wall around the orchard - none of those stone eggs are the same size." (Yes, rocks and pebbles have their own beauty!) Ives was a fiercely independent composer at a time in this country when musical sponsorship tended toward the genteel, and being an avant-garde artist was regarded as tomfoolery. His bitingly satiric marginalia in the score of Varied Air makes light of this state of affairs. The programmatic description still acts as a successful foil: it is easy to be hoodwinked by Ives' rogue spirit and allow his polemical text to obscure a deeper musical expressivity. But taken in the right vein, Ives' verbal jabs offer insights into the piece's deeper craft. Surrounding each variation is a "protest," the moans of "box belles" when a "man comes on stage" or a "sissy's" reaction to the gritty music. The middle variations are marches, with the intervening "protests" taking on a more intriguing chorale-like character. The searchingly beautiful slow variation is marked: "16 nice measures . . . All right, Ladies, I'll play the rock line again and harmonize it nice and proper." That is slyly followed by "applause," a rollicking blast of C major chords which introduces a finale, where, Ives writes, "[the pianist] gets mad and starts to throw things. . . . he ought to be polite for he will not be engaged and paid at the nice afternoon TEA concert!"
Despite the apparent discord between the "protests" and the variations, the atonal pitches of the theme actually revolve around the key centers of the chordal respites. The two musics are joined in the first variation ("Follow the stone wall around the mountain/Things and sounds in the distance"). Thus, behind the bluster, Ives' music seeks common ground. Underneath Ives' mocking stance of the C-major "applause" and the ensuing ruckus (erupting after the solemn core of his work) is triumph: celebration of the piece's successful expressivity, allowing for a coda of unabashed creative emancipation.
Waltz-Rondo Waltz-Rondo sets out, after a brief introduction, with a refrain in the style of a waltz that is equally funny and mesmerizing. The main tune alternates between two keys in a kaleidoscopic way, so one's point of reference is constantly shifting. A rondo, the refrain alternates with seven episodes. Ives develops the episodes with increasing activity, introducing musical quotes from popular and patriotic songs. The final coda is a digest of all that has occurred up to that point, with Ives challenging the listener to keep up with the ever-complex hilarity, which, he reminds us from time to time and at the close, is based on the most common of chord changes.
The critical edition was edited and performance molded in part from Ives' recorded improvisations of the piece. In the 1930s and 40s Ives made three trips to the recording studio to save for posterity this and other unfinished pieces, as well as a few published ones. He remarked at the time, "I've got to make them understand! . . . After the record is made, Mr. Henry Cowell or Mr. Nicholas Slonimsky, or some other acoustical genius, could write it down for meand probably better than I can" (from Ives' Memos, ed. J. Kirkpatrick, and Vivian Taylor's Ives Remembered).
What are those of the known but to ascend and enter the Unknown?
And what are those of life but for Death?
Organum was Ruggles' last published work in 1944. Originally called "Invention for Orchestra," he settled on the title Organum after a suggestion by Edgard Varèse, who helped see to its publication. Varèse's insight speaks to the elemental in Ruggles' unvarnished style. Organum is polyphony used in liturgical music from the late 9th century to c. 1250, the first contrapuntal style emerging from Gregorian chant. It is "syllabic," meaning there is only one note per syllable. Much of this canonic piece intuitively evokes the "Parallel Organum" stylestrict homophony with parallel 4th, 5ths, and octaves (the type of part writing that became taboo to classical and Romantic composers). Ruggles, with the help of Kirkpatrick, transcribed the orchestral work for piano solo for publication in the New Music journal. Later Ruggles was moved to create this two-piano version. The transcriptions for piano enabled Kirkpatrick to present recitals in conjunction with exhibits of Ruggles' art works. Ruggles was happy to quote Virgil Thomson's review of the piece, saying "He seemed almost convinced that the Organum was real music, "noble, passionate, climatic, declamatory, violent in expression," etc., etc., etc."
Studies Nos. 1, 2, 11, Storm and Distress
There were two major impetuses for the music: the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the speeches of Wendell Phillips, the Massachusetts Abolitionist. About Emerson, Ives wrote (in Essays Before a Sonata) that he is "America's deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities, a seer painting his discoveries in masses and with any color that may lay at handcosmic, religious, human, even sensuous . . . ," a pretty good description of Ives' own music! David Porter speculates that Study #11, an extension of the Emerson Transcription #4, is the latest of the pieces, and that Ives was fashioning it in the 30s around the time he recorded it, still occupied with the Emerson idea.
Study #2 and Storm and Distress are expansions of Study #9, The Anti-Abolitionist Riots. Ives' grandfather, George W. Ives, chartered territorial rights to a railroad line later affected by the anti-abolitionist riots that spread through the Union in the mid-18oos. Ives loved the example of an orator inspired, on the spot, to change the minds of pro-slavery sympathizers. Phillips' spontaneous speech at Boston's Faneuil Hall attacked "the tyranny of this many-headed monster, the mob . . . [which] deprives not only the individual and the minority of their rights, but the majority also. . . ."
Studies Nos. 4, 5
Study #4 is a final page fragment (it seems the first two of three pages are missing) and serves as a brief introduction to Study #5, which follows on the same manuscript leaf. (Ives numbered and re-numbered the Studies over the years, probably aiming for the Chopin 24). #4 shares some of the rhythmic identity and gathering strength of Rough and Ready, the Take-off on the Mark Twain story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. #5 is in 4-part counterpoint throughout, with atonal rows perpetually voiced in canon, inversion, retrograde inversionyou name it. The effect of striving and the triumph that comes from that effort is noteworthy.
Song without (good) words
Violin Sonata #2
"This Sonata is in part a general impression, a kind of reflection and remembrance, of the peoples' outdoor gatherings in which men got up and said what they thought, regardless of consequencesof holiday celebrations and camp meetings in the 80s and '90ssuggesting some of the songs, tunes and hymns, together with some of the sounds of nature joining in from the mountains in some of the old Connecticut farm towns. The First movement may, in a way, suggest something that nature and human nature would sing out to each othersometimes. The second movement, a mood when The Old Oaken Bucket and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching would come over the hills, trying to relieve the sadness of the old Civil War days. And the third movement, the hymns and actions at the farmers' camp meeting inciting them to 'work for the night is coming.'"