My wife observes I have a low tolerance for the nitty-gritty details of life. I have trouble accepting that things break down or fall apart. I don’t like cleaning up afterward. I don’t like confrontations, much less having to call people to remind them of their obligations. Maybe it’s just a factor of getting older, or of feeling myself constantly pressed for time.
What I have found is that turning the compost has therapeutic value. I’ll retreat there when I’m at a loss for dealing with people. My little buddies, the red wigglers, extend their own comfort, simply by being. I don’t know how they survive winter. They simply disappear and come back.
My daughters balk at carrying kitchen refuse to the enclosed compost bin. The task falls on me. I wish they wouldn’t feel grossed out, as they claim. What I realize is how much this practice reduces the amount of trash and garbage we place out on the street for weekly pickup. More than the several hundred dollars we save each year, in city-issued trash bags, the practice heightens my appreciation for what we can convert back into soil. I wish we would do more with newspapers, for instance. The ash from our wood stove is applied rather than bagged lime.
And I’ve seen the ground itself responding, becoming softer, more pliable, and more verdant.
There are many life lessons here, as I keep seeing, collecting, turning, and spreading this process.
Red wigglers truly are, as the jingle in the comedy WKRP in Cincinnati proclaims, the Cadillac of worms. While that show’s fictional sponsor touted their excellence as fish bait, I could never willing drown them: I’ve come to greatly value their appearance in the compost, first as a harbinger of health and progress, and then as a profusion taking the decaying matter (in our case, mostly deciduous tree leaves) into the final stage, which resembles dark, rich soil. Their arrival shows the work of decomposition is nearing completion. The original organic matter is now down to a quarter of its original size, or less, and will soon resemble rich soil.
Whether this process is scientific or simply mysterious is answered to some degree in the eye of the beholder. I do my share in turning the mass in each bin with a pitchfork, to work in more air, and then try to add nitrogen, one way or another. Our household, for instance, has a pet rabbit, and her manure pellets are concentrated energy for this transformation. And then, as the conditions become optimal, the slow process occurs. A new pile to be composted begins to retain moisture before typically reaching a takeoff point where the interior mass becomes quite hot to the touch, perhaps reaching 150 degrees. After a light rainfall, the bins will actually be steaming.
For the record, I’m not a gardener. My wife is. My role is more the assistant, constructing raised beds, maintaining the wood-chip pathways, mowing, some weeding, and composting, especially.
My first real encounters with composting came in religious circles. When I lived in the yoga ashram, we were serious composters, although most of the hands-on work with it was done by others. We also had a significant amount of manure from our horse and chickens to work with. Later, traveling within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I overhead a number of conversations regarding the practice and learned that the root word of humility is related to the concept of composting. Humus, then, as rich soil for growth.
The lowly worms lead the way.
* * *
The worms become emblematic of the unanticipated directions this journey has taken. I have no idea of where they come from, other than underground or perhaps from neighboring, more finished compost. Yet they appear. They show up as reminders of unfinished work and of rot. There’s nothing sleek, secure, and finished about our house and yard. Everything seems to be in motion. I keep hoping we can afford to put a new roof on the barn, while my wife wants to redesign the driveway. Turning the compost is something I can afford, as is collecting all the bags of leaves from the neighbors each fall. It would be so much easier and nattier to have truckloads of topsoil and finished compost delivered, if our budget allowed. The worms move around, as most of our possessions seem to do also.
The worms also reflect our desire of going organic. They are living organisms, rather than chemical applicants.
They are red, like our house and barn and small garden shed.
Somehow, I’ve added the Chadwick quartets and piano quintet to my annual autumn repertoire ritual. The late works here overlap years of the earliest ones of Ives, and both are grounded in the spirit of New England from the close of the Civil War onward.
Like Ives, George Whitefield Chadwick was an organist and knew the mainstream Protestant hymns. Though he never quotes them directly, as far as I can tell, they do infuse his harmonies. A neighbor, no fan of classical music, once entered my apartment and reacted, “Hey, I like that,” to the Third Quartet. I believe that was an instinctive reaction to something American in the writing, that long overlooked role of pieces sung as part of community worship. Though Chadwick, like Ives, takes us far beyond that.
It’s an annual ritual, to delve into special pieces, to make sure I do not neglect them. But also, by putting them away for their season, to assure I do not kill their appeal by over-familiarity, either. How often I wish we’d do the same with the more familiar repertoire. There’s so much more to be discovered and assimilate and ultimately cherish, especially from our own shores.
In an eddy of dense chords dissolving and regathering, a wisp of an American hymn tune flits briefly and vanishes, perhaps mutating into another or a patriotic melody or even nothing more than thin air now supported only by fading chimes. These musical quotations and their unvoiced texts are drawn from pieces familiar to many Americans at the end of the nineteenth century, and any listener nowadays acquainted with even a few of them will be left trying to name that song mere measures after it’s vanished into the progressing score. Or, just as likely, been overtaken by a host more. How effortlessly they mutate – “Beulah Land” into “America the Beautiful” or “There Is a Happy Land, Far, Far Away,” for instance, or the way “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” emerges and then soars over a stream that may include “Turkey in the Straw.” A musicologist might point out underlying snatches from Beethoven, Bach, Wagner, Dvorak, or Brahms, utterly transformed. Whether the composition is for solo piano or for full orchestra, the impact is by turns – or even simultaneously – serious, humorous, rugged, sweet, majestic, defiant, virile, mystical, gruff, prosaic, puzzling, mysterious, confusing, ambitious, and all the same bears an unmistakable signature. Even the works that do not quote the everyday tunes of the mainstream Protestant churches or the holiday parades of the composer’s experience of growing up in post-Civil War Connecticut are soon identified as uniquely his own. Amazingly, as Harvey E. Phillips wrote in his notes for a Zubin Mehta/Los Angeles Philharmonic recording, “the effect is never chaotic or comical, but rather gorgeously kaleidoscopic with, throughout, a strong structural coherence binding together into an atmospheric whole the symphony’s strands of recollection. The quotations are subsumed into a vision grander than the individual objects seen and heard.” In his liner notes to the “Holidays Symphony” for a New York Philharmonic recording led by Leonard Bernstein, Phillip Ramey regards this encounter: “The most exciting thing about the music of Charles Ives (1874-1954) is that it sounds like nothing else. After all, where but in Ives can one find blatant polytonality, massive tone-clusters and complex rhythms combined with plain American patriotic airs, jaunty barn dances and simple hymn tunes? An unlikely mixture, to be sure, but a mixture than not only works but, in Ives’ finest scores, works brilliantly. And Ives’ music has life – not, true, the kind of life that is orderly and well-mannered (or ‘nice,’ a term he always used disdainfully, but life as it is, often contradictory and at times chaotic. Ives’ aesthetic, closely aligned with the New England Transcendentalists, was to create out of many disparate elements a music that reflected the life that he saw about him.”
To enter a major composition of Charles Ives leads into a world of paradoxes, the nature of creative inspiration and struggle, and straight-out Americana, for starters. I’ll leave the discussion of Ives’ pioneering compositional advances to the musicologists – and on that front alone, there are many accomplishments, in spite of some later insertions into his neglected manuscripts. I’ll also leave much of his life story to the historians, though it has all the makings for an Oscar-winning Hollywood performance. Genius, of course, is a compelling tale, especially when streaked with tragedy. What I find his music stirring up, for me, is not just its deep attraction, but deeper questions of why. What do I identify in it? What does it mean to be an American, at the beginning of the twentieth century as well as the beginning of the twenty-first? What are the burdens of being an American artist? What is the relationship between an artist and the public – in this case, for a musician, and a public comprised of fellow musicians, on one hand, and paying listeners, on the other (in other words, the music business itself).
What first caught my ear, I think, was that edgy sense of playfulness – the “Variations on America” and the finale of the second symphony, especially. I suppose that broadcast concerts containing “The Unanswered Question” or “Central Park in the Dark” went right past me, as did, for that matter, Mahler in those days. (Admittedly, radio programs heard at the edge of their signal range lack a lot of impact, especially in comparison with attending a live performance.) More to the point, there was no escaping the unfeigned originality in the symphony and its vision. Or the conductor’s ebullient proclamation of Ives as “our first really great composer, our Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson of music.” Or, on another occasion: “We have suddenly discovered our musical Mark Twain, Emerson, and Lincoln all rolled into one.” The work certainly felt “modern” at the time, and not in a way that resembled any of the twelve-tone composers in vogue or even Stravinsky or Bartok, for that matter. Subsequent years have only deepened that impression, with one exception – I’ve come to appreciate just how much Ives bridges the romantic sensibility and the music of the twentieth century, an accomplishment all the more remarkable for the fact that his works arise in the short span of little more than two decades. Moreover, as Ives’ compositions aspire to immortality, rather than beauty or facile gracefulness, they continue to challenge and reward both performers and listeners long after the outward shape of the particular work is known. Those looking for the “definitive performance” of an Ives symphony or sonata will have to realize the frontier is still being explored and charted, and in the end, even the most successful interpretations will remain open to radical alternatives. His are not pieces where the first encounter discloses everything, or ones where you revisit simply for a good tune or dance rhythm. As he said, “Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.” No matter how naïve Ives may be at the heart of many matters, his major pieces implore an epiphany, and the comfort of the performers or audience are inconsequential. To that, then, I keep returning.
Shortly after moving to New England, I fell into a ritual of listening to Ives four numbered symphonies each October. (The Holidays Symphony is technically a suite of four pieces that may also be played separately, while a fifth, the Universe Symphony, was left unfinished; should we consider the two orchestral sets, especially the Three Places in New England, among the symphonies as well? Sometimes I would.) Although this homage has probably been observed in the breach as much as in the actual practice, it has nonetheless felt organic and natural, though I cannot say precisely why. Autumn is, of course, New England’s season, and October is marked by prime foliage through all but the northernmost band of the region. Even when working in his insurance office in Manhattan, Ives was a New Englander through and through, so there has been that true Yankee dimension to this custom. And October 20, 1874, was, in fact, when he was born in Danbury, Connecticut, so my tradition has also wound up honoring him in more ways than one.
I also associate October with my experience of fully encountering his second symphony in a recording borrowed repeatedly from the Binghamton, New York, public library shortly after I had graduated from college – a time when I also was overwhelmed by the riotous autumn foliage of the Northeast for the first time. I was fully taken with both.
Looking back, however, I realize I must have known that work before then – that same Leonard Bernstein recording, at that, borrowed from the Dayton Public Library or maybe my quad library in Bloomington, Indiana. For that matter, I had heard his “Variations on America” performed on organ by E. Power Biggs and by the Buffalo Philharmonic directed by Lucas Foss – in the same hall, a month apart, and was delighted. I remember, too, being disappointed when a planned performance by the Cincinnati Symphony was scrapped in favor of a program led by a young conductor; visiting the city that day, I yielded to the sense of a friend whose reaction was, “It’s just Jimmy” conducting – curiously, James Levine’s performances of the work are now among the best.
My annual tradition must also have something to do with finally having my own copies of the symphonies – on vinyl – and something to play them on. (For all too many years, I’ve gone stretches when my record collection had to sit unused.) Again, I think this all came together in October or close enough to it.
More recently, having a long daily commute in a car with a CD player has allowed me to shift the listening over to my drive – often while flying along through the display of foliage through the New Hampshire countryside.
So why Ives? Crucially, there’s no simple answer. Certainly, there’s no shortage of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Brahms, not the way you have to hunt out Ives. The recorded catalogue is slender enough. As for broadcasts or live performances, they’re rare enough to be an event. So making a conscious effort to revisit these important works makes sense. Besides, I instinctively react to something here that affirms my own childhood engagements with music; the church music I’d derided for not being of sufficient quality (who were these composers in our hymnal? why weren’t our organ preludes by Bach or Buxtehude?) to say nothing of the high school band, when we barely had an orchestra. Maybe there was something of merit after all in the sounds of the church and schools or Island Park band shell to be reclaimed or transmuted. The man himself was complex, with one foot in the realm of high business and the other planted in fine art, and that engagement with the world comes across in his music. All the same, in the end, there’s something elusive, an awareness that there’s always more in any moment than we can encompass.
In this, Ives stands as a kind of alchemist. Not a chemist, exactly, but someone who has been compared to Thomas Alva Edison or Samuel F.B. Morse as an inventor; to their list I would add Charles F. Kettering, with his own retorts to critics (“I know it violates the second law of thermodynamics, but it works,” or telling how, when he had a metallurgist and a biologist on his staff, if he encountered a metallurgy problem, he’d assign it to the biologist, because the biologist wouldn’t be limited by knowing everything that didn’t work in that specialty). All the same, an alchemist or an inventor would be assigned a place somewhat below the “pure” artist or scientist, the Olympian giver of theory and law. Or, more tellingly, be dismissed as a simple “amateur” or tinker.
Listening to a work by Charles Ives often leads me to ponder the question of what it means to be an American artist. The question is difficult enough when asking what it means to be a classical musician born in this country, yet easily expanding to a larger view, the reply acknowledges that the practice of any of the fine arts has always been widely regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility in many circles. There has always been a strong anti-intellectual strain in America, and even in education, the emphasis has often been on practical applications rather than learning for the simple joy of discovery and wonder. We still hear that argument repeated in the mantra of basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. (Reading remained essential, after all, if for no other purpose than personal study of the Bible.) We find repeated references to a boy or girl leaving formal classes to go to work in the mills or on the farm immediately upon reaching the age where schooling was no longer mandatory, or of classes being suspended for the harvest. The confrontation to teachers, “Those that can, do; those who can’t, teach,” continues to be repeated, with its slight to those who enable others. The fine arts, of course, stand as an element of a rounded education and to the pursuit of the imagination. The “reading, writing, and arithmetic” motto excludes not only the fine arts but history and science as well. How curious!
Meanwhile, many of the religious denominations likewise objected to what they saw as vain, superfluous, or even counterfeit pursuits in the name of entertainment, as the 1806 Book of Discipline of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers) demonstrates when it cautions against “having or reading books and papers tending to prejudice the profession of the Christian religion, to create the least doubt concerning the authenticity of the holy Scriptures, or of those saving truths declared in them; lest … minds should be poisoned thereby, and a foundation laid for the greatest evils. And it is earnestly recommended to every member of our religious society, that they discourage and suppress the reading of plays, romances, novels, or other pernicious books … as it is a practice so inconsistent with the purity of the Christian religion.” That counsel expands to more than literature: “As our time passeth swiftly away, and our delight ought to be in the law of the Lord; it is advised that watchful care be exercised over our youth [and others, in the 1834 revision] to prevent their going to stage-plays, horse-races, music, dancing, or any such vain sports and pastimes; and being concerned in lotteries, wagering, or other species of gaming.” One can hear in the strict denunciation both an admission that these pastimes were widely available as well as a perception that they could detract from loftier thoughts. That is, the tension that arises between so-called popular culture and high culture was drawn at this point as one between the mundane world and religion. In practice, the discipline had the effect of redirecting creative energy into poetry and journalism, mathematics and science, or social reform and education, rather than suppressing intellectual curiosity or learning. As the saying went, “We Friends only read true stories.” Turning to Bruce C. Daniels’ Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), I’m struck by the amount of leisure time that must have existed and by the range of activities that filled it. The debate seemed to concern what was appropriate in the context of the community, especially in contrast to what were seen as the excesses of the royal governors. All the same, the widespread perception of a work-driven, dour, guilt-ridden Protestant orthodoxy simply does not hold up under scrutiny. Daniels argues that even the prolific sermons often flourished as entertainment that could be continued in the tavern with fiddle accompaniment. By the time of the American Revolution, instrumental music, including pipe organs and harmonic singing were widespread, as well as dancing; the New England contradance tradition, in fact, continues what originated as a fashionable import from Europe. The answer to what it means to be an artist in America becomes increasingly complex as one extends the geographical locale to include the Southern aristocracy and then the expanding farmlands west of the Appalachian Mountains. It becomes increasingly complex, too, when one recognizes that the activities of the major cities could be quite distinct from the agrarian majority of the populace, the emergence of upwardly mobile social classes that sought the patina of refinement and culture, or the waves of European immigrants and what they brought to the mixture.
On top of this, America had no tradition of patronage arising in the royal courts or church hierarchy. Wealthy connoisseurs could both nurture and validate an artist’s practice, freeing him to concentrate on his work or at least a work at hand. The American artist, meanwhile, typically has been forced to justify his existence, with the widespread public as the ultimate arbiter. Thus, the American artist has been unduly dependent on the marketplace. Quantity over quality, if you will. What sells today rather than what holds true to the ages. Immediate gratification rather than growing appreciation. Such conditions no doubt fostered their own set of flamboyant, self-serving hustlers, willing to play on and for a gullible audience, including that widespread jockeying for social rank – as well as a widespread resentment at “longhairs,” sissies, or anyone else with a seemingly condescending or pedantic air. (Think, in a later time, of Liberace.) Or, for that matter, the lingering suspicions over the morality of artists – sexual indulgences and excesses, especially. Again, the conflict between egalitarian and elite arises. One buyer is as good as another. Maybe it is natural in such a situation that literature should emerge as the predominant art form, both fiction and poetry. Books, after all, are portable and economical. Mark Twain responded to these challenges by crafting a persona as an iconoclastic humorist; Emerson, with an attitude of sharing a philosophical harvest, took it another. (Ives, by the way, held Emerson’s thoughts in high esteem, yet Ives’ father-in-law and Twain were best friends; as Leonard Bernstein said, “We have suddenly discovered our musical Mark Twain, Emerson, and Lincoln all rolled into one.”) All this before we even begin to consider the minstrel show, the most popular stage attraction in the years before the Civil War, with its now embarrassing racist humor mixed with syncopated music and who knows what else. Or the fact that John Wilkes Booth was one of the nation’s most popular actors. Or the arrival of circus and P.T. Barnum. Or Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and their Wild West show?
There is one other tradition to consider here, the development of the milltown band in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Brass ensembles, typically with an instrumentation of a dozen instruments, became centerpieces in New England towns having only a few thousand population, and rivalries soon emerged. The musicians performed not just concerts, with works ranging from Italian bel canto opera arrangements to popular songs, but also at dances, perhaps with some stringed instruments added. Crucially, Ives’ father, George, served as a bandmaster in the Union Army and in the towns of Charles’ youth.
As I’ve said, the fine arts have rarely occupied a secure place in American culture. From the earliest days, the necessity of settling a frontier put an emphasis on functionality. We were a nation of builders, after all; nation-builders, at that. Frugality and profit went hand-in-hand. Even in small-town New England, which had been settled 2½ centuries by the time of Charles Ives’ birth, as Steven Ledbetter marks pungently in the liner notes to “The Celestial Country”: “Music in that background was strictly functional, used to accompany a dance, worship service, parade, or military review. Ives had the advantage of growing up in a musical family …” Of course, he would embark on a musical language that was meant to stand on its own merit, and a revolution. But artistically, he would never occupy a secure place during his own lifetime.
Listening to a work by Ives sometimes resembles observing one of those marvelous shadowboxes by Joseph Cornell, seemingly filled with disparate objects. Only slowly does an internal logic emerge, and the craft with which the story unfolds. Except, in Ives’ case, we enter the box and are surrounded by the objects. One room leads to another. Perhaps we encounter Emily Dickinson there, with her own history of neglect. Or the physician-poet William Carlos Williams, another artist with fulltime employment elsewhere, and his unflinching examination of the defining qualities found in the American Grain. Or Wallace Stevens and Ted Koozer, poets who were also fellow insurance executives. Or even later executives who also composed, like John Alden Carpenter in Chicago. Other rooms might hold any of the glowing Illuminist paintings of Niagara Falls or Appalachian Mountains, while another presents folk art Primitives. Maybe someone down the corridor is even preaching.
Listening to Ives reminds me that the New World has always carried an inferiority complex when it comes to the fine arts. For much of our history, our artists have been forced into the role of apologists justifying their existence and practice in ways no European found necessary; maybe the tradition of patrons and royal courts provided the essential endorsement that was missing here. Even in the relatively popular art of literature, our authors were in search of the Great American Novel, a task without parallel in Europe. The Great Dutch Novel? The Great Swedish Novel? Of course not; there, authors could simply get down to work directly, without any nationalistic self-justification. American musical composers, meanwhile, had an especially difficult assignment, trying to write music at the same time they were earning their livelihood from other pursuits. Most were essentially educators, regardless of whether they were a performer foremost or a professional pedagogue. That is, they were forced into advocating the cause of classical music throughout the land before they could even get around to advancing their own work. On top of it all, American composers of the nineteenth century were held to the German model of excellence, and where they succeeded at that, even when they were technically and artistically ahead of their European models, they were instead dismissed for writing in a German style (never mind that German was commonly spoken in American concert halls and opera houses, by the audience as well as the musicians).
On top of that, until the end of the second world war, American artists, especially serious musicians, rarely found encounters with the Old World to be supportive, and yet we’ve looked to Europe for validation of our efforts. Talk about a double-bind or a no-win situation. Consider New Orleans native Louis Mareau Gottschalk (1829-1869), denied admission to the Paris Conservatory in 1842 without even having the opportunity to audition, since, as the director knew, all Americans were barbarians and made locomotives, not music. (In fairness, Gottschalk did serve seven years later on the school’s jury, having vindicated himself as a virtuoso pianist and composer.) A few, like the writer Edgar Allen Poe and the painter James Abbott McNeill, do hold the curious distinction of being more highly esteemed in France than in their native country, thanks to their pivotal role in the emerging schools of surrealism and Impressionism there. They become the exceptions that prove the rule.
Ives, of course, walks right into this dilemma. He chooses to be a composer – of symphonies, at that, when America is just beginning to establish orchestras. In 1896, when he began scoring his First Symphony, only six of our major professional orchestras had been incorporated – New York (1842), St. Louis (1880), Boston (1881), Chicago (1891), Cincinnati (1895), and Pittsburgh (1896) – admittedly building on earlier organizations, but all the same indicating how novel orchestral concerts must have been at the time as well as their connection with German communities; even Boston relied on a series of German music directors and principal players until the beginning of the first world war.
He was also keenly aware of the second-class status his father held in the family for pursuing music as a career, unlike his thriving entrepreneurial uncles. To be a professional musician meant embracing a precarious economic existence; I’ve heard stories of conductors discouraging their own children from becoming professional musicians, steering them instead into medical or legal careers. On top of that, to be a composer meant being a second-class citizen in the music business itself; a classic case their was when John Corrigliano’s father, a former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, tried to dissuade the son from pursuing a career as a composer. Or, asked later about his own strenuous opposition to his son’s taking up a musical career, another father exclaimed, “How was I to know he was going to turn out to be Leonard Bernstein!”
Corrigliano and Bernstein came along decades after Ives made the crucial decision not to rely on music for his own financial livelihood. He wouldn’t be a professional organist composing in his spare time, nor would he be a professor of music writing in his off hours; either approach, he sensed, would compromise the integrity of his output and provide only a limited income, at best. Instead, Ives took the fateful and decisive step of entering the financial world, choosing to compose music on weekends, evenings, and holidays. This placed him squarely within two distinct realms, and the tension between them is hard to imagine. We easily lose sight of the fact that Ives was a major inventor in both worlds, and that the tales we tell of his music reflects similar tales in insurance business, where he created estate planning, introduced the idea of a training school for agents, and wrote an array of pamphlets extolling the benefits of life insurance and ways to sell it. Many stories are still told from that side of Ives’ existence. He was, after all, founding partner of the Ives and Myrick Insurance Company, later known as Mutual of New York (MONY). As Jonathan Price notes in the April 1968 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, “Once, one man, asked where he had been, said that he had just spent the afternoon with Charles Ives. An insurance agent said he must be lying. Why? Nobody spends that much time with Charles Ives – he’s the biggest insurance man in New York.”
The argument continues that because Ives recognized his music was very difficult for both the performers and the listeners of his time; he knew it would be many years before his work would be accepted. In reality, the best he could have had was a hope that his music would enter the repertoire, and the ensuing years of encountering only the silence of a stone wall in terms of performance could easily turn that hope by degrees into despair and then bitterness. There was no guarantee he would ever be vindicated; rather, more likely was the possibility he was in a race against oblivion, something his subsequent heart attacks, diabetes, and failing eyesight must have exacerbated.
In the meantime, the independence his insurance field successes allowed was a two-edged sword. One on hand, he could hew to his uncompromising stance in composition, moving into increasingly complex and idiosyncratic works. On the other hand, while digging his heels in stubbornly, he had little incentive to consider adjustments that might have made his scores more playable at the time or accomplished the same results more efficiently. The act of balancing his time and attention between the two worlds – and those of his family and its activities – produced another set of tradeoffs, pro and con.
What we get, in the end, is unmistakably American. Maybe not the “American sound” that brought Aaron Copland honors a half-century later, but certainly arising “From New England’s Steeples and Mountains,” as Ives noted in the title of one orchestral piece. There was, of course, something unfair in the fact that the younger Copland would garner the acclaim while the pioneering Ives lingered as an obscure musical footnote, just as there was something unfair in the way European composers were being honored for technical advances Ives had previously created. Remarkably, our belated discovery of Ives has come largely through the back door of a later generation of American composers – Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, Copland, Bernstein, and others who found something defiant, original, visionary, and challenging in his pioneering work and then labored to bring it to light decades after it was written.
The quest for a distinctly American sound, of course, had been provoked by Antonin Dvorak’s sojourn in America from 1892 to 1895. The Bohemian, whose works were initially rejected by musical publishers because they weren’t sufficiently “German,” at least until Brahms championed his pieces, now exhorted American composers to turn to their own native sources, especially Indian songs and Negro spirituals. Little did he suspect that those sounds were more foreign to many Americans than the musical traditions immigrants had brought from Europe. For that matter, the pursuit of an American sound, like that of a Great American Novel, overlooks the vast regional differences across the continent; the Indians, for instance, spanned many languages and customs, and what is native to a cattle ranch in Arizona may be quite different from a community of Swedes in Iowa. Ironically, Dvorak’s proposition did flourish in a way that would have likely confounded his sensibilities – the emergence of jazz, rather than symphonies or opera.
Several unintended consequences flowed from Dvorak’s blueprint. One led to the disparagement and neglect of earlier American composers who had risen to the demands of the international standard – John Knowles Paine, George Whitefield Chadwick, and Edward MacDowell, especially. Another, ironically, led away from the sources at hand and toward exotic materials from afar. (Somehow, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who had drawn heavily from the music of the Americas in the years before the Civil War – being the first, in fact, to take the tango seriously – gets no credit on either front.)
Leonard Bernstein amplified these consequences in his scathing senior thesis at Harvard, where he derided those earlier composers who included the very founder of the music department where he was studying (Paine), while proclaiming jazz as the obvious inspiration for the future of American classical music. The fact that Bernstein would eventually become such a passionate advocate for Ives – and do more than any other conductor to bring his orchestral music into the repertoire – embodies a significant change in philosophy. Apart from the ragtime influences, Ives seems largely oblivious to jazz or, for that matter, other ethnic voices. Nor is he shy about quoting directly from European masters – Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Bruckner, Wagner, Dvorak – no matter how much he transforms them. The native sources he shamelessly exploits – perhaps extols and explores would be more descriptive – are those that would have embarrassed other serious musicians: seemingly simplistic or naïve hymns, patriotic airs, Stephen Foster songs, dance jigs and reels. Much of it, no doubt, foreign to Bernstein or other proponents of Ives on first encounter. Still, Bernstein’s rapturous outburst, proclaiming Ives our Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson of music, is both on target and wide of the mark – the former for acknowledging his pivotal position in the stream of American serious music; the latter for ignoring the achievements of Paine and Chadwick, in particular.
Where Bernstein saw Ives as a revolutionary, I’ve come to see instead someone who leads simultaneously into the future and the past of American classical music – that is, Ives, with his Teddy Roosevelt sensibility and Yankee inventiveness, represents a crossroads, a keystone, a threshold or doorway, or even a turning point. Yes, he can be seen as the first on these shores to write “crazy modern music,” something most audiences find synonymous with American serious composition (and the reaction, when asked why more of it is not programmed, “We don’t like American music”); yet his roots are distinctly Romantic era, as his early scores demonstrate. The fact that he is the first major composer to be trained exclusively in America cannot be overstated; the foundations had been laid by others who had determinedly studied in Germany or France. Now Ives could draw from their lessons. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, another avid Ives proponent, is right to call him an American maverick, the centerpiece of others he adds to that legacy.
There are those who find that any piece of music is essentially lyrical, that is, based on melodic line, or rhythmic, essentially arising in dance. From that perspective, American classical music emerges much more from the church than the dance floor. And the march, curiously, becomes a kind of substitute for the dance. If Vienna had its Strauss family, we had John Philip Sousa. (Let the record be clear, by the way, that the March King did write some lovely waltzes, polkas, and foxtrots, despite his mainstay reputation.) In Colonial America, for instance, Boston tanner William Billings was writing quite original anthems, hymns, and fuguing tunes in his effort to teach a cappella part-singing in the Congregational churches; in the frontier communities of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Salem, North Carolina, the Moravian congregations had both well-trained choirs and orchestras capable of playing Haydn and Beethoven. In the years leading into the Civil War, Gottschalk and Stephen Foster stand apart from this stream – the former for his explorations of Caribbean and Latin American music, especially, while the latter, the first fulltime composer in America, divided his attention between the popular minstrel tunes that provided his income and the lovely art songs that went largely unnoticed. But after the Civil War an entire industry of hymn writers cropped up, in their own way forerunners of Tin Pan Alley in the years between the world wars – again, intensifying the Protestant churches as a center of choral, congregational, and organ music. Only recently have we begun to appreciate the role of ragtime in this mixture, especially the compositions of Scott Joplin. As for ballet or modern dance, despite early attempts like John Alden Carpenter’s Krazy Kat and Skyscrapers, success had to await Aaron Copland’s big hits from the mid 1930s onward – Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, Rodeo, El Salon Mexico. So here we have Charles Ives, virtuoso church organist and son of the village bandmaster (marches and patriotic airs), playing and writing ragtime for the Hyperion Theatre orchestra while he was at Yale – in effect, pulling all of these strands together in his later compositions.
Not everybody was impressed by the result. Phillip Ramey recorded an incident in the late 1970s when the composer Samuel Barber admitted, “I can’t stand Ives. It is now unfashionable to say this, but in my opinion he was an amateur, a hack who didn’t put pieces together well. I once attended one of Copland’s Tanglewood classes for composers in which Aaron announced somewhat peremptorily, ‘Here in Tanglewood we have decided that Charles Ives is a great composer! I backed my car out onto Route 183 and drove away without comment.” (There is a delicious irony in finding this in the liner notes to a recording that pairs piano sonatas by Barber and Ives.)
Barber’s dismissal of Ives as an amateur is especially telling, unintentionally revealing as much about Barber as Ives. Born in 1910, after many of the nation’s leading orchestras had been organized, Barber likely had an orchestral sound in his childhood ears, in contrast to Ives’ village band. Barber, moreover, was born to an economic comfort that allowed him to pursue composition fulltime and to travel the world. If Ives presented a curious mixture of God and country, Barber was an internationalist. He received commissions and heard his work performed, and even if he was derided critically for being a neo-romantic in style, audiences reacted by lumping him into that “crazy modern music” camp. The fact that Barber was, with Copland, one of our first fulltime classical composers, gave him the liberty to compose in a much more sustained manner than someone like Ives, whose writing took place at night, on weekends, or during holidays. I doubt that Barber could comprehend the difficulty of working in such a fractured awareness, his span of concentration constantly broken, the race of the clock between trying to capture the big picture and refining a detail, or even the amount of time lost trying to recall exactly what was happening when he last broke off. This sense of trying to ride the dragon in fragments likely meant the work took hold of him, more than the other way around. Working in one’s spare time also takes a heavy personal toll. Where others might take rest or relaxation, Ives was hard at work. Time of play or family life that might have recharged his creative juices was being neglected. He was drawing down his reserves or eating his seed corn, rather than planting for future harvest. He wasn’t alone in this; the idea of the part-time composer who fails to compose significant new music after age forty is repeated in American musical history. Another aspect of working in fragments is that many of the infrastructure activities related to the practice are neglected; in charging ahead with a composition, Ives failed to perform some essential housekeeping, which would haunt him in his later years. Finished scores, such as the second symphony, for instance, had been lent out decades earlier, and no copy remained, other than the messy sketches.
(As a part-time writer, I, too, know these costs all too well. I joke about being able to write in my hours away from the office, or to give and attend poetry readings, or to submit my work to publishers – but I can do only one at any stretch of time. Only one, not even two, and even that can be a stretch.)
The amateur/professional dichotomy can be turned another way. As the composer Peter Eliot Stone writes in his liner notes for Paine’s Mass in D, “In Music in the United States, H. Wiley Hitchcock differentiates between a vernacular tradition (roughly, art that is based on native lore and idioms, is plebian, naïve, widespread, and appreciated for its entertainment or utilitarian value) and the cultivated tradition (art that is based on European materials, is genteel, sophisticated, somewhat limited to eastern centers, and appreciated for its moral, cultural, or artistic value).” Here we can clearly see Ives falling on one side of the divide, while Barber falls on the other. Paine, born in 1839 in Portland, Maine, was intent on proving that an American could, indeed, succeed as a composer in that cultivated tradition and nurture it in the New World. I, for one, find Bernstein remiss in failing to designate Paine as our Washington of music. Like Ives, Paine had to watch others garner laurels for what he had already accomplished, and like Ives, he found himself unable to compose significant new music after turning forty. Paine is sometimes seen as being derivative of others, only because of our unfamiliarity with the place of his music in a timeline. His first symphony, for instance, is sometimes said to resemble Brahms, although Brahms first symphony actually arrived a year later. The slow movement of Paine’s second symphony, meanwhile, resembles the one in Mahler’s fifth symphony, which came two decades later. Parts of the Mass, meanwhile, are said to be derivative of Brahms’ German Requiem (1868), the Verdi Requiem (1874), or Faure Requiem (1888) – never mind that Paine took the completed score with him to Europe in 1866, where it was premiered in Berlin the next year. As Stone observes, “The works of Mrs. H.H.A. Beach, George Whitefield Chadwick, Arthur Foote, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, John Knowles Paine, or Horatio Parker, for instance … rank with many contemporaneous European works in the repertory; but our prejudices prevent our listening to them openly, and ignorance of our traditions feeds those prejudices.”
Paine’s decision to write a Roman Catholic Mass, in Latin, is in itself remarkable. First of all, he comes from Puritan stock in New England. The Latin Mass was about as foreign to his experience as one could imagine. This was not, after all, a Handel oratorio on Biblical themes, much less to be sung in English. Paine was tackling Europe on Europe’s terms. As the composer and conductor Gunther Schuler notes, “The work is substantial … some eighteen sections, including a number of excellent fugues.” Covering about 100 minutes of music, it is a half-hour longer than Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or only forty minutes shorter than Wagner’s Das Rheingold. A good Catholic, of course, would have written something much briefer; maybe taken this much material and cut three Masses from it. Sometimes Paine seems to be veering toward the oratorio after all, or maybe even an opera. In fact, like Ives four decades later, there’s something impractical about Paine’s effort, creating a work too big for typical performance. Big, to prove something big. And it is, make no doubt about it, a big accomplishment, well worth repeated listenings.
Paine’s choice also illustrates how daring Ives’ use of hymn tunes could be. For that matter, his cantata, The Celestial Country (1902), demonstrates his intention of somehow transforming something of the vernacular tradition into high art. As Steven Ledbetter writes, “The New Englander regarded music with suspicion. Nonetheless, Ives, who came out of this tradition, developed a high appreciation of the artistic value of music and put aside his youthful playing with popular songs and marches, ultimately sublimating them as the raw material for immensely complicated symphonic or chamber compositions. The man who probably played the greatest role in this change of viewpoint was his teacher at Yale, Horatio Parker. Ives always spoke of him with considerable respect, despite the fact that Parker had small patience for such curious offshoots of the young man’s imagination as a fugue in which each of the four voices was written in a different key.” Ledbetter then remarks, “The Celestial Country probably owes its inspiration to Parker’s greatest success, the oratorio Hora Novissima … Ives probably thought that Henry Alford’s well-known hymn, ‘Forward be our watchword,’ was a translation of the same medieval Latin poem that Parker had set in Hora Novissima.”
The New Englander may have regarded music with suspicion, but by the time Ives was setting forth, the Northeast – and Boston, in particular – was the center of classical composition in the New World. I find that listening to Ives is enriched by listening to these others, as well, entering the mindset of a nation that had finally settled a continent and was now looking at amazement at the world at large. Ives apparently found this vision was voiced best by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the New England Transcendentalist strain. Ives, the frat man and baseball player encountering the automobile and Wright Brothers, the silent movie and the phonograph. These were no doubt heady or even dizzying times, even for a nation of builders.
Even if Ives did not venture far from home, his music does – and not in the direction of composing a Mass or even an opera. No other composer traverses such a wide range of development from symphony to symphony, much less from his first to his last. Except, of course, Beethoven, where the works often pair up as two sides of the ongoing growth, and the classical underpinning remains available. Or maybe Schoenberg, considering the leap from Transfigured Night to his twelve-tone compositions – although, strictly speaking, the forms are not symphonies. To think, that Ives accomplishes all of this in little more than a two-decade span of active composing – and while Beethoven had gone deaf, at least he had an ongoing interaction with both performers and audience, unlike Ives, who was forced to compose in a more thorough silence, with the premieres of the second, third, and fourth symphonies coming a half-century after their composition – a span of stony muteness and rejection. Ives, I believe, endured the far greater tragedy, and the world is worse for it. He was not nurtured in his gift, and it was never able to evolve into that late great stage of maturity.
The Ives the public typically encounters is stridently inventive. Maybe the musicians who advocate his work today are most taken with his thorniest output, with the result that audiences encounter the most difficult and relentless pieces first. Yes, there’s much to admire in his response to an opponent, “Stand up and use your ears like a man!” Something defiant and thoroughly American. Something also deeply rooted in the uncompromising investigation of what he heard in his own head and environment, too – well drilled into him by his bandmaster father.
If the second and third symphonies, with their amalgamation of hymn tunes, patriotic airs, European masters, and clash of sensations stand as characteristic Ives, and the fourth, with its relentless opening movements, represents the iconoclast in full bloom, the first symphony comes as an unexpected surprise. It’s lush, melodic, optimistic, thoroughly Romantic and pleasurable. Finished in 1898, as a student work at Yale University, it could almost be Tchaikovsky in a light-hearted mode, yet closer listening reveals its sound imitates no one. It’s amazing to read now how offensive it struck the ears of its day, and how hostile Walter Damrosch reacted, rehearsing a movement in 1910 with the New York Symphony. Astonishingly, it was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. To read of its frequent key changes and confusing rhythms hardly fits what sounds, to these ears, as nearly innocuous. If anything, knowing what is about to burst forth in the next works, I can feel here a youthful impatience, the familiar hymn tunes and patriotic airs boiling out of sight – and all of the turmoil of the future held in check until the closing movement. The lyrical first movement, incidentally, reminds me of strolling up a mountain, even though its tempo is closer to a waltz than a march.
While I pair up the second and third symphonies, largely because of their use of the hymn tunes, I suppose, I’m surprised to read of the ways Ives incorporated earlier works (ragtime jazz band pieces?!) into the five-movement second symphony, or that the three-movement third symphony represents a major leap in terms of his musical pioneering. If anything, the third symphony sounds more focused and lyrical than the second. The fourth symphony, meanwhile, with its first two movements so dense as to be, I love the description, “rough sledding,” something to test the endurance of audiences before reaching the more satisfying final two movements. Here, a work so complicated that performances originally demanded three conductors at points. Still, in those two rough movements I feel the bewilderment and chaotic streets of Manhattan at that time; crowded with traffic and dense smoke and steam everywhere amid the bustle of profit and progress. This, after all, was the world Ives encountered daily, not many miles from the Connecticut villages of his childhood.
Ives’ two string quartets make the case even more succinctly. The first, written in 1896, as a sophomore at Yale, was intended for a church service and its themes are openly based on hymn tunes. The second quartet (1907-1913) is, as J. Peter Burkholder writes, “worlds apart. … It represents a culmination of Ives’ development, bringing together the traditional craftsmanship he learned from Parker with the new chromatic language and experimental techniques of his more recent music.” As Burkholder notes, “The First String Quartet is a late Romantic work deeply influenced by Dvorak and Brahms, while the Second Quartet is blistering in its modernist dissonance and contrapuntal complexity.”
More and more, I come to wonder about the place of the texts Ives quotes as the music progresses. Just how much of a subtext do they provide? Obviously, when he quotes “Let there be light, Lord, God of hosts, let there be wisdom on the earth,” and links it to the Alcotts, as he does in the Concord Sonata, the choice is deliberate and telling. The tune (Missionary Chant) is one of his favorites, surfacing throughout his output. There is, of course, the game of trying to identify the pieces as they surface and dissolve, like clouds or objects floating in a swift current. One could piece together a collage of the snippet words and create something intriguing and telling. Ives doesn’t seem to be quoting these bits as much as independently discovering them along his way to something else; it’s a most curious, organic effect. The writer Jorge Luis Borges has pondered similar sorts of questions involving authorship, identity, or voices of the past appearing in the present or future.
Burkholder makes the musical case for their inclusion: “The message of this quartet [the first] lies as much in what it says about the hymn tunes themselves. Hearing these tunes transformed and developed … we are compelled to listen to them with fresh concentration. Even if we might not take them seriously as music, we must do so here. It was Ives’ great achievement here and in his later music to discern the rich potential of American hymn tunes and popular songs, which at that time were ignored and disdained by even lovers of folk music. Through his reworkings of American vernacular tunes, he revealed to his listeners treasures they scarcely suspected were there.” As he emphasizes, “He reworks the tunes into themes suitable for classical forms. In this, Ives follows in the tradition of Beethoven’s adaptations of Russian themes in his Razumovsky Quartets.”
I keep wondering about the importance of the quotations. Great music must stand on its own merits, yet conductors like Erich Leinsdorf have insisted the orchestral players must become familiar with the songs underlying a Gustav Mahler symphony if they are to play it right. How do performers or audiences react when they don’t catch the reference? Is their appreciation lessened, or do they instead sense that something even more remarkable is happening, that all of this material is original? Still, a tune is a tune, and can be whistled or hummed free of the words. One thing the familiar tunes do is give the listener something to cling to amid the swirling complexity. In his essay, “Charles Ives: Great American Inventor,” Richard Kostelanetz observes, “Other composers had incorporated ‘found’ sounds prior to Ives, but he was probably the first to allow a quotation to stand out dissonantly from the text – all but waving a flag to draw attention to itself. – as well as the first, like the Pop artists after him [Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg], to distort a popular quotation into a comic semblance of the original.” Kostelanetz explains, “In his rhythmic freedom, as well as his unashamed atonality, Ives clearly fathered the chaotic, mixmaster language of modern music, the tradition that runs through Henry Cowell and early Edgard Varese to John Cage.” In this sense, the familiar tunes provide some familiar ground or steppingstones through some very challenging terrain, while simultaneously offering yet another dimension for appreciation.
Dvorak’s challenge for an American music had been met. There’s an argument, in fact, that it had been met in Chadwick’s Second Symphony, 1883-85, anteceding Dvorak’s own 1893 Symphony From the New World. With Ives’ own Second Symphony, “finished in 1901 or 1902,” and his Third, finished in 1904 and revised in 1909, there could be no question about the achievement, no matter that Ives’ materials were not the one prescribed by the Bohemian visitor or that it would take roughly a half-century for the works to come to light.
And then there’s the Great What If. Supposing Mahler, then music director of the New York Philharmonic, had lived long enough to give the promised premiere of Ives’ Third Symphony, rather than dying in Europe during the summer of 1911? Rather than being relegated to an after-the-fact position as a musical innovator, Ives would have been thrust into the front lines – before the notorious 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris. Ives would have received a sympathetic performance, by a composer and conductor he would have respected and whose suggestions he may have accepted, unlike the disastrous rehearsals he had received, often at his own expense. Mahler would have been a good match for Ives, as both brought together the vulgar and the sublime in visionary undertakings, and both, as history would have it, would have to wait another half century for widespread recognition. Instead of a breakthrough, of course, Ives was stymied, forced to watch others earn the laurels or inspire the next generation of musical invention.
If not Mahler, then who would be sufficiently equipped to lead the premieres during Ives’ creative years? After hearing a historic recording of Richard Strauss conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in popular Mozart symphony, in which they were clearly struggling to make sense of a score that nowadays orchestras of high school musicians can play far better, I’m left me wondering just what they might have encountered in Ives. Perhaps the Texas-born Frank van der Stucken, who gave the American premiere of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Cincinnati Symphony when Mahler himself was music director of the New York Philharmonic, could have handled it. Or Leopold Stokowski, van der Stucken’s successor in Cincinnati; Stokowski did, after all, lead the premiere of Ives’ Fourth Symphony – in 1965, more than a decade after the composer’s death. Or, in the decade after World War I, when Ives had essentially stopped writing new music, perhaps Fritz Reiner in Cincinnati or Serge Koussevitsky in Boston, with their insights into new music, could have led acceptable premieres – conceivably reviving Ives’ creative energies as well. Beyond that, the list narrows quickly. Certainly not Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Thomas Beecham, or Willem Mengelberg in their association with the New York Philharmonic. Maybe it was inevitable, after all, that the task should be left to Leonard Bernstein, himself a man of complexity and wide achievement, to champion both Ives and Mahler – even if the American is still is played all too rarely.
The challenges Ives presents should not be underestimated. Listening to a recording of his Third Symphony, I began wondering if the strings were having intonation problems that left them sounding, well, like fiddlers would be one way of viewing it or whether Ives had, in fact, scored them playing slightly apart. The Eastman-Rochester Orchestra was no stranger to contemporary music, and the conductor, Howard Hanson, brought his own composer’s insights to bear. But after turning to Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and then Michael Tilson Thomas and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in their recordings for comparison (after crucial editing of the score), it was obvious how much lyricism was lost in the struggle. Imagine what would have happened earlier. Maybe Ives would have been more discouraged that energized by the experience.
There is the paradox that when he could finally devote his full attention to composing, in his mid-fifties, nothing came forward. He was, after all, exhausted by all the years of trying to live two separate lives. What may surprise many people is the amount of physical strength required for writing, especially to keep all of the elements of a complex work in focus in one’s head; a symphony, an opera, a novel all hold true here. Ives, of course, was physically weakened by a series of serious heart attacks, diabetes, and declining eyesight. One may wonder, as well, about the devastating impact of World War I on his spirit – all of its brutality in the face of civilized aspirations, disillusionment, despair, heartbreak. On top of everything, he faced the weight of possessing major pieces that had gone too long unreleased – a situation that holds you back, traps you in an unresolved past. You question what it is that is causing the problem, whether you’ve missed the mark or they’re simply trash. You are not encouraged to continue in that vein, but you’re not fully released to explore another. They are children who don’t leave home or no longer leave their room to play. Had they been performed, and maybe even been published, he could move on naturally to the next stage of development. He would have likely also learned from the experience, finding what worked to his satisfaction and what didn’t. Instead, he would have been finding you can’t reenter the outlook you had thirty years earlier; you can’t finish the piece from that perspective; maybe you can add layers to it, like a painter; or maybe you and that phase are simply relics, dusty and dry.
At the outset, a writer may draft a piece as essentially a collection of notes as his means of exploring a subject and his interactions with it. A playwright, for instance, may want to see where the chemistry of his characters and their situation will lead. At this point, a writer may even set out to demonstrate that he can, indeed, create within a given form – a villanelle, for instance, or a fugue. In the end, though, no writer goes through the effort of multiple revisions unless he believes he has something to say. Listen to me, listen to my work and its merit. And if no one listens? To have a dozen unpublished novels in one’s closet diminishes the incentive and desire to labor on yet another one. We celebrate the peculiar case of Emily Dickinson, when perhaps we should be celebrating the genius by which she orchestrated her posthumous success. One of the paradoxes of Ives was the fact that one of history’s great insurance salesmen could not sell his own music, even when the effort consumed much of the energy he might have otherwise focused on new work. Jonathan Price looks at the situation: “His whole life during this period was torn by the conflict. It made him tougher, but it taught him a certain wise despair. He stopped hoping, in a way. And in later years, when performances finally did come, it was almost too late; Ives was not willing to let his hopes rise, they had been smashed so often before. Ives was strong. But gradually the indifference and hostility began to wear on him. His dream of getting his pieces performed slowly disintegrated.” He was tired of having no one listen when he had something to say. It’s easy to stop talking; much harder to start again. Price later quotes the composer Arnold Schoenberg:
“There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. / He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self and to learn. / He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. / His name is Ives.”
But had he? In his later years, we hear his lament to his wife, Harmony, that he feared he had lost the gift of composition. Ives, who had been so prolific in his early adult years, now came up barren. Bitterness, we know, takes a toll. There are the cranky stories of his old age. After his Third Symphony was premiered in 1946 (he was 71 at the time), it won the Pulitzer Prize the next year; when the committee came to tell him he had won, he slammed the door in their face. The award, Roy Hemming argues (Discovering Great Music), came too late to interest him. Or his reaction to the premiere of his Second Symphony by the New York Philharmonic on February 22, 1951. Michael Fleming, on the Detroit Symphony’s liner notes, explains, “This was the first performance ever of an Ives symphony by a major orchestra. Ives was not up to making the trip down to New York from his home in West Redding, Connecticut. In any case, he always fidgeted at concerts of his own music, and he would no doubt have snorted at the spectacle of the citified literati turned out to hear his music.” Harvey E. Phillips, on liner notes for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, tells what happened next: “Ives, of course, did not attend the Philharmonic performance. He did, however, listen to a subsequent broadcast on a neighbor’s table-model radio. He said nothing, but when the final Reveille rang out, he arose, walked to the fireplace and spat. Was he annoyed at the mistakes that the disdain of decades had made inevitable, or was he too moved to express anything but contempt for the stupidity of that lost time?” The only completed score lay gathering dust on Walter Damrosch’s shelves; the Philharmonic score had to be reconstructed from the earlier revisions. ”What he actually felt remains an authentic Ives mystery.”
In many ways, Ives himself becomes the unanswered question. After all of the years of behaving as a character, daring an objector, “Stand up and use your ears like a man,” he found his final decades as a composer a time of wandering in a desert, far from any elusive Promised Land. Two large, ambitious pieces left unfinished at the time of his death are full of haunting portent – the Universe Symphony and the Emerson Piano Concerto. It’s almost as if he deliberately set off in pursuit of projects too big for completion. The entire universe in a single symphony? The essence of Emerson in a concerto? Was he out in pursuit of Moby Dick? Or, like Gaudi, attempting to construct a “cathedral” all on his own? William Carlos Williams was also pursuing an elusive major project, his longpoem Paterson, an effort that nearly cost him his voice. What possible way out would there be for a composer addressing such a lofty subject as the universe or even a philosopher? Downscaling, perhaps, looking for the detail that would carry the whole. Or, in Ives’ case, the telling contradiction.
In his latter years, before he was finally receiving crucial performances, Ives was not totally neglected. Apparently, he was generating some attention as a theoretician. The biographical entry in the 1939 Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia edited by Deems Taylor describes Ives as “an original figure among American composers, working in seclusion and with music as an avocation, Ives’ scores … have created considerable interest; one of his theories being that several musical units of an ensemble may proceed independently of each other …” Even Arnold Schoenberg, after all, admired the inventive output.
There’s one point that should be obvious, yet I’ve not seen developed, that may influence much of the sound we’ve come to associate with Ives. Like Bach, his instrument as a composer was the organ, rather than the piano or harpsichord. Sound based on moving wind, rather than percussion or plucking. It offered a different set of colors to his ear, and a wider range in his improvisations. When Ives’ orchestration is thick, the effect is often vaporous, rather than muddy.
When we look at his final decades, we might as easily ask just what kept him going in the face of such resistance, long after others would likely have given up.
It’s easy to cast Ives as an iconoclast in a way that turns him into an icon, but it’s an image we must resist. Part of my fascination with Ives is that we get him warts and all. He remains true to himself, whatever that is. In doing so, he stands in the middle of an American stream, right out in the current. Richard Kostelantz writes, “The paradox of Charles Ives (1874-1954) is that … although he taught no pupils and founded no school, he is generally considered the father of nearly everything American in American music. What is more remarkable is that Ives was not an intentional avant-gardist, consciously aiming for a ‘breakthrough,’ but a modest spare-time composer whose innocence, of convention as well as pretense, was a shaping component of his radical originality.”
The same rough edges that Samuel Barber deplored are the same ones I’ve come to love, whether they occur in Ives’ lyrical First Symphony or First Quartet – the ones where you can actually sing along – or in the craggiest and thickest of his scores. Ives, we’re told, made every attempt to record the sounds of the world he heard, rather than escaping the daily conflicts. In doing so, his voice stays rooted in what we’ve come to call the creative process, though it’s far more than that. He never paints over the grain of the wood or conceals his inspiration. Yes, I love the beauty and sweep of many of Barber’s works, but they stand at the other end of the spectrum from Ives. When John Adams wrote a piece, with the fictional title, “Charles Ives Knew My Father” (or was it the other way around?), he touches on this sense of familiarity. My grandfather knew the hymns and ditties Ives embroiders into his tapestries. And I’ve come to know and sing them, too.
At last, I introduce my wife to the last movement of the Second Symphony. This time, as she taps along – she, who professes a kind of tone-deafness when it comes to classical music, despite her German mother’s love of Wagner – I hear far more of the town band and the ragtime theater band than I’d noticed before. Yes, as I’ve written elsewhere, what’s most obvious really is the most difficult to see, and I think that dimension, too, is part of the appeal of Ives – he works from the elements right in front of him, rather than trying to override them. She even catches a “Joy to the World” I’ve never registered. After the final, unexpected chord, she says, “It’s much more lighthearted than I would have expected, based on what you’ve told me.” Aha! Right in front of me, all along. Not just lighthearted, but boyish – the brashness and cheerfulness as part of an essential playfulness. (All that playfulness Chadwick was forced to keep in check, so much so he titled his final symphony Symphonic Sketches to allow himself a little more elbow room.) The boyish quality, then, as a clue to the eventual writer’s block. Against the repeated rejection, how else would that boyish element react but the way Ives did? How could he remain playful in his writing? The craggy character that emerged, of course, adds to our story, but not to a parallel new phase of music.
Rather than being a curiosity and sideshow, as we often perceive Ives, he really is central to American music. He is as vital to our serious music as Mozart and Beethoven, and for our orchestras not to annually program his work – and that of Paine, Chadwick, or Beach, among others – is little less than gross negligence, detracting from their own vitality and growth as well as ours. At the moment, I’m still humming strands from that last movement. How can you be less essential than that?
Colonial Puritan headstones present an evolving emblematic reminder of fleeting nature of mortality, moving over time from harsh stylized eyes of judgment to the bare bones of the human skull to more humanized features before turning to images of Grecian urns or weeping willows. The images came to be known as Tombstone angels, for good reasons.
Here are some examples from a burial ground in downtown Concord, Massachusetts.
Nowhere else have I seen Halloween observed with the excess that it stirs in New England. A native of the Midwest, where I’ve lived in five cities and three states, and having resided in the mountains of both Upstate New York State and Pennsylvania, as well as in the Pacific Northwest and a corner of the South, I find myself perplexed when Halloween decorations begin appearing shortly after Labor Day, about the time that the early signs of autumn foliage are obvious and undeniable. By the first of October, the decor is out full-bore, nearly as pervasive as Christmas decorations the first week of December.
Halloween means something quite distinct here in New England – something beyond the trick-or-treat emphasis elsewhere. At first, I thought it was simply a matter of quantity – or maybe trinkets that have become widely marketed in recent years. Such observations lead me, then, to ask whether the overindulgence has accelerated in recent years. To ask whether it’s merely another manifestation of increasing consumerism – a reflection of a secular society that confuses a candy overload with spiritual blessings. But that turns the consideration toward the quality of the observance itself. Just what hunger drives so many people to adorn their yards with large plastic “pumpkin” bags filled with leaves or to drape blinking orange lights around their houses? Admittedly, some of it is pure playfulness – the effigy of the witch crashed into a telephone pole or a tree. But is there something more – a hunger within the psyche that is not openly acknowledged? In that light, the practice of teaching Halloween carols (for that’s what they are) in elementary schools can be seen as a perverse substitute for sacred Christmas music that’s been banned – a reflection of tolerance that permits the mention of witches, but not a baby Jesus, in public institutions. (Doesn’t that, by default, make for an anti-Christ? What values are being taught here? Which ones suppressed?) Hunger turned exclusively toward candy, rather than genuine food, is not healthy. Perhaps sending children out dressed as terrorists is the inevitable outcome. So what if they’ve been isolated from experiences of death common to farm life or even large families of previous centuries?
My concern is that a “witches-are-good” theology sugarcoats the deeper essence of New England’s Halloween fixation. The real issue is anxiety about death, something that is rarely addressed outside of religion, which we’ve largely banished from the realm of public discourse.
Enter some of the more isolated pockets of the region, listen to the stories, and you’re likely to sense that something else is going on – something that goes back generations. Bits of it appear in the news – a farmer who poisons the coffee at his church, the police chief who buries his girlfriend’s husband in his front yard and is discovered a decade later. Something in the heart turns to stone. A century-old house will do; two centuries or more is better.
The fact is that families here have been in place for generations. Memories linger, and wounds – even perceived slights – fester. Add to the caldron large numbers of Scots-Irish, Irish, and Quebecoise – with all of their own folklore and superstitions regarding death and hardship.
Salem – the city now synonymous with witchcraft in America – is also the seat of Massachusetts’ Essex County. From our contemporary vantage, we typically blur Salem in with “events back then” and overlook just how far back that goes (settled in 1626, it’s the second-oldest city in Massachusetts – and four years older than Boston). By comparison, Philadelphia would not be envisioned until 1681, and the first town in North Carolina would not be founded until 1705. Salem bridges more than the mother country’s Essex County with an Essex County in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Despite its footing in medieval thought, barely a decade after its founding Salem could nevertheless as easily claim to be the birthplace of dissent in America, thanks to a succession of Samuel Gorton, Anne Hutchinson and her followers, and Roger Williams in the 1630s – each of them, we must note, ultimately taking flight to what would become Rhode Island. From our contemporary vantage, we also blur the distinctions between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony and those of the Puritans who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony – not only critical theological differences, but cultural ones, as well, rooted in different parts of England. Our modern impression of witches in black pointy hats and Puritans with muzzleloaders and buckled hats loses any sense of the intellectual and moral fermentation in the decades up to 1692 – a time of upheaval that included the theological and social challenge presented by the emerging Quaker movement (four of its itinerant ministers were executed by Massachusetts officials 1659-1660) and by the simultaneous restoration of the English monarchy. The return of Charles II to the throne must have presented the ultimate existential conundrum to the Puritan movement, which had come to the New World with hopes of nurturing the future English government from exile and was then largely excluded from Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. All the while, the expectation of Harvard University as an alternative Oxford would, over the centuries, would be fulfilled in a then-unanticipated destiny. Today we emphasize the Puritans’ fear of nature, but overlook the fact that the frontier wilderness not far from their doors was full of danger – including kidnapping to Quebec that continued until the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. Until then, English civilization ceased just beyond the handful of garrisoned communities only sixty miles up the coast from Salem.
While we today apply “Puritan” or “Puritanical” with a prejudicial contempt equivalent to the charge of “witchcraft” or “sorcery” in earlier eras, we also fail to see the movement’s great idealistic accomplishments, including genuine attempts to create utopian societies within the constraints of human nature. We fail, too, to see that they maintained – even from their pulpits – a lusty approach to life and sexuality, albeit within the confines of marriage and community. We expect them to be spotless, by our standards; what a shock, then, to hear about the large quantity of beer these Puritans quaffed – more than a gallon a day for every man, woman, and child, by some estimates – and, later, hard cider. (Or, on much of the New England frontier, the whiskey common to Scots-Irish tables.) Even watered down, it must have led to borderline alcoholics, at the least. A paranoia becomes possible. What is missing in our stereotypes, then, is any sense of individual people and their personalities. Nowadays, we revel instead in their failures and discipline, instead of their accomplishments and goals. In raising the “puritanical” cry, we blame them for much in which they are guiltless, and accuse them of things they never were. We are far more likely to look at them through the revisionist eyes of Arthur Miller (The Crucible) or Nathaniel Hawthorn (The Scarlet Letter or The House of the Seven Gables) than through their own. The sins, then, may be ours as much as theirs.
The subject of witchcraft obviously provides its own boogyman – especially as it touches our own nerve about persecution injustice. (Incidentally, one friend has concluded that the Salem witch executions were the result of the application of then-modern “scientific method” jurisprudence; under church rules, she argues, none of the accused would have been ruled guilty. Again, our presumptions and values deserve challenge.) What is not known can be regarded as darkness, and who knows what lurks in the darkness?
All the same, something in autumn evokes witches in the American mindset. Especially in New England, with its intertwined images of fall foliage and Halloween witches. As Fischer notes, from 1647 to 1692, the Puritan colonies accounted for ninety percent of the accusations and eighty-five percent of the executions for witchcraft in English-speaking America.
If we typically fail to see the Puritans themselves, perceiving witches becomes even more elusive. (And all the more fascinating for a modern thread of morbidity.) We can ask, of course, whether they existed at all. One answer is that laws are not written and imposed for problems that don’t exist. In other words, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Of course, there’s the very question of how witches and witchcraft are defined – and even whether practitioners would have so defined themselves or their work in that manner, or as something quite different. On top of it all is the romance of the outsider – an underground tradition, perhaps dating to antiquity, maybe Druids or Celts, or the mere act of quiet rebellion against the dominant authority.
What we do see is how much the matter haunts the American mindset, and how widely it touches a common nerve. Nothing demonstrates this as much as the autumn pilgrimage to Salem amid the annual tide of foliage peepers.
While the Salem witch trials touch on many basic tensions – with socio-economic justice high on the list – they also invoke an underlying tension between intellect and emotion. Because the Puritan strand of Calvinism relied strongly on the Bible as the “written Word of God,” what emerged was a reason-based approach to faith. Where, then, did emotion fit? Or practices that long predated the Protestant Reformation? Or abuses of power relating to families and commerce? Buried emotions and fears were bound to erupt somewhere.
In some ways the contemporary New England Halloween seems to wallow in the forbidden, a Mardi Gras in Pilgrim land. How strange, too, that a holiday from the Catholic and Anglican liturgical calendar should come to so dominate a place settled by those who did not observe even Christmas! How much, then, is a jeering reaction to the Puritan hierarchy from East Anglia by the Scotch-Irish, Catholic Irish, and backcountry Quebecoise who since migrated to the region in great numbers?
The witch trials continue to fascinate as historians delve into not-so-apparent influences, such as struggles for secular dominance and wealth. Some see a manifestation of long-festering Puritan fears, an anti-Quaker thrust of the Salem trials, though veiled, having much earlier hanged Quaker Mary Dyer, a woman having a legitimate claim to the throne of England. Even earlier, Salem had offered a pulpit to Roger Williams, who would eventually establish the first Baptist congregation in America, and was a center of antinomian theology, much to the agitation of Puritan officials. The ultimate issue, then, may have been Puritan hegemony, rather than witchcraft.
Others have looked to scientific causes, such as an outbreak of hallucinogenic ergot in rye – which would nonetheless point back to the fears of witchcraft itself.
When considering Halloween in New England, we might even add the much-later Lizzie Borden case (1892 – exactly two centuries after the Salem witch fever), that continues to focus a morbid fascination on Fall River. Lizzie’s case is mirrored in other stories of death, of a series of husbands slain by their new bride, of children’s mummies found in attics decades later, all part of New England’s Gothic lore. Somehow, it’s altogether fitting that master horror writer Stephen King lives in Maine.
David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989) sees in the “Death Ways” of New England seeds for this situation: “The Puritans of Massachusetts shared this feeling in an exaggerated degree because of their theology. … New England’s Calvinist orthodoxy insisted that the natural condition of humanity was total depravity, that salvation was beyond mortal striving, that grace was predestined only for a few, that most mortals were condemned to suffer eternal damnation, and no earthly effort could save them. The people of Massachusetts were trained by their ministers never to be entirely confident of their own salvation. From childhood, they were taught to believe that a sense of certainty about salvation was one of the surest signs that one was not saved. … This attitude of cultivated insecurity, coming on top of the dangers of life itself, created a brooding darkness that hovered over the collective unconscious of New England for two centuries.”
Within that collective unconscious memory is the fact that Halloween falls close to the beginning of solar winter, just a little more than a week away – just as Groundhog’s Day announces solar spring. This sense of solar seasons, rather than calendar seasons, is well known to earlier peoples, and explains why Mayday, the beginning of solar summer, was so widely celebrated. (Except in New England, where the town of Merrymount provided the brief exception.) Such arcane knowledge makes pieces of folklore fit into place.
Halloween is a harbinger of November, the bleakest month of the year – made all the more so by the return of Eastern Standard Time, which drives sunset to mid-afternoon and means leaving the workplace for home in darkness. Halloween, then, is a herald of gloom, death, and despair. Laugh all you want during the party or the parade of sweet-toothed kiddies, the candle in the jack-o’-lantern will die out. Here, then, autumn presages new trials. The brilliant colors are deceptive and short-lived – a clarion warning. Getting through New England’s dark winter has no guarantee. Don your costume and pretend it does. But for balance, remember, All Saint’s Day and Ash Wednesday follow – with much reason.
Bonnie Friedman, in Writing Past Dark (Harper Collins, 1994), recalls “leaves kindled on the trees, bursting into orange and red and yellow almost with a gasp like a pilot light lighting, and they hung there the barest instant – a week, nothing – before they flung themselves to the earth. The ground flowed with colors as if a globe had been spun. Everything urged disorder.”
To demonstrate how intensely the dominant Puritan culture could bear down on those who opposed its values, historian David Hackett Fischer (Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Oxford University Press, 1989), relates the origin of a well-known American word:
“In Massachusetts Bay, an eccentric Devon family called Maverick settled the present town of Chelsea and an island in Boston Harbor that still bears their name. They had trouble with the Puritans and moved away, keeping one jump ahead of the larger cultures that threatened to engulf them. By the nineteenth century, the Mavericks had found their way onto the western plains. Their name was given to range cattle that bore no man’s brand, and became a synonym for independent eccentricity in American speech.”
The fact remains that New England has, at its heart, Puritan roots – which, surprisingly, include an awareness of witchcraft. Fischer demonstrates that the United States bears the often conflicting legacies of four distinct English migrations to the American colonies. New England, he argues, arises almost exclusively in a culture transported from East Anglia – in particular, the counties of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. From the Boston accent, which in England was known as a “Norwich whine,” to the diet of oven goods (pies, Yankee pot roasts, and Boston baked beans), to the “saltbox” and “Cape Cod’ style of houses, to the New England sports of baseball and American football, the origins can be traced to surviving parallels in East Anglia and neighboring shires. Fischer also reports:
In England, every quantitative study has found that recorded cases of witchcraft were most frequent in the eastern counties from which New England was settled. The American historian John Demos concludes, “… interestingly, the figures look most nearly equivalent when New England is matched with the [old English] county of Essex alone. Essex was beyond a doubt a center of witch-hunting within the mother country …”
Apart from the seasonal recipes my wife trots out in autumn – the leak-and-potato or butternut squash soups, for example, or the last of the fresh eggplant parmesan – I mark the occasion with my own extended ritual. Somehow, each October, I pull out my recordings of the symphonies of Charles Ives and play them in sequence. Rarely as 1-2-3-4 and the Symphony of Holidays, either, but more as a dozen playings of the first, followed by a dozen of the second, and so on. And then that’s followed by George Whitefield Chadwick’s string quartets, often leading to other New England Romantic era composers – John Knowles Paine, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote – as well as the more contemporary Walter Piston and his colleagues. These are not pieces I hear often on the radio, not even Boston’s, where all but Ives had lived and worked. (He had become the leading insurance executive in Manhattan, as well as a legendary maverick musician.) These are the neglected but brilliant and often innovative voices of New England, defiantly proving to the world what the Germans were not required to match. I’ve come to feel their music in my soul as my own.
Occasionally, while driving in autumn, I pass a meadow of intense green, even after a killing frost. How inexplicable this reminder of spring aspiration feels so late in the year!
Once, approaching Pinkham Notch on my return from northern Maine, I pulled over beside a boulder-strewn streambed and hiked briefly, thinking myself alone in the now pale yellow, chilled air. As my exhale fogged, I glanced around the forest and listened to the echo of the few remaining birds. Then I noticed the fly fisherman in his waders, patiently casting.
The line, as easily a filament of music as of hope or tranquility; the skill of casting, advanced over the years; the mastery of tying the feathers themselves, likely in the long nights of winter: all coming together in the passing, the present, now, momentary, fleeting, falling wonder.
I suspect much of the tourist attraction has to do with factors other than New England foliage itself. This, despite the reasons proffered by state tourism and agricultural officials, who will always declare the foliage condition “outstanding” or shaping up for another incredible presentation; despite the forecasts of unofficial experts, each ready to announce when foliage has reached “peak” condition, even when no consensus exists on its definition or measurement; despite the over-coffee passions of everyone else, who rarely agree; and even despite the occasional native who will debunk the whole activity as foolishness. All the same, there is widespread anticipation each August and September; forget the practical reason of tourism.
Like it or not, autumn is our season. We could blame the Pilgrims, whose arrival in Plymouth Bay late in 1620 and subsequent sufferings led to the celebration the following harvest of what we now observe as a November holiday that, for several centuries, was uniquely New England’s, even as the region banned or ignored Christmas as pagan. Curiously, though, the first official Thanksgiving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, north of the Plymouth Bay Colony, was on February 22, 1630/31, after provision ships arrived just in time to prevent starvation. Yet the harvest, rather than mid-winter, celebration prevailed.
Autumn also links New England with Halloween, perhaps a consequence of the Puritan obsession with witchcraft or perhaps a consequence of the Irish immigrants’ reaction to the general avoidance of Christmas. In the Colonial era, the witch trials of 1692, while the largest outbreak, were by no means an isolated aberration.
Poet Donald Hall has argued that the region embodies a Gothic sensibility that distinguishes it from the rest of North America. Repeatedly, I’ve heard guests ask the new owners of an old house if they’ve encountered any ghosts. And I’ve heard people who are otherwise perfectly rational reply with detailed observations. For the record, let me say our house has none, other than the ghosts of broken marriages.
Throughout New England you will find brooding, grotesque turns filled with unspoken shadows: if you look into the October foliage not at the bright spectrum but rather at the darkness behind it, you will stare into a specter of death about to sweep flesh away, baring a skeleton of forest to stand angular the subsequent six months. Somewhere in the soul of every authentic Yankee this awareness lurks; the leaf-peeping tourists will be gone before the first icy nor’easter slams these shores, before the snows pile up, before frost inches into our soils. Fall, too, brings relief from a sequence of blackflies, greenbottle flies, and mosquitoes that bring so much misery to our springs and summers. The October we cherish is dry, clear, sunny, crisp, a fleeting remission between clouds. Over the centuries, the Puritan legacy evolved into Yankee character as well as Transcendentalist philosophy, and subsequent ethnic migrations to New England have assimilated many of its values; to some extent, then, immigrant Roman Catholics become Calvinists. The leaves remain a mystery or magic.
While the tourists come for some feeling of history and rural character, we need to ask which New England comes to mind: green village commons of Vermont, stone fence lines of New Hampshire woods, lobster boat harbors of coastal Maine, Ivy League campuses, brick millyards along seemingly placid streams, urban skyline reflected in Boston Harbor or the Charles River? Five of New England’s half-dozen states are relatively small, compact enough that a driver could likely touch soil in all six in a four- or five-hour expressway dash. Rhode Island and Connecticut are the tiniest, and – to the surprise of many – Vermont and New Hampshire are each nearly a fifth larger than Massachusetts. Off to the east, practically by itself, Maine is roughly the size of the other five put together. Even so, New England has a density found in few other North American locales: this is not someplace one explores adequately in a week or a month, but rather years, as an individual landscape slowly discloses its character and attraction. Visitors are sometimes amazed to discover that they cannot “do” Vermont one day, New Hampshire the next, Boston the third. Even when you narrow your focus, exploring with any comprehensiveness requires much time. Perhaps this is why so many vacationers choose to return year after year to the same “camp,” as cabins are known hereabouts, or to the same resort – returning to the same ocean shore or mountain lake. In the Granite State, for instance, I remain struck by how different the Monadnock Region is from Sunapee-Kearsarge-Dartmouth to the north, or to the east from the textile mills legacy of the Merrimack Valley or from the area of earliest settlement, the Seacoast. This, even when so much of the Yankee stock remained identical. Climate, too, can vary widely, from short summers of the far north along the Canadian border to mild winters of Cape Cod and Narragansett Bay (which are themselves vulnerable to hurricanes). One year my friend in northern Maine reported that frost hit their neighborhood just before Labor Day. Further south, we get an occasional snow in mid-May.
As a consequence of its varied landscape and climate, New England presents an array of foliage viewing opportunities, varying from chilly remote mountainsides, a few already dusted with late-summer snow, to azure fishing ports. Because of this climate differential, “prime” foliage in the North Country can run as much as three or even four weeks ahead of peak conditions along our southernmost shorelines, which are moderated by relatively warm coastal ocean currents. (Summer visitors need to be warned, moreover, that these warm currents shoot far out to sea as they roll around Cape Cod: swimmers are generally shocked when they discover how frigid the waters are at beaches north of this point, even in July.)
Consider, too, how a mountainside expands the amount of foliage available to the eye. Not only the number of trees, but also the range of microclimates: some species grow at higher elevations than others, and thus the available colors multiply. A pond or river or harbor, too, opens distances that present more trees to the observer – a dimension differing from the mountain.
This expanse of foliage is, to some degree, an unintended consequence of a pattern of agricultural technology introduced from Holland to East Anglia and then to New England. “The technology of farming was much the same as in England, despite many environmental differences,” historian David Hackett Fischer writes in his Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989). “The Puritans specially prized ‘champion,’ which was their word for flat, open land without trees or hills. They found it in Dedham, Watertown, Sudbury, and Concord [Massachusetts] – pockets of rich alluvial soil that are still farmed profitably today. From the start, the Puritans worked their American land with British ploughs – a method unlike the hoe husbandry that prevailed in other parts of British America.” But throughout much of New England, the landscape was hilly and forested; thin, rocky soil prevailed; and the Puritans’ traditional agricultural practices, combined with additional methods adopted on these shores, such as fertilization with saltwater fish, had disastrous consequences in depleting the soil. By the early 1800s some farms were being abandoned, a phenomenon soon compounded as farmers migrated to more productive farmlands of the Midwest. Later, when a town’s young men enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the American Civil War, they were often grouped in the same company; heavy casualties in a single encounter could cost a New England town a generation of young men; the consequence was a population decline that has impacted many communities to the present. After two centuries of shrinkage, the forest spread outward once again. Where mixed use farming continued into this century, a changing national economy finally took its toll; in Life Work (Beacon Press, 1993), Donald Hall describes how the traditional exchanges of hard toil, cunning, and community that sustained his grandparents in a largely cashless rural matrix has vanished, taking with it a kind of Yankee frugality and practicality. When we drive down narrow, twisting backroads lined with stone fences and canopies of maples, and glance at unique New England-style barns with their thirteen glass panes above the barn door (one for each of the Revolutionary colonies) and the rambling farmhouses with their connecting sheds, we are looking into the autumn of this Yankee tradition, as well. We look, and are often touched by something we cannot express.
“Another environmental factor was the land,” Fischer writes. “New England’s terrain was immensely varied, with pockets of highly fertile soil. … But most of the land was very poor – thin sandy scrub on the south shore of Massachusetts, and stony loams to the north. Much of the coast consisted of rocky shoals or marshes, and the rivers were not navigable for more than a few miles into the interior. By comparison with the Chesapeake estuary, there were comparatively few points of access for ocean shipping. Both of these factors – the distribution of pockets of good soil and the configuration of the coastline – encouraged settlement in nucleated towns.”
This pattern of Puritan settlement, with few individuals living outside the nucleus village, followed the East Anglia model – and differs from much of the rest of the United States. There is more to the lovely green common than meets the eye.
A closer examination of the pattern of settlement, however, presents a more complex model. Joseph S. Wood in The New England Village (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) argues that settlement in Colonial New England was more dispersed and that much of our idealized town center actually comes from the Romantic elite in the nineteenth century. What they thought they were preserving, then, was something they were instead creating.
Regardless of its origins, what we have before us is a stylish array of architectural periods presented primarily in white frame structures and settled within a wooded landscape. It remains distinctive, idealized, and widely copied.
This matter of being rooted in history extends beyond appearances. For a number of reasons, few New Englanders moved away from their towns. “In New England as a whole rates of refined persistence were very high – in some older country towns, the highest that have been measured in any adult population throughout the Western world. This pattern continued from the mid-seventeenth century into the late eighteenth,” Fischer writes. They stayed close to their village commons and markets, families, and friends. In such a gridwork, Boston could indeed be seen as the “Hub of the Universe,” its spokes radiating out across New England and the Georges Banks.
I am always disconcerted while hiking high in a remote mountainside and stumbling across an ancient stone fence line running through what is once again wilderness. How much industriousness went into the determined effort to wrest a farm what must have been, at best, marginal land? Our renewed balance of forest, village, and meadow is a beautiful ecology. It appears to be by design, though clues indicate otherwise. The stone fences in forest remind us that the trees have crept back, almost as forgiveness. They seem to have a sense of forgetting, as well, and of striking a new balance, however tentative.