Thursday, 24 May 2012

Charles Ives

Charles Ives was one of the pioneers of modern classical music, as well as one of the first major American composers of his time. Ives combined American popular music with church songs with an inventive and experimental approach to music. He was one of the first composers to start using experimental techniques such as polyrhythm, tone clusters and bitonality. This is why he was such a major influence on composers after him, and on composers today.

Charles Ives
1874 - 1954
I came across his name while studying film music, and found many film composers (Bernard Herrmann in particular) to be highly influenced by his work. Some of his most interesting works include his pieces written for typical American bands - some instances even having them playing two different pieces at the same time to achieve the bitonal effect that made him so famous. When looking at his earlier works, I came across his first Symphony, which rather than proving how he may have influenced other composers, actually shows how other composers had influenced him. The symphony was written between 1898 and 1902, and is composed in a late Romantic style with many influences from the great European composers before him such as Tchaikovsky and Schubert.

The melody - alternating mostly between wind and  strings - is a series of unexpected twists and turns. As well as this, the tonality of the piece is constantly shifting between major and minor, giving the piece a very uncertain feeling. This feeling of suspense is cleverly resolved in the second subject as the strings journey to the major, and are accompanied by the confident sounds of trumpets and horns. Personally, I can hear influences of European waltzes in the second subject as the harmonic progressions seem to mimic the dance-like nature of the songs written before him. 

As well as the first movement of his first symphony, I also came across one of his most famous pieces: 'The Unanswered Question', which is paired with another of his works: 'Central Park in the Dark'. Similarly to a lot of his works, the two were practically ignored until after his death (despite being composed in 1940) and are now appreciated today as two major works of modern classical music. The original title of the pieces was in fact: 'The Unanswered Perennial Question'. Ives himself described the work as a 'cosmic landscape' in which the strings represent silence, the trumpet then asks the 'question of existence' whilst the woodwind seeks the 'invisible answer'. The end of the piece returns to only the strings, indicating that the wind have given up, and - left with 'silence' - the question goes forever unanswered.

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