Well, if you are up for it, today we will look at — or rather listen to — not a poem, but a unique musical composition by a unique American composer — Charles Ives.
Ives was an insurance man, but music was his love. He was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut. His father George had been a bandmaster — in fact the youngest — in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Son Charles began composing music at 13, and by the age of 14 he was the youngest paid church organist in the state. Ives went on to study music at Yale. But after that, he became a clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. One might think that would end his musical career, but instead — gradually free of the musical “establishment” of the time — Charles went on to compose whatever he liked, however he liked — which accounts for his exception place in American musical history. Ives took a partner, formed his own insurance company, and composed prolifically on his own time. He died in 1954.
His work The Fourth of July was the third of four parts of his larger composition A Symphony: New England Holidays.
Prepare yourself. Ives’ Fourth of July, in his own words, represents
” … a boy’s ‘4th—no historical orations—no patriotic grandiloquences by ‘grown-ups’—no program in his yard! But he knows what he’s celebrating—better than most of the county politicians. And he goes at it in his own way, with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism. His festivities start in quiet of the midnight before, and grow raucous with the sun. Everybody knows what it’s like—if everybody doesn’t—Cannon on the Green, Village Band on Main Street, fire crackers, shanks mixed on cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, Church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam-chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs Beaver Brook Boys), pistols, mobbed umpire, Red, White, and Blue runaway horse,—and the day ends with the sky-rocket over the Church-steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town-Hall on fire.”
It is the musical equivalent of a dream-like memory of the past. In it there are bits and snatches of once very well known but now mostly forgotten patriotic songs of 19th-century America, such as: “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” “John Brown’s Body,” “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and even a few notes of “Reveille.”
Ives wrote of it:
“I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this, that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it. And I wrote this, feeling free to remember local things etc., and to put [in] as many feelings and rhythms as I wanted to put together. And I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps could never be played—although the uneven measures that look so complicated in the score are mostly caused by missing a beat, which was often done in parades.”
It begins slowly –like the day itself — and grows into a noisy, loud mixture as the day progresses. You may like it, you may hate it — but it well expresses the cacophony of the Fourth of July as it once was, through the sensory experiences of a boy — transformed into a remarkably nostalgic musical composition. Though it sounds very modern, it is really echoes from an ever more distant past.