Today is the 143rd anniversary of Charles Ives’s birth. He was an American original.
Ives wrote experimental music that constantly plays with musical forms. A lot of his music tosses out traditional harmony. But almost none of his music is entirely abstract, for it was always tied to places, people, and events that Ives saw vividly in his mind’s eye. Knowing something about Ives’s inspiration for a piece can be a key to unlock the experience of hearing it.
His Second String Quartet is from 1913. Ives wrote that the piece is “one of the best things I have but the old ladies (male and female) don’t like it anywhere at all. It makes them mad. . . . It used to come over me–especially after coming from some of those nice Kneisel Quartet concerts–that music had been, and still was, too much an emasculated art. Too much of what was easy and usual to play and to hear what was called beautiful, etc.–the same old even-vibration, Sybaritic apron-strings, keeping music too much tied to the old ladies. The string quartet music got more and more trite, weak, and effeminate. After one of those Kneisel Quartet concerts in the old Mendelssohn Hall, I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practise, and have some fun making those men fiddlers get up and do something like men.”
Under the title of the quartet, Ives wrote this description: “S[tring] Q[uartet] for 4 men—who converse, discuss, argue (in re: ‘Politick’, fight, shake hands, shut up—then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament!” The first movement is called “Discussion,” and the third is titled “The Call of the Mountains.”
Here is the second movement, “Arguments.” Despite Ives’s talk of “manliness,” I have no doubt that he would be delighted with the women who perform here with all of the vigor, aggressiveness, and fun that Ives could have wanted. And as a bonus, the video is very cleverly shot.
Performed by the Momenta Quartet (6 minutes)