CHARLES IVES – String Quartet No. 2

American composer Charles Ives [1874-1954] wrote just two string quartets. He sold insurance by day, with great success, enabling him to write music that did not try to be popular. He pretty much succeeded, but the popularity came anyway, although it took some time. Ives won a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony. His music can be very eccentric, drawing from hymns, marching band music, popular song, and generally for his highly unusual sense of harmony, rhythm, juxtaposition and atonality.

String Quartet No. 2 was written between 1907 and 1913 and is in three named movements.

Discussions opens in Ives’ personal atonal style, although there is some harmonic movement. There is even part of a descending major scale. However, dissonance prevails and short, energised, frantic even, passages drift in and out of the basic harmonic framework. There are always surprises with Ives and there are many in this movement. He features incredible contrasts, including a quote from the American song that is something about ‘Dixie’. Being Australian I didn’t notice two other songs but I am reliably informed that he also quotes ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’. Ives’ method is to quote, and then, totally deconstruct and reharmonise melodies. There are some very heavy chordal interjections, interspersed within this movement, but there are also many charming, slightly dissonant passages. The movement concludes on one such passage.

Arguments is fairly short and commences with highly energised violins featuring a savage tone. This suddenly stops and a gentle violin interlude is introduced. It is constantly interrupted by the sound of the opening. After a time, an assertive violin passage is presented, which proceeds to practically engulf itself. As arguments go, this one is very heated. The tension is maintained for a considerable time until what is likely to be another popular tune is hinted at and deconstructed. The end is emphatic.

The Call of the Mountains is the longest movement and begins with long sustained tones; this is incredibly peaceful. No matter that there is not a melody within earshot. The mood is static for some time until the violins proceed to build atonal melodic lines on a tempo. Things become increasingly busy, but the dynamics are still quite measured. This is entropic music; it goes nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Finally, the tension breaks, and a brief, very intense violin interlude gives way to another, gentler mood. There is even some harmonic movement here. As one who thrives on abstraction, I really enjoy these seemingly random passages. Now an excited section arrives, with strong cello lines underpinning the violins’ atonal statements. Slowly, the intensity decreases and, eventually, the music fades on a long sustained note.

I am a bit ambivalent about Ives. His music can change in an instant from beauty to garbled popular melodies, jerking rhythms, from tonality to atonality, and from simple to staggeringly complex, and many other modes of expression. He is definitely his own man. It’s worth noting that jazz composer Ornette Coleman wrote a magnificent orchestral piece, The Skies of America, which plainly owes a debt to Ives.

My CD review copy, by the Emerson Quartet, also contains Ives’ First String Quartet and Samuel Barber’s famous Opus 11 quartet. The adagio movement of this work was rearranged as Adagio for Strings, which went on to become Barber’s most performed piece.

There are over two hundred versions of Ives’ two quartets on Amazon US, many very reasonably priced. There are also several versions on Spotify and on YouTube.

Listenability: Ives’ music may have been difficult 100 years ago, but now I would describe it as just quirky.

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6 thoughts on “CHARLES IVES – String Quartet No. 2”

  1. As promised, here are a few more tempo “markings” from the Arguments movement: “Andante Emasculata”, “Largo soblato” (in the cello part, concurrent with “Largo sweetola” in the other parts), and “Allegro con fisto”. Fun had by all…

  2. Reminds me of Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartets. Whet the Count’s quartet received the music they sent it back to get the mistakes corrected. Pretty sure LVB was not amused!

  3. If you get a chance somehow, get a hold of the score as it has some fine and humorous tempo markings, especially in the second movement. There you will find (and even if you don’t have the score in hand, you can like surmise where these marking occur) “Largo sweetola”, “All mad!”, and “Andante con scratchy (as in tuning up), leading to the final knockout blow, “Allegro con fistiswatto (like a K.O.)”. (There a few others, but my copy is at home, which I will refer later.) Also, there is the short parade of quotations, including the omnipresent “Colombia, the Gem of the Ocean” (which, like Alfred Hitchcock’s appearance in his films, “Colombia” is present in many a Charles Ives piece; your job: find it) and “Ode to Joy”. There are also two occasions where the second violinist coaxes the rest to play in a nice C Major.

    Also, throughout the work, there one notable omission: there is not a note of pizzicato.

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