An Interview with Mr. Ives: a concert of songs by Charles Ives (1874-1954)

William Bastian, tenor, and LeAnn House, piano, with Shelley Gruskin, fife, performed an extraordinary concert of Charles Ives songs in Duluth on October 18. Samuel Black recounts the experience.

This concert is the first of five Cambiata Concerts at the College of St. Scholastica.

A set of songs by Charles Ives in a concert is uncommon. Performing a program devoted to twenty-six songs by this American iconoclastic composer is virtually unheard of. But Saturday night, October 18, Mr. William Bastian, tenor, and Ms. LeAnn House, pianist, shared such a performance at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. The recital was varied, stimulating, challenging, moody, raucous, and blissful. I suspect Mr. Ives would have enjoyed every minute.

Together, Bastian and House offered five glimpses of Ives: family man, modernist, lover of fine poetry, nostalgic American, and bitter opponent of war. Bastian, as a singer, only has to deal with one note at a time, and for the most part, Ives had a decidedly lyrical ear for melody. As a pianist, House frequently has the delight of trying to distract the vocalist in countless creative maneuvers. Her sensitive (even when thunderous) playing, and Bastian’s steady melodic grasp provided an exquisite evening for just under a hundred witnesses.

About one-third of the chosen songs were set to texts by Ives himself. The excitement of “The Circus Band,” the autumn “Walking” through leaves and lives, the evening “Disclosure” of deep thought, and the gentle New England nostalgia of “Down East” each reveal the vivid and visual imagination of this gifted twentieth-century American. So many simple thoughts, floating on simple melodies from one aspect of Ives’ creativity! The piano accompaniment, however, tells a different story. At times bittersweet and gently out of sync, at other times boisterous or even brutal, Ives composed in the direction his mind and heart led him, which was unconventional, even unique in his time, and rarely copied since.

Frequently, as in “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night,” the hymn tune persists over an accompaniment in different keys, exploring a completely different universe. The Watchman must indeed beware. In “Two Little Flowers,” as Bastian sang about violets, roses, and orchids, House played picturesque clusters of notes, like flowers scattered randomly on the hillside. As “General William Booth Enters Heaven,” Ives takes the raw energy of Vachel Lindsay’s poem and punctuates it with smashing octave-sized chords in multiple tonalities, adding trumpets and hints of old hymns throughout.

As “Swimmers” plunged into a cold sea, Ives creates turbulent waves of sound that nearly overpower the voice, until the final, abrupt spoken phrase yoking master and slave. And yet, in the drowsy “Berceuse” the voice and the piano weave countermelodies around each other until the children are all asleep. The sheer imagination Ives brought to his music knew very few conventions or limitations. If he could imagine it visually, he attempted to capture it musically.

With World Wars I and II occurring during his lifetime, he had plenty of opportunity to express himself on matters of war and peace. “Tom Sails Away” for battle while nostalgic tunes walk and scamper around the homestead until the strains of “Over There” are heard in the distance, and childhood scenes remain floating in the air. In the decidedly anti-war patriotism of “He Is There,” Ives wants to be supportive of Freedom, at the same time speaking of the need to “beat up the Warlords.” Ives re-cast this song as “They Are There” in 1942, one of his last composing ventures. Shelley Gruskin added his wooden fife to this festive/ironic song, ending with the solo hint: “O say, can you see. . .”

A sampling of hymn-tunes, heartfelt scenes from America in 1917, and the double-edged reality of war occupied the musical mind of Charles Ives. Often, these images overlapped, so he created similar tensions musically. A few of the many sides of Mr. Ives were revealed in Duluth Saturday night, and our sentiments were appropriately stretched. LeAnn House was fully dynamic, and words chosen by Ives came to life through the wide lyrical range of Bill Bastian. Only Charles Ives can be so complex and so simple within the short space of one song. May his music resound more often!