Dec 30th 2017

Charles Ives’s “Kŏn’kôrd” Sonata: The Vestibule of the Temple

by Jack Kohl

Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press. 

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page. I might supplement my case by directing him or her to Ives’s own Essays Before A Sonata and to its recent bookend, Kyle Gann’s extraordinary new study: Charles Ives’s Concord: Essays After A Sonata. One is in consummate hands with both of these books, and with many commercial recordings. Hence I will endeavor here to offer only what guidance I can from my own earliest experiences of the piece, and from my years of preparation at the keyboard before taking the work to the platform.

American pianist Gilbert Kalish captures Ives’ many-layered moods and themes in this reading of the “Concord”.

But I would not write an analysis of the piece; I would only write praise. This work has served as a dorsal fin in my existence since I was in my mid-teens, serving midway between the pectoral influences of Ralph Waldo Emerson on one side (through his Journals and published essays), and Franz Liszt on the other (principally through his Sonata in B Minor). Emerson and Liszt have always seemed men ripe for a study in parallel lives: Emerson of Concord, a man who metamorphosed from minister to performance artist; Liszt of Weimar, retired performance artist bound for a near-priestly twilight.

The “Concord” has always appeared to me formed by a Liszt Sonata in B Minor that escaped from passage on a mystic Mayflower, hid then between the serrations of tribal arrowheads, next amidst the lines of Puritan sermons, at last reemerging through Ives as his Second Piano Sonata when the old Calvinist headstones in the churchyard turned like a piano’s pins from the torque of Transcendentalist tuning hammers. It is no coincidence, I believe, that the “Concord” Sonata of Ives starts on a B-natural, on the same pitch class as the Liszt Sonata’s conclusion. Everything that follows in the Ives work has always seemed to me as an atomic subdivision of that final note of the Liszt Sonata.

How did I first learn of the piece? The Easter Bunny thought I had outgrown candy and left me a hidden copy of Howard Boatwright’s edition of Essays Before A Sonata and Other Writings by Charles Ives on Easter Morning of 1985 or 1986. The Easter Bunny is wise. He knew me better than I knew myself. Ives wrote the essays “primarily as a preface or reason for” his Second Piano Sonata. Opposite the first page of each essay for the Sonata’s four movements (an essay for “Emerson”, “Hawthorne”, “The Alcotts”, and “Thoreau”), Ives gives the first page of the respective movement from the score itself. The moment that I first looked in silence upon the “Emerson” movement’s opening five systems is distinct in my memory. 

Ives’s engraved note heads appeared to be independent of the staff lines underneath them. Somehow the score writing seemed to imply epigrammatic meaning without the context of staff lines. He appeared to record some kind of journal-like impressions without heed to his notebook’s ruled pages.

That first impression from thirty years ago was similar to one I had of late. While rehearsing recently on the afternoon before a hastily prepared musical theater concert with Broadway actors, I was handed a printout for the song “Vanilla Ice Cream” from the musical “She Loves Me.” Perhaps because the printer’s ink cartridge was running low, or perhaps because the original scan of the music was faulty, the copy showed note heads that were distinct, though of a jaundiced color. But the staff lines were nearly invisible. It was remarkable to me how much the absence of the staff lines made the note heads useless to me as a sight reader. There was a rush to find another copy of the music. But for the first page of Ives’s “Concord” one feels that there is a deep and artful implication from the seeming separation of the note heads from the sublimated staff lines. The stars at night are like such Ivesian note heads.

Is it by some kind of faith that we feel there must be spiritual staff lines between, around, the sidereal musical notation, inspiring our will to form constellations? And yet the actual lines are there if one looks twice with sober eyes at the first page of the “Emerson” movement. Ives’s wild notational utterance is a heterodoxy brought into control by a Puritan focus.

Transcendentalism only works in the shadow of the Meeting House; one cannot coast too far. But the harmonic verticality on that first page seems a sign that Ives will only enter as far as “the vestibule of the temple” on the grand staff.

His harmony almost seems a complement or foil to ubiquity: like soap bubbles that might conjoin yet not appear yoked (and not augment the size of the new sphere); like Siamese twins with one body and one identity; or as if an entire flock of gulls could alight on one flagpole, yet not one bird crowded to the equator of the topping sphere. In other words, what is the reverse of ubiquity for multiple objects? Rather than one thing everywhere at once (ubiquity); it is everything (or many things) at one place at one time. 

Mit-like width of chord spans are called for in “Emerson” – as if wider and wider parts of the body might be required to realize the vertical sonorities – as if ultimately the width of contact would be so great one would need be prostrate on the keyboard; and then one would need get up and live for oneself instead of the music. It is music that makes one stand up from the bench in health. It is as an object or article the use of which is to compel one to repudiate it in favor of one’s own actions.

But the act of repudiation is not an act of rejection. This music makes a noble sacrifice of itself for the listener’s mind. It weans one like an aggressive mother bear weans her aging cub. The hands are so often splayed in very wide non-tonal contexts that the fingers assume the arrangement of one engaged in a handstand – as if one might look away from the score and the instrument and perceive the world upside down, as with the refreshed fascination as when one bends over to look through one’s legs.

The chords in “Emerson” compel one to look at systems above and below the one being played at the moment. Ives compels non-linear comparison of his own material in this way, and one is reminded of the unanticipated comparisons a reader can make when using any text, when, with fingers between the pages or just before a page turn or in the midst of a draft, intense sunlight reveals the text that is printed on the reverse side of an oncoming page or a preceding page.

All this points to Ives’s success in translating the miraculous effect of Emerson’s latent prose mechanics. Emerson credits the best books with triggering thought, and he does not mean thought in relation to a book’s subject or style – no, something in certain texts (something deep in their mechanics) triggers one’s completely independent thinking of a reading – completely independent of a book’s content, style, and even the latent mechanics that trigger the thought. Emerson’s own books have that latent mechanism – as if while making demands for themselves they also trigger some part of the mind that is as a cerebral appendix to the conscious act of reading the book of another.

The “Emerson” movement is programmatic insofar as it suggests the mental mechanical action of the man Matthew Arnold called the greatest prose writer of the nineteenth-century – a writer who, if one counts the spaces, the periods, between his dense and intentionally incongruous phrases – has asked his reader an equal number of times to think as much as, if not more than, the author.

Most people, when saying prose writing is musical, mean to suggest an ineffable quality of poetic ringing or rhythm to the language. But Ives in his “Emerson” movement captures a deeper musical suggestiveness from Emerson’s working habits as a writer of journal entries – mechanics that invoke an equal share of the horizontal and the vertical – and those mechanics somehow survive in latent evidence in the essays. To wit: Emerson’s filling notebooks from front to back and back to front, writing of pages up and down rather than from side to side; intentionally stacking incongruous subject matter atop one another. Emerson calls upon the implied strength hidden in a palimpsest. Ives mentions in his own essays Carlyle’s remark on Emerson’s lack of coherence paragraph to paragraph. But the lack of phrase coherence is intentional, and the tacit transitions are left to the reader – and the listener. Emerson’s lack of coherence is not incoherence, but a conscious effort to remove articulations of transition. The reader, the witness, is forced to live in that gap and to realize transitional surface himself.

If in lieder, word painting endeavors to express concrete meanings of a word by the direction – up or down – of musical notes, then Ives for Emerson transition paints. He endeavors to catch the metaphoric leaps that are left to the reader by Emerson when the reader is confronted by non-sequential sentences on a related topic. Ives recalls the moment of an erudite squirrel leaping, in mystic but somehow unbending portamento, from tree to tree in Mr. Emerson’s orchard. Ives renders the leaps of a “La Campenella” into a dance betwixt one’s own neurons.

I spend a lot of time trying to disabuse students of the misuse of the word song for non-song pieces. But in the “Emerson” movement of the “Concord”, perhaps the usage is correct in an unsuspected way. For Ives undertakes a prosody for the latent mechanics of Emerson’s prose. Emerson’s latent mechanics – the mystic text buried in the infinite density of his periods and semicolons – are not detected by “reading between the lines.” That phrase merely suggests the ulterior purpose of the visible text. Emerson’s and Ives’s latent mechanics ask that the reader, the player, the listener, synthesize mediating purposes that are aggressively omitted. 

Granted, the foundations of profound abstract borrowings from spoken and sung language had long been laid in piano literature. The frenetic machinegun alternation of the hands in the first page of Ives’s “Emerson” may even announce a philosophical leap of purpose over the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century piano performance practice of left-hand-before-right-hand execution.

But Ives’s intentions are much more ambitious than those of the pianist-composers who borrowed from and steeped themselves in the bel canto tradition. Ives does not seem to imagine the rhythms of Emerson the lecturer, of Emerson the performer. Again, Ives’s aim appears to be the translation of Emerson’s latent mechanics into music.

Emerson himself, in his remarkable entry (from Journal Y, 1845-1846) under the heading of Croisements, writes: “The seashore, and the taste of two metals in contact, and our enlarged powers in the presence or rather at the approach & at the departure of a friend, and the mixture of lie in truth, and the experience of poetic creativeness which is not found in staying at home, nor yet in travelling, but in transitions from one to the other, which must therefore be adroitly managed to present as much transitional surface as possible. ‘A ride near the sea, a sail near the shore;’ said the ancient.”

Ives’s “Emerson” codifies and achieves this aim. By means of what might be styled a Total Chromaticism, Ives paints as if from a palette, fires as if from a quiver, of all leading tones. The listener must learn to exult in Ives’s painting in “as much transitional surface as possible.” I remember as a child that I was disappointed that one could not land on Jupiter, could not set foot on a gas giant – for from afar it looks like a glorious and inviting solid. But it cannot be mapped. Ives’s score, in imitation of the latent prose mechanics of Emerson, is a snapshot of an evolving surface of Jovial ether. 

The “Emerson” movement, though the first movement in the Sonata, is in fact a development section in disguise yet in plain sight. Its repositioning is a mild and superficial disguise, yet as effective as Clark Kent’s horn-rimmed glasses. It is a development in which the founding elements are constantly resetting, as if it is a record of all beginnings, of all first bars. It is like a language of all prepositions – nay, pre­-positions.

Mass. is a common abbreviation for Massachusetts. But I suspect Mr. Ives, in his Sonata’s title, is rendering a civil religious pun. For he has given us not just a piece about Concord (kŏng’kərd), Mass., but a work to be regarded as the Mass of concord (kŏn’kôrd) – best heard from the vestibule of the temple.

Top right: Jack Kohl, the author of this essay, by Michael Johnson.  

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "A powerful new talent from Italy, Alessandro Deljavan, made his U.S. East Coast debut October 19, with a magnificent reading of the Brahms Piano concerto No. 2 under conductor Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra."
Sep 18th 2019
EXTRACT: "This is some of Ilic’s best work. A California native of Serbian extraction, he is emerging now as a major player in a crowded field."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "Chopin’s two piano concertos are among the most frequently recorded of 19th century works, both for their melodic charm, their pulsing rhythms and their historical significance. Young Chopin wrote the piano part with exceptional verve, showing the way for future composers to let the piano burst free from its orchestral surroundings."
Sep 8th 2019
Extract: "David Fray looked surprisingly alert when he arrived for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast interview at a comfortable inn outside of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. We had both been at a midnight dinner following his performance at the famous piano festival. I left the dinner early with a colleague but he stayed till 3:00 chatting and laughing with the violinist he had just performed with, his friend Renaud Capuçon. Their Bach sonatas and a Bach piano concerto were the highlights of the evening. Over breakfast (David ate a bowl of chocolate-flavored cereal sweetened with ample spoonfuls of Nutella) we indulged a few minutes of smalltalk, then got down to business. He responded lucidly in French to some heavy questioning. He only stumbled once, at the end, when I asked him,  “What does music really mean to you?” His reply, ”That’s a big subject for so early in the morning!” But he continued searching for the words, and he found them."
Aug 31st 2019
François-Frédéric Guy was just finishing his 20th performance at the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron in the south of France. The 2,200-seat outdoor amphitheater was almost full as Guy displayed his love of Beethoven –playing two of his greatest sonatas, No. 16 and No. 26 (“Les Adieux”). After intermission, Guy took his place at the Steinway grand again and rattled the audience with the stormy opening bars of the Hammerklavier sonata. It was like a thunderclap, as Beethoven intended. The audience sat up straight and listened in stunned silence. There were more surprises to come. Guy’s first encore was the little bagatelle “Letter for Elise”. A titter ran through the amphitheater. Was he joking? He looked out over the crowd and smiled back. A few bars into the piece, total silence descended once again on the crowd as Guy brought out the depth and beauty of little “Elise”. Everyone thought they knew this piece by heart. They were wrong. No one had heard it quite like this. Huge applause erupted a few seconds after the last note. Several spectators near me wiped away tears from their eyes.