Sour Cream and Ch. Ives

Just briefly:

Sympathetic Nervous System

Did you know that in the second movement of the first violin sonata by Charles Ives (…No it is not on the YouTube yet sadly) there is a passage that has caused me much intellectual and emotional harm. It starts on the very first page. Near the bottom of it.

The piano predominates with large chords and melodic phrases starting out forte (loud), then building and building relentlessly until it reaches a bold fortissimo.

The violin on the other hand has rather fast and elaborate runs. But played extremely softly throughout.

The effect is almost that the violin need not bother.

But this is not where the harm comes from.

The real harm comes from the people who then try to interpret such explicit direction from Ives in the exact opposite way to which it has been written.

They say things like:

“The violin must always* be on top”

“It’s not really dynamics he means”

“You’ll drown the violin out otherwise!”

“Look at the state of your hair”

“It doesn’t make sense”

(*”Must always” A phrase I passionately hate, and is ultimately invariably wrong.)

Basically this attitude upsets me so for two reasons.

A diagram of the human heart. No pun intended or offered

Reason 1: People who say things like that are also the ones who are the first and loudest to chastise when a musician happens to do things outside of what is written in the score of say Mozart or Beethoven “Who are we to question Beethoven!?” (Actual Quote*). That makes them hypocrites. (*Fact of the matter is that many details of any scholarly music edition are just that – edited, or corrections/mistakes from copyists, making it someone’s impression of what Beethoven wanted, even assuming this god-like worship is justified. Unfortunately Beethoven died, making his deity status questionable, though I would like to see Ives’s reaction to someone saying the above phrases on his sonata.)

Reason 2: They are applying the ‘proper’ sensitive attributes of classical balance and other classical concepts and pasting them over music that does not always belong in that category. Taking into consideration the modern penchant for studying period instruments with the intention of playing Bach, et al ‘like it sounded,’ this attitude perversely does the opposite – making music which is relatively ‘now sounding’ sound like it would ‘back then.’

When I performed this, my teacher’s impression was that Ives didn’t mean it, and that the violin should be heard as the main voice. Reluctantly, I tried to reconcile this with what was written and performed it for a workshop. The feedback was interesting: the piano still sounded overpowering, just not deliberately so. It seemed I was being musically insensitive. So I told them what was actually written, and we performed it properly to good effect.

In my recital when I did this however, one of the examiner’s comments was that the balance was wrong in the beginning.


No Explanation. I like the colours though.

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