The Story of the Concord Sonata

gannThe following is an excerpt from Kyle Gann’s new book Charles Ives’s Concord: Essays after a Sonata.

In January 1921 a prominent insurance executive in New York City sent copies of a piano sonata he had written to hundreds of total strangers. It sounds like a setup for a lively and eccentric novel, but it actually happened. Even stranger, a couple of decades later that sonata turned out to become one of the most celebrated musical works of the twentieth century.

It was unlike any piece of music the recipients had ever seen before. Its very look on the page was alarming, with massive, dissonant chords; clusters piled high in adjacent notes, some to be played with a wooden board; pages of relentless fast notes up to the exceedingly rare 128th note; often four or five lines of counterpoint at once in complexly varied layers; extended sustain-pedal markings that blurred whirlwinds of notes into sonic chaos; and rhythms that sometimes required computation to puzzle out. No music remotely similar had yet reached any degree of public visibility. It might as well have been music from Mars. But it was also, ostentatiously, music from the United States, for just as
peculiar were the movement titles—“Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts,” “Thoreau.” This was a piano sonata purporting to portray figures from American literary history, or perhaps their ideas or writing style. The attachment of such incomprehensible music to such familiar names must have only heightened the provocation. While the recipients might have been braced for the latest nosethumbing avant-gardisms from Europe, for an American to tread confidently into such brash new territory could only seem like the effrontery of a charlatan or a total amateur. Adding to the bizarre debut of the sonata score was that it came accompanied by a book purporting to explain it without actually doing so, titled Essays before a Sonata.

Any prelude whatever might have mitigated the shock somewhat, but most of
the two hundred strangers—their names recruited from among subscribers to
Musical Courier magazine and from Who’s Who in America1—had never heard the name of the author, one Charles Edward Ives (1874–1954). A precocious teenager
from Danbury, Connecticut, as a student at Yale in the 1890s, Ives took a plum job
as organist at the prestigious Center Church on the Green. Moving to New York
City after graduation, he worked in an insurance office but maintained a highprofile
post as organist at New York’s Central Presbyterian Church. And yet, after
just a few years, he abruptly quit his musical career at the age of twenty-seven, in
1902. For the subsequent nineteen years he devoted himself completely, it seemed,
to the insurance business. Only a few people close to him knew that he spent his
evenings, weekends, and vacations scribbling away at strangely unconventional
symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets.

During that time only a handful of musicians became aware of him, and most of those thought him eccentric if not demented. Nothing had been written about him. By 1921 he was quite a wealthy businessman, in the top 1 percent by fortune,2 and one of the founders and directors of an insurance company, Ives and Myrick, in the Wall Street district of New York. Within that money-centered world he possessed a certain offbeat cachet for his extreme shyness, his fervent idealism, his innovative techniques for selling policies, and his frumpy hat, which was said to be recognizable blocks away. Like many successful corporate executives, he did not venture into the public eye.

The piano sonata was numbered as the composer’s second and was subtitled
“Concord, Mass., 1840–1860,” referring to the place and period in which the
named literary figures operated. Three of the writers referred to—Ralph Waldo
Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott—were associated with the
Transcendentalist movement, a spiritual, political, and literary movement that
had enlivened American culture in the decades before the Civil War; thus the
Concord Sonata, as it is universally referred to now, came to seem a celebration
of Transcendentalism. The other two writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne and
Louisa May Alcott, were popular novelists, both from Concord and both still
widely read today. The peculiarity of the sonata’s purported subject matter, in
conjunction with the fierce originality of its harmonies and rhythms, came in
at first for a shower of ridicule, including predictions that it never would—and
indeed couldn’t—be played. Nevertheless, various brave and intrigued pianists
gave individual movements a reading, and interest grew. Indeed, it would take
eighteen years before this massive piece would be publicly played in its entirety,
at the Town Hall performance venue in New York City. On that occasion it would
be hailed as one of the greatest works ever written by an American. From that
point Ives’s reputation as a composer would only crescendo, until by his centennial
in 1974 he would be widely acclaimed as America’s greatest composer.

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