Symphonic Tradition

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and the Universe Symphony

by Johnny Reinhard

download a bundle of four five-minute excerpts
from the Universe Symphony (18Mb): mp3 | m4a

Harmony & Charles.Ives, c1946 outside their summer home in West Redding, CT
photo: Halley Erskine
courtesy Yale Music Library

Western art music was on its way to the symphony once it broke away from forms whose expressions were dictated by a primary text.  Other than certain dance forms - for example the hocket (based fundamentally on the human hiccup) of the Middle Ages - music was limited to the length of the lyrics.  When the words ran out, so did the music.

The instrumental suite of the Baroque period (1600-1750) was the first musical form which could accommodate manipulation of music independent of text.  Such suites adopted -prominent dance forms and arranged them into a small sequence of short movements, often adding a more substantial overture or prelude.  By keeping all the separate movements of a suite in the same key, and by providing accessibility through the rhythmic reference to popularly recognized dance forms such as the Irish jig (gigue), the Spanish sarabande, or the latest French moves (courante), larger abstract works became feasible.

In the Baroque era, parts were written with the -expectation that only a single player would perform each part.  Perhaps the most shining examples of abstract single lines of music made manifest in the suite are from Bach’s famed Six Suites for cello solo.  As full sections of strings were increasingly required by later composers and audiences, technique to control increasingly large groups had to be developed. Solutions were very varied.

We can applaud Carl Stamitz, from Manheim, Germany, for the invention and implementation of the ‘crescendo,’ a fundamental musical instruction which provides for greater expression. Previously, it was only possible to indicate basic ‘louds’ and ‘softs.’  The crescendo and its mirror, the decrescendo, offer gradual gradations of amplitude so as to alter dynamically the power of the instrumental ensemble.  To guide these new volume changes, a conductor became necessary to organize the different instrumentalists and to coordinate group expression.  Such an ensemble prefigured the classical symphony orchestra. 

At first, musician-directors bopped their heads behind keyboards or above violins.  A separate, non-playing role evolved shortly.  In Paris, Jean-Baptiste Lully used a big thumper stick to pound out the beat, leading to the gangrene that killed him when he missed, and hit his foot.  Gradually, that big broom stick was whittled down to a sliver of its former self, ideally to be wielded deftly by the right hand.  (This was not as facile a physical change, for some would stab themselves with the point.)  Some prefer to conduct with only their hands, avoiding the stick all together, as is the case with this recording.

Before anyone could approach the structural pinnacle of what would become the full symphony, something had to be done about the form itself.  Dance movements just didn’t cut it for very long.  A form called ‘sonata-allegro form’ revolutionized the structure of certain movements in the Classical period (1750-1820). Its main attraction is to alternate different themes and then to develop them. A first theme  contrasts with a second, but not so much so that they do not relate.  That is more difficult.

As the name sonata-allegro may suggest, the movement has a brisk tempo and is usually the first of three or four distinct sections, although its material could certainly reappear in others. Such other possibilities might include a passacaglia, employing a recurring melodic bass line to bring coherence to a lengthier movement, or a fugue, the sequenced following of one melody after another, made famous by J.S. Bach.  Symphonic composers have never been rigid about the number of their movements (eg Henry Cowell’s Symphony #11 has seven movements).

The great thing about these forms is they were only the starting point for the contrasting creative solutions of symphonically-oriented composers.  Mozart might use five different themes when the mood suited him.  Beethoven would double the length of his sonata-allegro form’s requisite development section.  Innovation is intrinsic to the creative process, after all, slavish devotion to a mathematical formula being too derivative for the greater artist.  Coming full circle, even voice with text was to be permitted to enter the symphony, as with the expansive chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth and the grand vocal scale of Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection.

By 1760, parallel with the older Bach brothers (Carl Philipp Emanuel and Wilhelm Friedemann)  Londoner William Boyce had composed eight ‘symphonies’ for strings, bassoon, continuo (harpsichord) and pairs of winds, basically in overture-like form.  Papa Josef Haydn would write about 108 symphonies (no one seems exactly sure how many).  Over time, the symphony was weaned away from the harpsichord.  Mozart survived to create 41, with Beethoven limited to nine and Brahms to four.  As they grew in scope and scale, symphonies became harder and harder to accomplish,  especially when measured by the composer’s own finances. 

The developing tradition of the symphony would sometimes embrace colorful, programmatic titles, sometimes affixed after a composer’s death (eg Mozart’s Jupiter).  Numbers might be avoided completely.  Hector Berlioz wrote the programmatic, autobiographical work Symphonie Fantastique to tell the story of a young, suicidal lover.  While suites are identified primarily by their keys, symphonies without programmatic titles are numbered sequentially.  Brahms was so obsessed by these numbers that he imagined his first to be essentially the ‘tenth’ of Beethoven

American symphonists came late to the tradition established by the Europeans, and before Ives did not think to develop or overturn it. Nationalist music traditions were emerging powerfully at the time.  The Finns were represented by Sibelius, the Czechs by Dvorak, Denmark by Nielsen, and the United States by Charles Ives.  Other American developments were imparted by Samuel Barber, Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Alan Hovhaness, Cowell, and a handful of others.  However, it was with Charles Ives that the United States first placed a great symphonist on the international stage.  Not unsurprisingly, given the country’s musical conservatism, it wasn’t until his Fourth Symphony that Ives broke into the big leagues.

His First Symphony was completed in 1898, under the tutelage of Horatio William Parker at Yale University.  It seems that the free spirit that Ives enjoyed under his father’s instruction had to be curtailed if young Charles was ever to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree.  In fact, Ives was required to make changes of a conservative nature to his graduation thesis in order to satisfy his professor.  The work leaves a poetic impression, with particular emphasis on instrumental timbres playing off each other in pairs and always moving in strict time.

Ives’s Second Symphony (1897-1901) has five separate movements: Andante moderato, Allegro, Adagio cantabile, Lento maestoso, and Allegro molto vivace.  Ives’s use of Italian words for the movements further links him to the European tradition of the symphony even as he begins to ratchet up the disconnects in his non-symphonic works of more transcendental spin, such as the Concord Sonata (for piano solo), The Unanswered Question, and the Robert Browning Overture

His Third Symphony for small orchestra (sub-titled Camp Meeting) was written by 1904, and had its last revision in 1909.  It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, a year after its first performance.  The movements’ titles - Old Folks Gatherin’, Children’s Day, Communion - reflect traditional New England family life.  Its première was conducted by Lou Harrison (who was a shake further on as an experimental composer, eventually to compose Simfony in Free Style (sic), an extremely short work made up of overtone-related intervals).   

Ives’s Fourth Symphony (1910-1916) is much more massive and ambitious than those before, featuring full chorus and quoting several popular hymns and gospel songs.  It remains linked with tradition in having four separate movements with Italian descriptives: Prelude (Maestoso), Comedy (Allegretto), Fugue (Andante moderato con moto), and Finale (Very slowly – Largo maestoso).  Ives makes room in his score for organ, optional Theremin (an early electronic music instrument controlled by radio waves), off-stage strings, quartertone pianos, and complex polyrhythmic percussion patterns, anticipating similar use in his oeuvre-crowning Universe Symphony

Some of Ives’s other works might also be considered symphonies, although they are unnumbered and do not use the word ‘symphony’ in any description by the composer.  Perhaps they may best be described as individual tone poems connected in a collection for small orchestra (eg Holidays Symphony, and the New England Symphony - aka First Orchestral Set).

The Universe Symphony, although unnumbered and unfinished by the composer, was still defiantly titled ‘symphony’ by Ives.  Unfinished symphonies have a notable place in the Western art tradition, with such as Bruckner’s Ninth and Schubert’s Eighth (the Unfinished) being concert staples.  The now fully-realized Universe Symphony is very distinguishable from Ives’s earlier works.  Or any other works of any composer.  There are no specific movements, although there are regions defined by a cosmic statement.  Each section, preceded by a prelude, follows the other without break. 

  • [Section A] (Past) Formation of the waters and mountains
  • [Section B] (Present) Earth, evolution in nature and humanity
  • [Section C] (Future) Heaven, the rise of all to the spiritual

The definitive usage of the word ‘symphony’ in the title belies an old false legend akin to George Washington’s cutting down the cherry tree.   This is a full piece with beginnings and endings and everything in between, contrary to Cowell’s fanciful descriptions of a work intended to be played on two hills with a valley between them.  This Symphony was indeed intended for a large concert stage, one that could hold 77 musicians and all their multiple instruments.

Radically alternative instrumentation is an old Ives habit, developed in many of his works for ensembles of up to 25.  Such compositional adventures, most notoriously with The Unanswered Question (for trumpet/English horn solo, woodwind trio, and muted orchestral strings), anticipate his later orchestral assembly.  There  may now be up to four flute players in the orchestra, but Ives requires nine flutists for the Universe Symphony.  And his last symphony’s fourteen percussionists are well beyond the personnel of even three full contemporary orchestras.

With an ever-larger group of people playing together simultaneously under a conductor, the Romantic era (1820-1910) had produced a new innovation for the symphony: ‘rubato.’  This was literally the ‘robbing of time’ made possible by the speeding up and slowing down of tempo.  Though the use of rubato in the Universe Symphony is possible, and indeed welcome and inevitable as the conductor responds to the score in performance, there are constraints due to the underlying, rigidly-specified rhythmic complexity.  Even with the intrinsic density of rhythmic interplay, there are accellerandi and fermata pauses, sometimes for only select participants.  Three conductors are needed for the total ensemble’s ultimate subdivision as three orchestras in one: the Earth, Heavens and Pulse orchestras.  (The actual tempo is intellectually consistent, quarter note = 30 throughout the work.)  However,  one doesn’t sense a ‘beat’ in any traditional, foot-tapping sense.

Unlike Ives’s earlier symphonies, there are no outside musical references in the Universe Symphony, or even to any of his earlier works.  There was no musical material for vocals such as in his Fourth Symphony, although he continued to use quartertones (often described by Ives a0s a ‘family prejudice’).  The rhythmic division of a basic unit of 16-seconds of time by whole number divisions in added and subtracted waves is an innovative and historically evocative simile for the passacaglia as an organization principle. 

You really can hear ‘melody’ in the changing relationships of the percussion’s pulsing in different time subdivisions, coming in and out of focus and coincidence.  Charles Ives explained: I had this fairly well sketched out, but not completed - in fact I haven't worked on this since that time, but hope to finish it out completely this summer. The earth part is represented by lines starting at different points and at different intervals - a kind of uneven and overlapping counterpoint sometimes reaching nine or ten different lines - representing the ledges, rocks, woods, and land formations, lines of trees and forest, meadows, roads, rivers, etc. - and undulating lines of mountains in the distance that you catch in a wide landscape.

Richard Taruskin made the first public comparison of Beethoven with Ives, reflecting on the similar abstract quality found in their greater efforts:

The Ninth at one end and the 'Universe' Symphony at the other: together they enclose the transcendentalist epoch in music.
(New York Times, October 23 1994)

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has a similar duration and breadth of purpose.  Perhaps a certain necessary and proper length is incumbent upon any composer of a piece with the grandness and gravity of the universe. Ives’s greatest abstract masterpiece is only now to be heard. Its polymicrotonal content, use of ‘homemade’ instruments, improvisation, radical instrumentation, and use of an ‘overtone machine’ place the Universe Symphony quite in advance of many later musical developments.

Übersetzungen Traduzione Traducciones
Deutsch Italiano


Ives Primer 1: His Life
Ives Primer 2: His Significance
Ives Primer 3: His Universe Symphony
Ives: Short Biography
Ives Downloads and Resources

Symphonic Tradition And The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Of Pitch And Time: Delivering The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Interview (2005) with Johnny Reinhard about the Universe Symphony

Performers of the Universe Symphony
Recording the Universe Symphony: the producer's note
Recording the Universe Symphony: the sound engineer's note

Thumbnail links to selected Ives site illustrations

Premiere Previews and Reviews:
New York Times June 2 1996
(Richard Taruskin)
New York Times June 8 1996
(Alex Ross)
Village Voice April 5 1995 (Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 4 1996
(Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 25 1996
(Kyle Gann)

To Johnny Reinhard's home at the Stereo Society