Charles Ives wrote of his piece Washington’s Birthday:
The first part of this piece is but to give the picture of the dismal, bleak, cold weather of a February night near New Fairfield [Connecticut] . . . . The middle part and the shorter last part are but kinds of refrains made up of some of the old barn-dance tunes and songs of the day . . . . As I remember some of these dances as a boy, and also from father’s description . . . there was more variety of tempo than in the present-day dances. In some parts of the hall a group would be dancing a polka, while in another a waltz, with perhaps a quadrille or lancers going on in the middle. . . . Sometimes the change in tempo and mixed rhythms would be caused by a fiddler who, after playing three or four hours steadily, was getting a little sleepy–or by another player who had been seated too near the hard cider barrel. [John Kirkpatrick, ed., Charles E. Ives Memos 96-97]
Ives also appended to the score a “postface” about the work:
“Cold and Solitude,” says Thoreau, “are friends of mine. Now is the time before the wind rises to go forth to seek the snow on the trees.”
And there is at times a bleakness without stir but penetrating, in a New England midwinter, which settles down grimly when the day closes over the broken-hills. In such a scene it is as though nature would but could not easily trace a certain beauty in the sombre landscape!–in the quiet but restless monotony! Would nature reflect the sternness of the Puritan’s fibre or the self-sacrificing part of his ideals?
“The old folks sit ‘the clean winged hearth about,
Shut in from all the world without,
Content to let the north wind roar,
In baffled rage at pane and door.”
[Quoted from James Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snowbound“]
But to the younger generation, a winter holiday means action!–and down through the ‘Swamp hollow’ and over the hill road they go, afoot or in sleighs, through the drifting snow, to a barn dance at the Centre. The village band of fiddles, fife, and horn keep up an unending ‘break-down’ medley, and the young folks ‘salute their partners and balance corners’ till midnight;–as the party breaks up, the sentimental songs of those days are sung half in fun, half seriously, and with the inevitable ‘adieu to the ladies’ the ‘social’ gives way to the grey bleakness of the February night. [Memos 96-97]
All this is captured in Washington’s Birthday, the first of four pieces included in Ives’s A Symphony: New England Holidays. Ives wrote of the four pieces:
although they were first called together a symphony, at the same time they are separate pieces and can be thought of and played as such—(and also, and as naturally, be thought of and played as a whole). [Memos 94]
In that spirit, to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of George Washington’s birthday (b. February 22, 1732), I offer Ives’s Washington’s Birthday as a separate piece here.
On Washington’s Birthday
Keeping Score (Michael Tilson-Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony). The video segment on Washington’s Birthday starts at 10:23.
Keeping Score, Music Made From Memories (interactive feature). Choose The Score and go to Playing With Tunes to hear some of the tunes as used in Washington’s Birthday together with the original tunes (including, among others, Home Sweet Home, Swanee River, Turkey in the Straw, and Good Night Ladies).
On the Symphony, generally. Keeping Score, Music Made From Memories: I recommend, in particular, Father’s Experiments.
Washington’s Birthday (1909-1913)
Instrumentation: Flute (piccolo); horn; Jew’s harp/2 clarinets; strings (optional bassoon, trombone, glockenspiel/pianoforte)
Though completed in 1913, Washington’s Birthday did not receive its premiere until September 3, 1931, at San Francisco’s Community Playhouse. Nicolas Slonimsky conducted a pick-up chamber orchestra sponsored by the New Music Society of California. [James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives]
Ives wrote of the use of the Jew’s harp (about which information, including the possible origins of the name, may be found here):
I’ve always been a good Jew’s harp player . . . but I don’t know exactly how to write for it. The notes on the Jew’s harp are but some of the partials of a string, and its ability to play a diatonic tune is more apparent than real. . . . In the old barn dances, about all the men would carry Jew’s harps in their vest pockets or in the calf of their boots, and several would stand around on the side of the floor and play the harp more as a drum than an instrument of tones. [Memos 96]
Credits: Quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post. The image at the head of the post may be found here.