Washington’s Birthday According to Charles Ives

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge, John Ward Dunsmore (1907)

Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge, John Ward Dunsmore (1907)

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.

Selected References

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.

About Charles Ives

Listening List

Washington’s Birthday (1909-1913)

On Spotify

On YouTube

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]

Bonus Track

Nixon in China, Act I, Scene III (To see why this bonus track has been included, click here and here.)


Credits: Quotations may be found at the sources linked in the post. The image at the head of the post may be found here.



13 thoughts on “Washington’s Birthday According to Charles Ives

  1. sackerson

    I remember getting a Jew’s harp for my 14th (I think) birthday. I got a cassette recorder, too. I remember at 2am on Christmas morning getting up and playing Scotland the Brave into the recorder and playing it back.

      1. sackerson

        Of course, I meant to say Christmas. For my 14th birthday I got a ticket to a Stockhausen concert. He actually came and sat in the audience a few yards away from me. I felt quite over-awed.

        PS Thanks for visiting my blog!

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          sackerson: I can well imagine that sitting near Stockhausen at a concert of his music would be quite something! Very pleased to discover your blog–I’ve now got it in my feed.

  2. David N

    This is rich, and I need more time to digest it, but I must say that when I read the words ‘Washington’s birthday’ I hear them in the rhythmic charge of Adams’s fabulous setting in the last scene of Nixon in China’s First Act. Speech-melodic unforgettability at its absolute best.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Great spotting! Had to go right off and get it on YouTube. For all who would like to listen in, the “Washington’s birthday” reference comes in at about 1:00 in on the video here: http://youtu.be/6TcOAMmY8yY

      The pertinent libretto text begins with this exchange:

      Have you forgotten Washington?

      Washington’s birthday!

      Nixon’s historic visit to China occurred from February 21 to 28, 1972. The itinerary of the visit may be found here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/nixon-chinatrip/ The banquet scene in the opera noted above (Act I, Scene 3) took place February 21, on the eve of Washington’s birthday.

  3. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    of course all this was new to me – I speak of the music parts – and I will not reveal how deep this ignorance was – but thank you for ‘stirring “my bleakness”.
    Ah – those grey February days – I accept them, walk through them, but prefer “real” winter.
    “But to the younger generation, a winter holiday means action!” you quote – that reminds me of a picture by Pieter Bruegel the Older “Winterlandscape with Ice-skaters” – which shows a) that the young one’s in that time also wanted “action!”, and b) I am hopelessly the vision-type.
    Do you know that cute little painting “Rev. Robert Walker Skating On Duddingston Loch” by Sir Henry Raeburn? – which I had the great joy to see in the National Gallery in Edinburgh.

    1. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

      PS: I walked (!) to Duddingston on my own – the only time I remember being a little bit afraid in daytime of seeing noone around – but also fearing seeing someone :-) – to visit Dr. Neil’s Garden – it was such a treat, so lovely – and if you ever come to Edinburgh, it is a Must. While rambling in my comment about the Reverend Walker I suddenly remembered that – (I was in Edinburgh in 2010) – so vividly.

  4. shoreacres

    First, an entirely unrelated but pretty funny observation. When I looked at the title of this post in my notification and saw, “Washington’s birthday accord….” my mental auto-complete went directly to “Washington’s birthday accordion.” I guess we know where I’ve been spending my time, lately.

    And the mention of the jew’s harp brought a rush of memories. My grandfather would pull his out and play it now and then. What’s interesting is that one of the primary instruments of Liberia, the so-called finger piano, or belly-harp, is related to the jew’s harp. Both are categorized as plucked idiophones.

    As a bit of evidence that the jew’s harp isn’t just an antique, you might enjoy hearing it as a Techno instrument.

    I didn’t know the Ives, and enjoyed listening. For that matter, I enjoyed reading the Whittier again. I just might have to pull a snow-post out of the archives for all of those still dealing with “the bleak, cold, dismal weather of… February.”

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Yes, indeed, it’s no wonder you thought accordion! Your excursion to Cajun country is a great example of music as part and parcel of immersion in a very particular world. What I enjoy about Ives’s holiday symphony is similar, in the way he so ingeniously creates a world of memories through sound alone. And yup, you’re right, that Techno video demonstrates what a durable and flexible instrument the Jew’s harp is. (I have to say, I had some discomfort with using the name, but, searching around a bit, it didn’t seem to be understood as pejorative. Certainly, the Jew’s harp has a long and venerable pedigree, about which you’ve offered some wonderful examples.)

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