The Fourth of July According to Charles Ives

Fourth of July Parade by Alfred Cornelius Howland, c. 1886

Fourth of July Parade by Alfred Cornelius Howland, c. 1886

A doctor in the sanitarium looked at [the score] strangely, and assumed I was a patient.
—Charles Ives John Kirkpatrick, ed., Charles E. Ives, Memos 104]

Charles Ives wrote of his piece The Fourth of July, the third of the four pieces included in his A Symphony: New England Holidays:

I remember distinctly, when I was scoring this, that there was a feeling of freedom as a boy has, on the Fourth of July, who wants to do anything he wants to do, and that’s his one day to do it. And I wrote this, feeling free to remember local things etc., and to put [in] as many feelings and rhythms as I wanted to put together. And I did what I wanted to, quite sure that the thing would never be played, and perhaps could never be played—although the uneven measures that look so complicated in the score are mostly caused by missing a beat, which was often done in parades. [Memos 104]

"Our Glorious Fourth," designed by G. Howard Hilder

“Our Glorious Fourth,” designed by G. Howard Hilder

Ives wrote two versions of the “postface” to the piece. Below is the longer one; a shorter one was appended to the score.

It’s a boy’s ‘4th—no historical orations—no patriotic grandiloquences by ‘grown-ups’—no program in his yard! But he knows what he’s celebrating—better than most of the county politicians. And he goes at it in his own way, with a patriotism nearer kin to nature than jingoism. His festivities start in quiet of the midnight before, and grow raucous with the sun. Everybody knows what it’s like—if everybody doesn’t—Cannon on the Green, Village Band on Main Street, fire crackers, shanks mixed on cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, Church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam-chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs Beaver Brook Boys), pistols, mobbed umpire, Red, White, and Blue runaway horse,—and the day ends with the sky-rocket over the Church-steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town-Hall on fire. All this is not in the music,—not now. [Memos 104]

Commenting on the two “explosions-periods” in the piece, Ives wrote:

If one player should get to the end of an explosion-period first, he steadily holds until everybody reaches him, and the conductor wipes them out all together. Or in other words, the worse these places sound to Rollo, the better it is. [Memos 105-6]

Composer-conductor Bernard Hermann commented:

People looking around at Ives to find his musical technique or form are all wasting their time, because he didn’t have any. I think he made up each technique for each piece. It wasn’t even a technique; it was some kind of miasma that hit him and then he went to work on it. Ives’s music doesn’t go on in time and space. His music is a photographic replica in sound of a happening. His The Fourth of July is a replica not of all Fourth of Julys, but of one. [Vivian Perlis, Charles Ives Remembered, An Oral History 161]

Nash Fourth of July series, no. 4

Nash Fourth of July series, no. 4

Happy 4th to those who celebrate it and, for those who don’t, best wishes for whatever your season is right now. (More in earnest than has been the case since I first noted it, I will soon be offline for a while, so it may take a while for comments to appear.)

Selected References

Keeping Score (Michael Tilson-Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony)

Keeping Score, Music Made From Memories (interactive feature; choose the “Piling It On” segments)

James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives

Listening List

The Fourth of July, Charles Ives (1911-1913)

On Spotify

On YouTube

Instrumentation: Picc-2-2-2-2-cbn; 4-3-cnt-3-1; timp, perc (sn dr, b dr, cym), xyl, bells (high, middle, low), pf; str (opt. 2-3 fifes, picc 2, cl 3) [James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives]

The score quotes from several pieces, including Assembly, The Battle Cry of Freedom, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, Cuckoo’s call, Dixie’s Land, Fisher’s Hornpipe, Garryowen, The Girl I Left Behind Me, Hail! Columbia, Irish Washerwoman, Katy Darling, Kingdom Coming, London Bridge, Marching Through Georgia, Reveille, Sailor’s Hornpipe (College Hornpipe), St. Patrick’s Day, Street beat, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Yankee Doodle. Possible borrowing: The Star Spangled Banner, The White Cockade. [James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives]

The Fourth of July received its premiere February 21, 1932, in Paris, France, with Nicolas Slonimsky conducting musicians from the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. [James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives]

Bonus Tracks

Charles Ives’s Country Band March (circa 1905-1914) (also included on the Spotify playlist)

The Country Band March is about amateur musicians trying to play their best. Some of the players haven’t learned their parts very well and can’t always stay in tune, so they start playing a tune that they do know instead. The result is a crazy hodge-podge of sound that includes recognizable tunes such as “London Bridge” and “Yankee Doodle” along with passages in which the marchers get out of step and lose their places. Listen at the end for the saxophone player who forgets to cut off with everyone else! [citation]

Mickey Mouse & Friends, The Band Concert (with thanks to Elizabeth Drivas for noting this and to Curt Barnes for locating it on YouTube)


Credits: The image at the head of the post may be found here; the images of postcards may be found here, courtesy of James R. Heintze, Fourth of July Celebrations Database. The quotations are from the sources identified and linked in the text.

10 thoughts on “The Fourth of July According to Charles Ives

  1. kylegann

    Fourth of July (the piece) is wonderful, but I play Ives’s Thanksgiving on every holiday, including Saint Swithun’s Day.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Well, Kyle, you’re fast out of the gate, and with a priceless comment on a holiday about which I knew nothing. So, for those in the same boat, here’s a bit of info from ye olde Wikipedia:

      The name of Swithun is best known today for a British weather lore proverb, which says that if it rains on Saint Swithun’s day, 15 July, it will rain for 40 days.

      St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
      For forty days it will remain
      St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
      For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

      (Interesting the two different spellings–I gather that Swithun is the original.)

      As for Ives, I wish he’d written something for every major holiday. Failing that, I may well adopt your approach!

  2. newleafsite

    Good fun for July 4th, or any joyous holiday! However, one might nowadays substitute “It’s a child’s 4th,” for “It’s a boy’s 4th.” Plenty of girls around jumping in, no longer constrained to remaining pristine in their white dresses, like the little girl in the delightful vintage postcard.

    My favorite quote is the one you found from Bernard Hermann, regarding Ives’s technique, or lack thereof. How anti-linear of him, and how apt to the exploration you have been sharing of the art of the nonlinear!

    Really enjoying the spirit of this celebratory post – you have found a way to make an old tradition fresh ! — Elizabeth

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: you may be amused to know how hard I looked among the trove of vintage postcards to find a girl celebrator, and one who was doing something other than reacting with fright or similar to the firecrackers the boys were setting off. In this case, the devilish look of the girl in the pristine dress gave me some hope that the dress may not have remained pristine for long . . . As for making it fresh, your own delightful contribution to this post has a good bit to do with it, and many thanks for that!

  3. shoreacres

    My mother celebrated St. Swithin’s Day every year. Or, it may be that she simply referenced it from time to time: enough to embed it in my mind. In any event, I grew up knowing of the day, but nothing of the Saint, and nothing of the tradition. Perhaps I’ll keep St. Swithin’s day this year — it’s perfect for a weather geek.

    I don’t remember ever playing any Ives, but I may have, since I was one of those “amateur musicians” mentioned above and the piece sounds as though it could have been adapted for an ambitious group. We did tend toward Sousa and Ralph Vaughn Williams — and a little Dixieland.

    The highlight of the City Band year was the 4th of July concert. We rehearsed all winter in the Courthouse basement, to prepare ourselves for the summer season. I even found a photo of the park bandshell where we played. But there were weekly concerts, too. And after all, I got to drive to concerts and rehearsals. What’s not to like?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Shoreacres: I love the story of your mother, and also your own re playing in the City Band. Sousa, VW, and a little Dixieland is a great combo, and I can’t help but think a little Ivesian touch would have fit right in!

  4. David N

    Charlie has a funny way of expressing himself, doesn’t he – individual and slightly incoherent, like his music. But he was indeed a pioneer. I think Herrmann is a little harsh, but he puts it all so well.

    On which note, slightly at a tangent, I remember being in the Prokofiev Archive and finding Herrmann’s signature in some of the scores. I got excited. The then archivist looked blank: ‘who’s Bernard Herrmann’? Well, he will be remembered forever for his Psycho (strings only) and Vertigo (my favourite) scores. Don’t know what his opera Wuthering Heights is like; there’s a recording, must investigate.

    Nearly time to get out Jessye Norman’s recording of the Marseillaise…

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: By now you’ve had a fine listen to Jessie Norman–and happy post Bastille Day to you and yours! Yes, Ives has a totally individual mode of expression, though actually a bit reminiscent of my Grandpa Scheid, come to think of it! I had no idea about Hermann and love the Prokofiev connection. I thought his comment so amusingly put–and with such apparent affection–I couldn’t resist including it, but I agree it’s not spot on on the merits. The more I become acquainted with Ives and his music, the more astounded I am at what he did.

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