Thanksgiving According to Charles Ives

Jennie A. Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914)

Jennie A. Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914)

—for Kyle Gann

Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day is the last of the four pieces included in Charles Ives’s A Symphony: New England Holidays. Ives provided no program note for the piece, but the score does bear a dedication to his brother-in-law, Edward Carrington Twichell (“Uncle Deac”):

This is a very nice piece of TURKEY – Eddy!
Put it there! – Very Good Eddy!
& dedicated
125 Woodlawn St. Hartford

[James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of The Music of Charles Ives MSS 14]

The genesis of Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day—and of the symphony itself—was an organ prelude and postlude Ives wrote for a Thanksgiving service while he was in college at Yale. “The Postlude,” Ives is said to have observed,

starts with C-minor and D-minor together, and later major and minor chords together, a tone apart. This was to represent the sternness and strength and austerity of the Puritan character, and it seemed that any of the major, minor or diminished chords used alone gave a feeling of bodily ease which the Puritan did not give in to. [New World Records Program Notes]

Here’s some commentary that accompanied the PBS broadcast of the Ives Holidays symphony episode of Keeping Score:

Once again Ives divides the orchestra into groups playing hymns in two opposing keys. Most prominent is the traditional Thanksgiving hymn, The Shining Shore. Again, the bottom drops out, and we hear the swing of a scythe—either the harvest or the Grim Reaper has arrived. The ultimate question is asked again and as the music picks up again toward celebration and noise, the listener expects a confrontational crunch.

Instead, Ives surprises us. A large chorus sounds out Thanksgiving hymns. The choir sings a round and the whole procession passes into the distance. The different songs merge into one universal hymn of mankind. [PBS, Keeping Score]

With best wishes for Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it, and with best wishes every day to all.

Listening List

Charles Ives, Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day (“Composed c1904, according to Ives (such an early version must be lost); ? recomposed c1911-16; partly rev. and ink full score made 1932-33”) [Sinclair]

Orchestration: “Picc-2-2-2-2-cbn; 4-3-3-1; timp, bells (high, medium, low), ch (church, low), cel, pf; str (opt. fl 3, cl 3, bn 3, hn 5, tpt 4, off-stage ensemble [cbn, 4 hn, tbn], SSATTB chorus)” [Sinclair]

On Spotify (Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony), together with The Shining Shore, sung by the Anonymous 4, and Ives’s Fugue In Four Keys On The Shining Shore, performed by the Detroit Chamber Winds And Friends. Some information on the latter may be found here, which quotes Ives on the fugue:

excerpt from Bach in America, edited by Stephen A. Crist, 163

excerpt from Bach in America, edited by Stephen A. Crist, 163

On YouTube (Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony)

Also on YouTube:

The Shining Shore (cover by Sonsy)

Fugue In Four Keys On The Shining Shore

Other resources: Keeping Score, Ives’s Holidays Symphony


Credits: The image at the head of the post may be found here. The sources for quotations in the post may be found at the indicated links.

11 thoughts on “Thanksgiving According to Charles Ives

  1. David Bloom

    Wonderful post! This is a piece I’ve only heard of until now, not heard. It has only recently occurred to me just how remarkably pure Ives was as a composer. Unlike Bartók and Berg, the question of whether his music was sufficiently modern never seems to have concerned him. What’s more, he was never ashamed in the least of his source material. If he masked old melodies by stacking more on top of them, it’s not because he was hiding them from the listener.

    As Alex Ross points out in The Rest Is Noise, following an early success in 1902, Ives seems to have turned away from what would have been a more traditional path for a composer. To me, his decision to leave his job as a church organist and pursue a career in life insurance sales, composing on his own time, is a testament to his purity. Let’s be thankful that he didn’t feel the calling of the ivory tower!

    1. David N

      Ives just stays so fresh, probably because he was always true to himself. I keep coming across phrases written in his inimitable style, the latest in a book both of you would admire if you don’t know it already, and even if you think you’re not interested in Gesualdo (though I imagine you are, and anyway two-thirds of the book is just as much about Schoenberg and Stravinsky and junctures of musical change): Glenn Watkins’ The Gesualdo Hex.

      There, Watkins quotes Ives in 1920: ‘Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good, I can’t see. Why it should always be present, I can’t see’. Good for him.

      Happy Thanksgiving! Without reading transatlantic blogs, I’d be unaware of the time…

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David Nice: You do keep me in reading, as well as listening, material! (Having consumed Lila in one day, I have ventured to try again with Gilead, and Home is in the book stack ready to go next.) I’ve put the Watkins on my wish list (though I confess, despite many promptings, Gesualdo has yet to occupy my attention–there is just so much). I love this Ives quote on tonality as much as or even more than I love his quote on the fugue I’ve put in the post. Ives seems to me the definition of someone who accepts absolutely no received wisdom and thinks for himself.

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      David Bloom: As an “insurance man,” Ives is in the company of one of my most loved poets, Wallace Stevens. Interesting that they are both New Englanders. I suspect that a strong independent streak served each well, and we are the lucky beneficiaries. (I loved running across that snippet about the fugue, for these very reasons.)

      As for the piece itself, you know, I’ve tried several times over as many years to listen to works by Ives, without success. I finally had a breakthrough when I realized how redolent they are of early American history. The person who opened the door to Ives’s music for me, not least with his many commentaries on the Concord Sonata, was Kyle, which is why he is the dedicatee of this post.

  2. sackerson

    “A feeling of bodily ease which the Puritan did not give in to” Bitonal austerity. I like the man’s wit!

    I must get round to listening to more Ives. I used to listen to his 1st Piano Sonata a lot, and his Piano Trio,

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      sackerson: Yes, the man’s wit is treasurable, isn’t it? BTW, so pleased you popped over here, as I’d noticed you had a post up on Dowland, but somehow lost sight of it. I don’t know whether you’re on FB or not, but if so, I was pondering something similar on knowing the background of works, vis-a-vis du Pre and Elgar. Here’s the link: I’m a sucker for digging into a work’s context, but sometimes it does turn up things one would rather not know!

      1. sackerson

        The Elgar is good, isn’t it? My favourite of his is probably the Enigma Variations. My D.I. Disks 20th century English composer, though would have to be Michael Tippett – I was exposed to his music at an impressionable age! I think music that hits one in one’s mid teens makes a deep impression that never goes away.

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