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Performance  |  Ives’ Concord Sonata, with interpolated readings and lecture by Nancy Weekly: Burchfield and Thoreau

Friday, April 10, 2015, 7:30–9 pm

Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Auditorium  

The Burchfield Penney Art Center is pleased to collaborate with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in presenting “Charles Ives: An American Maverick,” led by Project Director Joseph Horowitz and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The multi-disciplinary festival that links music with art and literature also includes the University at Buffalo Center for 21st Century Music and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.

Tickets $10 non-members; $5 members - call 716-878-6011 for tickets.

Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, a performance with interpolated readings and a brief, illustrated lecture
Eric Huebner, piano
William Sharp, reader and singer
Joseph Horowitz, project director with remarks on Ives and transcendentalism
Nancy Weekly, curator, a brief, illustrated lecture by “Burchfield and Transcendentalism”

The program will start with Bill Sharp singing the Ives song "Thoreau" accompanied by Eric Huebner
Ives: "Thoreau"
brief remarks on ives and transcendentalism (JH) (5 min)
lecture on burchfield and transcendentalism (weekly) with visuals
concord sonata with readings (ca 65 -70 min)

The Burchfield Penney Art Center will participate in contextualizing Charles Ives’ music with the art of American watercolorist Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), for whom the museum is named. As a young man Burchfield, like Ives, was deeply influenced by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Walt Whitman (1891-1892) and transcendentalism. Burchfield’s artwork and copious journal entries illustrate his pantheistic connection to nature, both in the years launching his career as well as in his last two decades when he created majestic, transcendental evocations of the power of nature. Nancy Weekly, Head of Collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, wrote about Burchfield’s connection to ideas of the sublime in her 1993 book, Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, accompanying a nationally touring exhibition celebrating the centennial of Burchfield’s birth. It is a subject she has subsequently explored on numerous occasions, as well as the subject of Burchfield, music, natural sounds and his creation of “audiocryptograms,” a visual language of symbols for sounds. (i.e. “Was Burchfield Synesthetic?” (2008), “Color and Sound: Charles E. Burchfield and the Question of Synesthesia,” 2010)

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in collaboration with the Burchfield Penney Art Center will present two programs for “Music Unwound: Charles Ives’s America.”  On Burchfield’s 122nd birthday, Thursday, April 9, 2015, at 8:00 p.m., William Sharp will present a lecture/recital: “Ives and American Popular Song” at Kleinhans Music Hall. On Friday, April 10, 2015, 7:30 p.m. the Burchfield Penney will host Eric Huebner, pianist, and William Sharp, reader in a performance of Ives’ Concord Sonata, with interpolated readings and a lecture with slides by Nancy Weekly on Charles Burchfield and Thoreau. (This event, linked to a gallery tour by Nancy Weekly, would explore how an American composer and an American painter translated Transcendentalism into music and visual art. Excerpts from Burchfield’s journal, dealing with Thoreau, would be juxtaposed with excerpts from Ives’s writings on Thoreau in his Essays Before a Sonata.)


The Transcendental Ives
By Joseph Horowitz

Ives drew inspiration from his father’s world: from the Danbury, Connecticut, of his childhood; from the “common” and “familiar,” from chapel hymns and corny theater tunes. To a degree uncanny and extreme, the preserved memories of father and childhood anchored his creative identity – as did his surrogate Transcendentalist fathers Emerson and Thoreau. Of all three of these fathers, two of whom he never met, Ives poke with reverence and a peculiar familiarity. He spoke of George Edward Ives as if he were still living. “He lived as though Emerson were standing beside him,” adds the Ives scholar Vivian Perlis.

The unreined individualist in Emerson and Thoreau of course captivated Ives. “Ives aimed at the same spontaneity, the same freedom,” his disciple John Kirkpatrick recalled. “Emerson was a Yankee individualist – he didn’t give a damn for the reactions of anybody.” Parallel to his private career as a composer, Ives undertook a public vocation in life insurance. By middle age, he was wealthy and successful; and yet he pursued a lifestyle as reclusive – as ostentatiously simple, in its way – as Thoreau’s.

No less than Emerson or Thoreau, Ives was intensely democratic. He identified with the barber, the farmer, the country neighbor. He detested rank and caste. He celebrated the common man. The Transcendentalists, through solitary searchers, aspired to worldly influence through social experiments like Brook Farm. Ives, by comparison, was too much the loner to seek community. But he possessed a warm and meddlesome social conscience. Those who knew him testified to the generosity and kindliness underlying his fiercely laconic demeanor. His proposed Twentieth Amendment, which he circulated to leading political figures, would have implemented a national direct democracy.

Like Emerson and Thoreau, Ives was religious by temperament. He felt a kinship with the New England come-outers, who removed themselves from institutions which violated their conscience. Thoreau’s abolitionism and civil disobedience are offshoots of this tradition. Ives’s Christianity was less heretical, but he was far from an orthodox worshipper. “Many of the sincerest followers Christ,” he once wrote, “never heard of him.” He followed Emerson and Thoreau in his religious regard for nature, in his conviction that the world is a wholesome place, in his insistence that art, like nature, is moral. Ives aspired to the condition – immortalized by Thoreau in Walden – where art, religion, philosophy, and daily life become one and the same.

Ives was an Everyman who cherished the quotidian; a vigorous democrat addicted to ordinary people and things. He was a philosopher who idealized art and spiritualized everyday experience. His music is equally prone to plain and extravagant speech. These juxtapositions, if contradictory, are not singular, but quintessential Emerson, quintessential Thoreau.

Ives characterized the Concord Piano Sonata as “a group of four pieces, called a sonata for want of a more exact name . . . The whole is an attempt to present [one person’s] impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a century ago.” The four pieces are “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts,” and “Thoreau.”

Ives wrote voluminously about the underlying subject matter in Essays before a Sonata, published in 1919. For his nephew, Brewster Ives, he would read passages from the authors in question in connection with playing excerpts from the sonata -- “to convince me,” Brewster recalled, “that the music was expressing the words.” Taking inspiration from this anecdote, I have culled tonight’s readings from Emerson (his essay “Circles”), Thoreau (his journal and Walden), and Ives himself.

In Ives’s essay, Emerson is a “seer,” “invader of the unknown,” “America’s deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities,” “ a recorder, freely describing the inevitable struggle in the soul’s uprise – perceiving from this inward source alone that every ‘ultimate fact is only the first of a new series.’” His strength is his optimism – “a possession which gives the strength of distance to his eyes, and the strength of muscle to his soul.”

Ives’s essay “Hawthorne” disavows “any comprehensive conception.” Rather Ives isolates “Hawthorne’s wilder, fantastical adventures into the half-childlike, half-fairylike phantasmal realms.” “The Alcotts,” in Ives’s essay, embody a domestic vignette including Scotch songs and family hymns “sung at the end of the day” – as well as “a strength of hope that never gives way to despair – a conviction in the power of the common soul.”

In Ives’s “Thoreau,” the writer sits “rapt in reverie, amidst goldenrod, sandcherry and sumac.” Here, the essay proposes a program, a trajectory: the restless eagerness of an early morning tramp gradually slows toward “the tempo of Nature”; a buoyant, too personal introspection gives way to harmonious solitude. To the player of “Thoreau,” Ives instructs: “Both pedals are used almost constantly.” The rendering of misted water, cloud and dew, of “drifting meadows of the air” is both physical and metaphysical. Tolling octaves in the bass evoke “the faint sound of the Concord bell. . . . At a distance over the woods the sounds acquire a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept. . . . A vibration of the universal lyre.” An innate music merges with nature and with the idea of nature.

Joseph Horowitz