- Charles Ives's Concord: Essays after a Sonata by Kyle Gann
"The intent of this book is to provide, in a single volume, everything a musician or music lover might want in order to understand the Concord Sonata and the Essays before a Sonata that Ives wrote to accompany it" (pp. x–xi). With this bold statement, composer and former new-music critic Kyle Gann embarks on over four hundred pages of detailed textual and musical analysis of anything and everything related to Charles Ives's monumental Piano Sonata no. 2, "Concord, Mass., 1840–1860." In the introduction, Gann freely admits he is a lifelong devotee of the work, having first heard it at the age of thirteen, and makes no attempt at objectivity toward Ives the person: "I approach Ives not from above as a psychological case study (which I am not qualified to do) but as an oracle" (p. xii).
Gann provides a structural map of the book in the introductory first chapter, "The Story of the Concord Sonata, 1911–1947," which "runs through the historical circumstances of the work's composition and publication, as other books have done before" (p. 3). Chapters 2 ("The Programmatic Argument and Henry Sturt") and 3 ("The Human Faith Theme and the Whole-tone Hypothesis") are concerned with global questions about the essays and the sonata, respectively. From there, the book mostly proceeds in pairs of chapters, with an examination of each essay preceding the corresponding movement from the sonata. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on "Emerson," with chapter 6 a kind of appendix that examines the related "Emerson" Concerto. Chapters 7 and 8 concern the "Hawthorne" movement, with the former also focusing on the connected work, The Celestial Railroad. Chapter 9 provides analysis of both the text and music of "The Alcotts," and chapters 10 and 11 concern the final movement of the sonata, "Thoreau." Gann concludes his analysis of the essays in chapter 12, "A Harmony of Imperfections: The Epilogue."
Gann's work on the Essays before a Sonata is extraordinary and will be required reading for any scholar or performer interested in Ives and the "Concord." He claims, "I am primarily gathering together the original contexts of Ives's literary allusions, enlarging on what he was clearly thinking about and reacting to; the resourceful reader could do this himself, but the sources are far-flung and occasionally obscure, and I have saved you the trouble" (p. xi). I find this a rather humble description, as Gann meticulously pulls apart every complete quote, partial quote, misquote, and allusion in the Essays and most importantly provides abundant historical perspective for the modern reader. I find it a totally different experience to read the Essays armed with Gann's research, which is hardly surprising given that so many of the figures Ives quotes are no longer well known. The chapters focusing on the essays are also the most enjoyable to read and include one of my favorite sections of the book, where Gann demonstrates that it is unlikely that the Alcotts even owned a piano, let alone that Beth "played at" Beethoven's Fifth (p. 213). As Gann adds, "Program annotators (many of whom have quoted Ives's description uncritically) should take note" (p. 216).
Gann states in the preface that he is "averse to jargon, and also to the mathematical kind of musical analysis presentation in which the concepts become more difficult to read in the chart than they were in the original music" (p. xi). This holds true in the [End Page 114] analytical chapters, as Gann assiduously avoids even basic pitch-class theory, instead focusing on scalar collections (e.g., whole tone and whole tone + 1), named motives (e.g., "the Human Faith theme"), and simple directed intervals measured in semitones (e.g., "1–3–1" for up a minor second, down a minor third, down a minor second). Gann's analysis of the "Concord" is undoubtedly...