Piano Sonata No. 2 (Ives)
The Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840–60 by Charles Ives, commonly known as the Concord Sonata, is one of the composer's best-known and most highly regarded pieces.
Some material in the piece dates back as far as 1904, but Ives began substantial work on the piece around 1911 and had largely completed it by 1915. It was first published in 1919 with a second, revised, edition appearing in 1947. It is this version which is usually performed today. In 2012, an updated edition by New England Conservatory's Stephen Drury was published, including "Essays Before a Sonata."
The sonata's four movements represent figures associated with transcendentalism. In the introduction to his Essays Before a Sonata (published immediately before the Concord Sonata) Ives said the work was his "impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Massachusetts of over a half century ago. This is undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne."
The movements are:
- "Emerson" (after Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- "Hawthorne" (after Nathaniel Hawthorne)
- "The Alcotts" (after Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott)
- "Thoreau" (after Henry David Thoreau)
According to James B. Sinclair's catalogue of Ives' works, the sonata was publicly premiered by John Kirkpatrick on November 28, 1938 in Cos Cob, Connecticut. There had been earlier performances of isolated movements and excerpts. The second performance (given in many sources as the premiere), also given by Kirkpatrick, was given at the Town Hall in New York City on January 20, 1939. Among those present was Elliott Carter, who reviewed the piece in the March–April 1939 edition of the journal Modern Music. A typical performance of the Concord Sonata will last around 45 minutes.
The piece demonstrates Ives' experimental tendencies well: much of it is written without barlines, the harmonies are advanced, and in the second movement, there is a cluster chord created by depressing the piano's keys with a 14¾ inch long piece of wood. The piece also amply demonstrates Ives' fondness for musical quotation: the opening bars of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 are quoted in each movement. Sinclair's catalogue also notes less obvious quotations of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata and various other works. Unusually for a piano sonata, there are optional parts for other instruments: near the end of the first movement there is an optional part for viola, and in the last movement a flute (an instrument which Thoreau played) briefly appears.
The piece has been recorded on a number of occasions, first by John Kirkpatrick in 1945 (released on Columbia Records in 1948). Ives himself made a complete recording of "The Alcotts" and excerpts of the first two movements. Pianists who are associated with this work include Gilbert Kalish, Easley Blackwood, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Stephen Drury, Marc-André Hamelin, Heather O'Donnell, Herbert Henck, Alan Feinberg, and most recently Jeremy Denk and Melinda Smashey Jones.
The work, retitled A Concord Symphony has been transcribed for orchestra by Henry Brant and for large symphonic wind ensemble by Merlin Patterson.