A Symphony: New England Holidays
A Symphony: New England Holidays, also known as A New England Holiday Symphony or simply a Holiday Symphony, is a composition for orchestra written by Charles Ives. It took Ives from 1897 to 1913 to complete all four movements. The four movements in order are:
- Washington's Birthday
- Decoration Day
- The Fourth of July
- Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day
The movements coincide with each season; winter, spring, summer, and fall, respectively. While together these pieces are called a symphony, they may be played individually and thought of as separate works. As Ives dictates in his very own Memos:
“…There is no special musical connection among these four movements…which leads me to observe that quite a number of larger forms (symphonies, sonatas, suites, etc.) may not always necessarily form, or were originally intended to form, such a complete organic whole that the breath of unity is smothered all out if one or two movements are played separately sometimes.”
Holiday Symphony exemplifies Ives’s varied, unique use of dissonance that gave his works a more dynamic range of emotion. “Each [movement] expresses its particular scene and feeling…[using] the mingling of stylistic voices, the meta-style, that had become second nature to Ives. They all contain the shared “pattern of splicing introverted slow music and extroverted fast music.”
Introduction and history
Charles Ives got the idea to write a holiday symphony during the summer of 1905. He wanted to write each movement as if it were based on a grown man’s memory of his childhood holidays. “Here are melodies like icons, resonating with memory and history, with war, childhood, community, and nation.” Ives constructed these movements based on personal memories from his past, including his father, George Ives, and the town of Danbury. His father had a huge impact on Ives’s compositions, especially after he died in November 1894. Ives lived in Danbury throughout his childhood, a town which holds many of the life experiences that inspired him to compose a Holiday Symphony.
New England Holidays exemplifies “multi-tonality in the reharmonization of borrowed music…and [mixing of] several keys.” This work is notorious for its quotations, in particularly, its complex overlapping of multiple sources. Without the plethora of quotation, Holiday Symphony would lose its ability to call forth memories and emotions. The first three movements of Holiday Symphony were performed in the United States and Europe in 1931 and 1932 under the direction of Nicolas Slonimsky. “The concerts created great excitement: laughter, protest, enthusiasm. Ives’s music never occupied more than a single modest spot on each pair of programs, but several important critics singled it out for serious and admiring comment.”
The four movements of Holiday Symphony
I. Washington’s Birthday
Washington’s Birthday is an impressionistic piece “featuring complex harmony scored mostly for many-stranded strings.” It was arranged for strings, horn, flute, a set of bells, and Jews Harps. Washington’s Birthday was finished in 1909, then rescored and published in 1913. The performance time of this piece is eleven to twelve minutes.
For the first part of this piece, Ives aimed to create a cold, dreary night in February. “Dissonant mostly whole-tone chords rise and fall in parallel motion to suggest the snow drifts and the hills.”
The allegro part in the middle of the piece reflects old barn-dance tunes; “Multiple overlapping dissonant ostinatos evoke the hubbub of the crowd.” The barn dance contains the image of a country fiddling; a memorial to John Starr, a folk artist who died in 1890 at age forty-eight.
The piece ends with “the sleepy players intoning ‘Good Night, Ladies,’ then the music seems to dissolve in the mind” as “a solo violin plays reminiscences of the fiddle tunes, representing memories of the dance that echoes in the minds of the young folk as they head home.”
Washington’s Birthday was the first piece by Ives to be recorded in 1934 when Slonimsky conducted the Pan-America Orchestra for New Music Quarterly Recordings.
II. Decoration Day
Decoration Day was completed in 1912. Ives arranged the piece for full orchestra, and it lasts about nine to ten minutes.
Ives was inspired to write Decoration Day after listening to his father’s marching band play on Decoration Day. The marching band would march from the Soldiers’ Monument at the center of Danbury to Wooster Cemetery, and there Ives would play Taps. The band would leave often playing Reeves's Second Regiment Connecticut National Guard March.
“Decoration Day begins with an extended meditative section, mostly for strings,” symbolizing morning and “the awakening of memory.” Ives has a player or two separated from the orchestra play as if he is alone, called “shadow lines.” The music slowly unfolds, yielding an eerie mix of major and minor keys. Ives begins to incorporate his memories of Decoration Day into his piece by transforming “Marching Through Georgia” into the mournful “Tenting on the Old Campground.” At this point, we are back in the cemetery where his father’s marching band stops, and just as Ives played Taps as a boy, he writes Taps into Decoration Day. Taps is coupled with “Nearer, My God, to Thee” played by the strings. Ives uses Taps to pave a way from the despairing section to the elated section. “On the last note of Taps the music begins to surge into a drumbeat that crescendos until with a sudden cut we are in the middle of the march back to town, and the pealing melody of Second Regiment.” Ives follows this jubilation with the music from the beginning of the piece.
The score of Decoration Day was published for the first time in 1989.
III. The Fourth of July
The Fourth of July was completely scored for full orchestra in the summer of 1912. The piece lasts six to seven minutes. Ives wrote The Fourth of July intending it to exemplify the excitement a boy feels during the Fourth of July celebrations and the freedom felt on that special day. He begins the piece with strings entering quietly; the sound and rhythmic intensity amplify steadily. This segues into the parade-like material of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” followed by fireworks, simulated by Ives’s sketch of The General Slocum. The movement ends peacefully with the imagery of falling sparks, signaling the end of the Fourth of July.
It was thought to be one of Ives’s most challenging pieces; the overlapping of an abundance of quotations creates heightened dissonance. More quotations that can be found within The Fourth of July are: Yankee Doodle, Dixie, Battle Cry of Freedom, Marching Through Georgia, and Battle Hymn of the Republic.
IV. Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day
Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day was the first movement in Holiday Symphony to be written. Ives started writing it as two organ pieces, a prelude and a postlude, in 1887 for a Thanksgiving church service; this is one of the reasons why it seems so conservative compared to the other three movements. He finished arranging Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day in 1904 as one orchestral movement.
“The middle section has a folklike simplicity and grace that Ives rarely allowed himself in orchestral music.” Ives tried to incorporate Puritan qualities into the music. Major and minor chords a step apart were meant to “represent the sternness and strength and austerity of the Puritan character.” The piece also contains “a scythe or reaping harvest theme which is a kind of off-beat, off-key counterpoint.”
- Ives, Charles (1972). Memos. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 95. ISBN 0-393-30756-5.
- Swafford, Jan (1996). Charles Ives: A Life with Music. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 229. ISBN 0-393-03893-9.
- Swafford. Charles Ives: A Life with Music. p. 254. ISBN 0-393-03893-9.
- Henderson, Clayton Wilson (1970). "Quotation as a Style Element in the Music of Charles Ives". Michigan: University Microfilms, Inc: 156.
- Cowell. Charles Ives and His Music. p. 108. ISBN 0-306-76125-4.
- Burkholder, Peter J. (1996). Charles Ives and His World. NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0-691-01164-8.
- Ives. Memos. pp. 96–97. ISBN 0-393-30756-5.
- Swafford. Charles Ives: A Life with Music. p. 230. ISBN 0-393-03893-9.
- Cowell. Charles Ives and His Music. p. 110. ISBN 0-306-76125-4.
- Swafford. Charles Ives: A Life with Music. p. 252. ISBN 0-393-03893-9.
- Swafford. Charles Ives: A Life with Music. p. 251. ISBN 0-393-03893-9.
- 1. Ives. Memos. p. 130. ISBN 0-393-30756-5.
- Swafford. Charles Ives: A Life with Music. p. 168. ISBN 0-393-03893-9.
- Cowell (1955). Charles Ives and His Music. p. 34. ISBN 0-306-76125-4.
- Burkholder, Peter J. Charles Ives and His World. NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.
- Burkholder, Peter J. Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music. London: Yale University Press, 1985.
- Cowell, Henry, and Sidney Cowell. Charles Ives and His Music. NY: Oxford University Press, 1955.
- Henderson, Clayton Wilson. Quotation as a Style Element in the Music of Charles Ives. Michigan: University Microfilms, Inc, 1970.
- Ives, Charles. Memos. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1974.
- Swafford, Jan. Charles Ives: A Life with Music. NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.