My Father Knew Charles Ives

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My Father Knew Charles Ives is an orchestral triptych by the American composer John Adams. The work was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony. It was first performed by the San Francisco Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall on April 30, 2003.[1][2][3]



John Adams composed My Father Knew Charles Ives in 2003 as a musical autobiography and as a homage to the early 20th-century American composer Charles Ives, who has been one of Adams's major musical influences. Adams's father Carl Adams did not actually know Charles Ives, but the composer observed many similarities between the two men's lives and that of his own. In the score program notes, Adams wrote:

Like Ives, I grew up in rural New England, in Woodstock, Vermont and East Concord, New Hampshire. The young Charlie Ives received his first musical training from his bandmaster father, George Edward Ives. My first lessons on the clarinet were with my father, and together we played in marching bands during the summers and in community orchestras during the winter months. I grew up listening to both classical and popular music with little prejudice toward the one at the expense of the other. Although it was surely from my singing actress mother that I inherited most of my talent, my father's patient and analytic approach to teaching gave me the security of a sound musicianship.

He continued:

My father, like Ives, was drawn to the contemplative philosophy of the New England trancendentalists, particularly Thoreau, whose modesty, economy and fierce independence he admired, even when he could not always emulate it. Both fathers seem to have shared a certain dreaminess that expressed itself in speculating about art and, in the case of Carl Adams, took the form of several failed attempts to establish himself as a painter after an some earlier experience playing jazz clarinet and saxophone.

The work is thus divided into three movements that reflect meaningful places in Adams's life. The first movement "Concord" is a reference to Concord, New Hampshire of Adams's early life, though it doubles as a nod to Concord, Massachusetts of Ives's titular Concord Sonata. "The Mountain" refers to Mount Kearsarge, Mount Shasta, and the Sierra Nevada mountains of the West Coast. "The Lake" refers to the waters near Mount Washington where Adams's parents first met.

The title, Adams observed, may have been unconsciously influence by Morton Feldman's I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg. The music also contains quotes from "Reveille" and the hymn "Nearer, My God, to Thee" in addition to many stylistic references to the music of Ives.[1]


The piece has a duration of approximately 28 minutes and is cast in three movements:

  1. Concord
  2. The Lake
  3. The Mountain


The work is scored for an orchestra consisting of piccolo, three flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), three oboes, English horn, three clarinets (3rd doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, four percussionists, piano, harp, and strings.[1]


My Father Knew Charles Ives has been praised by music critics. Reviewing the world premiere, Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "My Father Knew Charles Ives, a funny, rueful and heartbreakingly beautiful musical memoir, melds Adams' personal history with that of American concert music in one easy and daring artistic stroke..." He added, "This is a capacious and detailed 30-minute orchestral essay by our nation's most important composer working at the height of his creative powers."[3] Kosman later wrote, "What an amazing tour de force it is! Full of exuberant humor and tender reverie, written with an unparalleled mastery of orchestral texture and instrumental color, it solidifies Adams' claim as the most important American composer of his generation."[4] Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times similarly described it as a "deeply affectionate new score," but also noted, "My Father Knew Charles Ives makes an effort to retain that optimism, and it seems that the only way Adams can now do this is through nostalgia, for his childhood, his musical heritage, his own earlier work. The result is still oddly melancholic. Diverting as it is, the new work, in its referrals to Ives, seems to suggest that there is less optimism to be found in what we are today than in what we once were."[5] The music was also lauded by Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times, who remarked, "Though at times the score seemed structurally amorphous, moment to moment the music was riveting."[6]

Reviewing a recording of the piece, Philip Clark of Gramophone was somewhat more critical, observing, "It's difficult to say what exactly Adams has created. It falls somewhere between direct quotation and constructivist allusion, like hearing deconstructed 'picture postcard' Ives. It's fun for sure, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra relishes its follies."[7] Andrew Clements of The Guardian similarly described the triptych as "wonderfully crafted, if sometimes coming close to pastiche."[8]


A recording of My Father Knew Charles Ives, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Adams, was released through Nonesuch Records on September 26, 2006. The album also features Adams's electric violin concerto The Dharma at Big Sur.[7][8]


  1. ^ a b c Adams, John (2003). "My Father Knew Charles Ives". Boosey & Hawkes. Retrieved July 30, 2016. 
  2. ^ Kosman, Joshua (April 8, 2003). "Berkeley composer honored for work memorializing Sept. 11 victims". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 30, 2016. 
  3. ^ a b Kosman, Joshua (May 2, 2003). "Symphony premieres Adams' splendid 'Ives' / A funny and touching musical memoir". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 30, 2016. 
  4. ^ Kosman, Joshua (March 13, 2004). "A delicious serving of Symphony's seconds". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved July 30, 2016. 
  5. ^ Swed, Mark (May 2, 2003). "New England triptych: An odd melancholy infuses John Adams' nostalgic, three-part work "My Father Knew Charles Ives," a nod to his childhood.". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 30, 2016. 
  6. ^ Tommasini, Anthony (April 30, 2007). "Doing Everything but Playing the Music". The New York Times. Retrieved July 30, 2016. 
  7. ^ a b Clark, Philip (November 2006). "Adams (The) Dharma at Big Sur; My Father Knew Charles Ives". Gramophone. Retrieved July 30, 2016. 
  8. ^ a b Clements, Andrew (5 October 2006). "Adams: Dharma at Big Sur; My Father Knew Charles Ives, Silverman/ BBCSO/ Adams". The Guardian. Retrieved July 30, 2016.