Polytonal pyrotechnics: July 4 with Charles Ives

by Jessie Rothwell, Special to MPR
July 2, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Growing up in the Nation's Capital, the Fourth of July was by far my favorite holiday. Every year I looked forward to the loud march music, dressing up to join our neighborhood parade, the belly-flop contest at our neighborhood swimming pool, and all of the summery food. And, of course, I loved the fireworks.

There's something primal about enjoying explosions of rainbow-hued sparks in the sky. There was something about being out at night on the Fourth, after the latest sunsets of the year, that felt both adventurous and cozy.

Great composers have also been inspired by pyrotechnics. In 1749, Handel wrote his Music for the Royal Fireworks. Before Stravinsky wrote Firebird, he wrote Fireworks. The first performance of that short symphonic fantasy helped launch the composer's trailblazing career.

In 1911 (just three years after Stravinsky wrote Fireworks), another revolutionary composer, the New-England-born Charles Ives, wrote his Fourth of July.

Fourth of July is actually the third movement of a larger work, A New England Holiday Symphony (other movements include Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, and Thanksgiving), though all the movements of the symphony are often performed as standalone pieces. Part of what makes it a great piece is the way it tells the story of an entire Fourth of July; the music is meant to capture the excitement (and perhaps overstimulation) of the holiday for a young boy. Starting with quiet strings to signify dawn, the day moves on to booms and bangs, twitters and flights, and march upon march upon march.

Part of Ives's musical genius was as a collage artist who was able to portray a wide range of tones, textures, and tempos while still keeping his compositions tightly and elegantly structured. Like many composers from all times and places, Ives quoted his vernacular — in his case, the folk and popular music of New England. Ives was both an extraordinarily sophisticated composer and an everyman. He refused to write trendy or easy music and instead made his living selling life insurance.

Fourth of July is a short piece, lasting only around six minutes. But it is a chock-full six minutes. There are quotes from "Yankee Doodle" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" among other familiar songs. In Ives's own words, there are "cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs. Beaver Brook Boys), the sky-rocket over the Church steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town Hall on fire."

Finally, after competing explosions and parades and marching bands reverberating in our ears for several minutes, the sparks die, leaving beautiful trails of quiet strings fizzling across the night sky.

(The building constructed for Handel's musicians at the 1749 fireworks celebrating the end of the War of the Austrian Succession also caught fire; mixing music and rocketry has seemingly never been the safest endeavor.)

Ives apparently thought Fourth of July would never be performed — for one thing it is, like much of his work, extremely difficult to play.

For me, Ives's piece sums up the elation, the freedom, and the constant activity of childhood Independence Day celebrations. So this year, here's to pyrotechnics and beautiful noise of all kinds. Wishing you and yours a very polytonal Fourth.

Jessie Rothwell is a writer and music geek who curates performances in people's living rooms. She's currently based in Washington, D.C..


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