By Gabriel Prynn, cellist
Part 3/3: Christmas Carol by Charles Ives
As a child, American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) was encouraged to sit in the main square of his hometown of Danbury, Connecticut, and listen to his father’s marching band and other bands advancing along the opposite side of the square simultaneously, their sonorities and tonalities mingling together and jarring against one another. Indeed, Ives’ father taught him to take an open-minded approach to musical theory, urging him to experiment in bitonal and polytonal harmonization.
But Ives is so strongly identified with innovation and experimentation in music that it is easy to overlook his mastery of traditional forms.
Before he started Yale in 1894 (or perhaps early in his freshman year) Ives wrote his lovely and tender Christmas Carol, which we have arranged for strings with piano for this concert.
Although brief, as a listener, we have no sense of this being an immature work by a novice composer. While it does not stand out for it originality, it is clearly on a level with what the better composers of America and Europe would have accomplished in the same mood, that is to say a fully professional, singable, and attractive song for the Christmas season.
Paradoxically, in retrospect it seems likely that if this pioneer of modern music had stuck to such an accessible compositional style, rather than devote his efforts both to developing a radical new musical language and making a living for himself in the life insurance business (of which he was the founder, incidentally), he would probably have had far greater recognition during his own lifetime.
The song itself is in the pastoral key of F major (we inevitably think of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the sixth, in the same tonality), and in a lilting 6/8 meter.
It maintains the gentle, rocking rhythm of a lullaby throughout and an intimate, serenading melody. Considerate of his local singers, who he might have hoped would sing it, Ives keeps his melody within a limited register, avoiding any leaps wider than a major third, the melodic motion very conjunct.
The touching simplicity of the melody, supported discretely by a harmonious piano accompaniment, gives a timeless, almost antique quality to this music.