Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 4 is one of his most ambitious works. Its music represents an entire world view, while it is simultaneously the transatlantic pendant to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony. Mahler made his acquaintance with the music of his American colleague while on a tour to New York. “The prelude is the great question of how and why that the human spirit poses to life. The following three movements are life’s various answers,” Ives commented on his symphony.
The music is an exuberant portrait of the USA, spanning from the Puritan tranquillity of New England, to the urban vitality of the metropolis New York – from reminiscences of Bach to elements of ragtime. Ives used a main orchestra, distant orchestra and chorus in the symphony, but in view of the substantial piano parts, the work is also to some extent his ‘secret piano concerto’.
In early 1932, Ives’ younger colleague George Gershwin travelled with friends to Cuba. In Havana, he heard folklore and Cuban dance music, became acquainted with local percussion instruments, and bought himself wooden instruments, bongos, guiros und maracas. Inspired by the life and music of Cuba, he wrote the Cuban Overture – high-spirited orchestral music with rumba and habanera rhythms.
Leonard Bernstein deployed Latin American dance music and jazz in West Side Story, in order to characterise different youth gangs. While composing the musical, which was to be his breakthrough, Bernstein told US TV: “There are those who conclude from all this that here, in the new jazz, the real beginning of serious American music can be found (…) intimating that all American symphonic works up to now are nothing but personalised imitations of the European symphonic tradition from Mozart to Mahler. Sometimes, I must say, I think they have a point.” Bernstein was fascinated by jazz because of “its uniqueness and the originality of its expressive forms”. In his furious Jazz Symphony, Bernstein’s colleague George Antheil, the self-proclaimed ‘Bad Boy of Music’, brought various influences with the energy of jazz to flashpoint.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard takes on the piano part in Ives’ Symphony No. 4, before performing Ives’ second grand portrait of America, the Concord Sonata, alone on the stage of the Philharmonie at his Late-Night Recital on 8 September.