Ives-Schuman “Variations on ‘America'”

Charles Ives (1874-1954)/orch. William Schuman (1910-1992)

Variations on “America” (1891) for organ, (1963) for orchestra

In the late 1980s, an insurance company president approached a musician hired to play at an event, curious about a phenomenon he had read about in a trade magazine: “I read…that Charles Ives, whom we regard as the founder of modern insurance practice, was also a composer. Was he any good?”

As a matter of fact, Charles Ives rightfully has a place in the annals of the greatest American composers, along with Copland, Bernstein, and the like. The fact that he somehow, someway, managed to achieve this everlasting fame while working a full-time, lucrative job as an insurance man and later even starting his own insurance company, only adds to his “American” mystique. And his music is always distinctly American, approached from an intellectual, modernist standpoint. In contrast to Antonín Dvořák, who came to the United States in the 1890s with the charge of creating a classical American style of composing and believed that truly “American-sounding” music could only come from African- and Native-American influences, Ives believed that his New England background in hymn tunes, patriotic songs, and town band music was as essentially nationalistic as anything else. So it was early in Ives’ life–he was only seventeen–that he turned to “America,” (click for a link to the sheet music) with the idea of creating a series of organ variations based off of that theme. The organ work, composed for Ives himself (he was something of a child prodigy), is extremely virtuosic and ingeniously constructed.

A generation later, another leading figure in American music, William Schuman, decided to orchestrate the work. A superlative composer himself, Schuman’s music is (quite unfairly) not well-known today, but the impact of his untiring efforts in promoting American music remains. As president of Julliard, overseer of the creation of Lincoln Center, and mentor to hundreds of young American composers, Schuman had an extraordinary impact on our national culture, and at one time was so well-known that when he appeared on the CBS game show What’s My Line? as a “famous mystery guest,” the panelists (who were to guess his identity in a “twenty questions” style game) had to be blindfolded so as not to recognize him merely by face (click for youtube video of his appearance, beginning at 2:16). His imaginative orchestration of Ives’ organ solo has led this version to become the more famous of the two. The end result would have pleased both men–a work that is thoughtful, informed, enjoyable, admired the world over, and quintessentially American.

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~program notes by Jessica Davis, copyright 2012
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