“The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the First: in which we learn a little about Charles Ives and intertexuality

[This post is adapted from a 27 January 2009 for a musicology class blog on American Innovators. However it makes for an ideal first topic here, where I’m very interested in engaging the old and the new together.]

Charles Ives (1874–1954) was an American composer who actually made his living as an insurance salesman (certainly not the “starving artist”). His unique contribution to art music, and to American music in particular, is in his quirky combinations of popular music of his time, traditional idioms of art music, hymnody, and patriotic songs.  His sense of humor, wit, and irony are rarely difficult to notice.

His solo song The Things Our Fathers Loved is a particular favorite of mine. I think this piece alone encapsulates a great deal of what Ives is known for. By that, I mean, the composition itself is idiomatically “Ivesian,” as well as the text which Ives himself wrote. The full score of the song can be viewed at IMSLP, along with 113 other songs by Charles Ives. The Things Our Fathers Loved is no. 43 on p. 91.

(Or you can watch the score along with a less-than-stellar performance here)

You may listen to that and decide right away, that its not your cup of tea.  Perhaps it sounds too avant-garde.  But keep in mind that Ives wrote this back in 1917.  Ives is walking a thin tight rope between “push the boundaries” and “make it accessible.”  In many of his other pieces he strayed farther into “push the boundaries” territory (such as The Unaswered Question), so count your blessings.

Quotation, or intertextuality, is the most obvious trait perhaps, and that includes both direct quotation/allusion to specific tunes or pieces, as well as stylistic quotation. (Stylistic quotation is music that gives us the listeners an impression that we associate with a particular time, place, or genre.)  Quotation is a technique used to great comic effect by Peter Schikele (and his fictional creation, P.D.Q. Bach—not to be confused with the historical J.S. Bach, J.C. BachC.P.E. Bach, and all the other little Bachs).

The Things Our Fathers Loved is not a very long composition, but it contains a wealth of interesting details. In fact, the first line of the lyrics provide helpful insight into how Ives put the piece together:

I think there must be a place in the soul all made of tunes, of tunes long ago

1. Direction Quotation

First, let’s look at some examples of direct quotation.

Compare the melodies of these two excerpts. The first is from the first three measures of The Things Our Fathers Loved; the second is the popular southern tune Dixie. The blue boxes in each excerpt enclose the same melodic material, with the exception of a brief alteration that Ives inserts into his version.

Example 1

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 1–3

“Dixie”—a popular tune in the American South, written around 1859 by Daniel Decatur Emmett

Even though Ives has altered the rhythm, the right pitches are still in the right order.  Now when Mark Evan Bonds discusses this piece in his textbook A History of Music in Western Culture (2003, link is for the 2009 ed., I believe), he says that Dixie ”merges imperceptibly into My Old Kentucky Home” (p. 504). Well, in my opinion, that merging is so imperceptible I don’t hear My Old Kentucky Home at all.  Perhaps someone can point it out to me (assuming anyone is reading this).  Still, Dixie is there.  Not convinced? Read on.

[EDIT: After further consultation, My Old Kentucky Home does show up, but later than I had expected to find it, based on Bonds’s comment. It actually begins in the voice, pick-ups to m. 5, whereas I’d been expecting it to actually merge with Dixie in m. 4. This egregious oversight is entirely my fault.]

Compare these two excerpts. The first is from mm. 7–9 of The Things Our Fathers Loved; the second is from the tune Nettleton, better known for its association with the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Notice the similarities? The red boxes show how much the two tunes share in common.

Example 2

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 8–9

“Nettleton”—an American folk tune composed by John Wyeth. It is better known for its use as the hymn tune for the text, “Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing”

Here we find Ives using a hymn tune to underlie his text: “Aunt Sarah humming Gospels.”  On some level, then the listener is associating the words with familiar Gospel-associated music.

Now compare these two excerpts. The first is from mm. 13–14; the second is from the  then popular patriotic song ”Battle Cry of Freedom.” The green boxes show the part that is shared between the two. (The yellow box in the “Battle Cry of Freedom” excerpt will come into play soon, so be on the lookout.)

Example 3

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 13–14

“Battle Cry of Freedom”—a popular song of the American North during the Civil War, composed in 1862 by American composer George F. Root.

Notice how Ives uses a patriotic tune to set the text “The town’s Red, White and Blue, all Red, White and Blue.”  Granted, the tunes end differently, but that’s because Ives is preparing to introduce yet another quotation.

Compare these two excerpts (last time, I promise). The first is from mm. 15–20; the second is from the the spiritual song In the Sweet By and By.  The purple boxes (once again) show the parts that are shared between the original and Ives’s version.

Example 4

“In the Sweet By and By” in Charles Ives’s “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 15–22

“In the Sweet By and By”—a hymn tune by Joseph P. Webster, published in 1868

Ives does make some adjustments to the tune but we can still hear it embedded there—quite a lot of it actually.  And look! As promised, the yellow box in “Battle Cry of Freedom” did matter. Here the piano echoes a different part of the tune that the singer’s part never quoted.  And actually, hints of “battle Cry” show up all over the place in the piano’s right hand, underscoring the singer’s “In the Sweet By and By.” There are some other quirks having to do with voice/piano interaction, but I’ll save them for “The Things Our Fathers Loved”—Part the Second.

2. Stylistic Quotation

Stylistic quotations are a bit more nebulous and subjective.  However, I would cite mm. 6–7.3, where the text reads, “I hear the organ on the Main Street corner” as an example of stylistic intertextuality.

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 6–7.3

To me, this lilting melodic/rhythmic style conjures a sense of parlor entertainment popular around the turn of the 20th century that. With the rise of the piano in the 19th century, members of the emerging middle class were able to afford pianos. With an increase in laypeople playing piano came a blossoming of popular songs that people could play for their own enjoyment or to entertain guests. (Remember, this would have been before iPods, cassette tapes, television or even radio; the only way to disseminate popular music was if people could play to for themselves.)

Likewise, mm. 11–12, “The village cornet band, playing in the square,” has nuances idiomatic oom-pah of the American brass band, with the bass line in the piano.

Ives, “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” mm. 11–12

You may notice in the right hand of the piano, the “Battle Cry of Freedom” theme shows up, foreshadowing its arrival in the voice part (which occurs in mm. 13–14, shown back in Example 3).

In “The Things Our Fathers Loved”—Part the Second, we’ll have a look at melodic and harmonic dissonance in this song.


7 thoughts on ““The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the First: in which we learn a little about Charles Ives and intertexuality

  1. I am sure you will have more than a few readers.

    I think the reference to “My Old Kentucky Home” may be that the next phrase “of tunes of long ago” does have a very similar rhythmic scheme as “in my old Kentucky home”, although the pitches are not the same.

    I love the blog and I love banner. I remember when you took it.

    • Thanks.
      I think you’ve named the very difficulty I have with accepting Bonds’s claim. If the pitches aren’t there, then the rhythm could be reminiscent of any number of tunes, couldn’t it?

  2. […] techniques that would characterize art music on both sides of the Atlantic for the next century. In Part the First, we looked at his use of borrowing tunes and influences in his art song, The Things Our Fathers […]

  3. The melody in m.6-7 is quoting On The Banks of the Wabash, an old song by Paul Dresser. Great article!

  4. Hi mate from way down in New Zealand. I was just playing the Michael Tilson Thomas CD titled An American Journey and Googled “Things our fathers loved” and came across your posting about it. I’ve been an Ives fan ever since I heard the NZSO play the Holidays symphony and was instantly in love with his wonderful ways I went to probably the best classical music shop in town (also the only one) and purchased everything of his I could get my hands on. One of the assistants laughed and said “Ives? How old-fashioned.” Is this correct? Is his music now out-dated? And if so, why? I know Mahler said “My time will come” and by crikey it did. But why has this glorious composer fallen out of favour? Pardon my English spelling. Tony Potter, Auckland.

    • Hi, Tony. I must profusely apologize for not seeing s comment sooner. Somehow, the email alert got shunted to the wrong folder, and I’ve only just now seen it.

      Ives is and isn’t old-fashioned. His prime was nearly 100 years ago, so in that sense, yes, he’s rather old. But in another sense, he’s quite current. You see, he was an oft-overlooked American composer during the middle of the 20th century, due to art music’s pursuit of atonality. While Ives wasn’t traditionally tonal, he certainly liked to play with tonality, and thus it was an important element of his compositional technique (even if he tended to subvert it).

      Once composers (and academe) realized that atonality was a dead end, they started playing with tonality again, gaining more acceptance and ground in scholarly circles beginning around the 1970s. So in this respect, Ives aesthetic was prescient of the direction music took in the latter part of the 20th century.

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