“The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the Second: in which we learn a little more about Charles Ives and dissonance.

At long last! Part the Second!

[This post is adapted from a 27 January 2009 post for a musicology class blog on American Innovators.]

Ives was not one to shy away from musical edginess. This was due in part to training given him by his father, which encouraged experimentation. The other part has been said to be his desire to eschew the Romantic ideals of Europe and his fear that a deep interest in music might reflect badly on his masculinity among his business associates (he sold insurance, remember). In fact I recall an anecdote in which he referred to “not-man-enough Rachmaninoff.”

Regardless of the reasons, conscious or not, Ives is believed to have been the first to innovate a lot of compositional 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 Loved. In this post, we’ll have a look at Ives’s use of dissonance in the same song. It is by no means Ives’s most obscure or crunchy piece, nor is it one of his entirely traditional, 1st-symphony sorts either. Here, again, is a chance to listen.

By today’s standards, one might chuckle at the idea that this piece is edgy, highly dissonant, or obscure. As in any generation, we have difficulty imagining society any other way than the one we know. But we live in a post-libertation-of-dissonance soundscape; we have 21st-century ears. One hundred years ago, the soundscape was not so cacophonic.

One of the things Ives learned from his father’s tutelage is the craft of counterpoint. We see that at the outset. The voice begins in a very diatonic, and acceptable fashion that seems to imply C major, but within moments the piano is imitating the gesture up a major third. The piano doesn’t really have time to imply a key, but if the voice’s part is the template for the imitation, then E major would be the likely choice. At the moment the piano enters (on a G-sharp), it is creating an augmented 5th against the voice and the base pedal below.

Dissonant motivic imitation and polytonality

A similar sort of imitation happens again in m. 2, where the piano echoes the same motive. Here, the piano’s pitches have changed, but they still fit into the right hand’s indecisive use of E major. In this spot, the voice and right hand have aligned their timing, but both are sticking to their respective keys. These dissonances result from one of Ives’s hallmarks—polytonality, the simultaneous use of two or more keys at the same time (in this case, C major and E major, which don’t share all that much in common).

From m. 3, everything is rather pleasant until the downbeat of m. 10. In fact m. 10 just seems like a non sequitur—as though a measure is missing between mm. 9 and 10. This is an example of linear or melodic dissonance. That is, m. 10 sounds off because it’s nothing like what we expect to hear.

Crazy Tonal Shift

Even if you are not aware of it, your brain has learned patterns and norms of what to expect when listening to music. Ives thwarts those expectations by giving you something that doesn’t fit those patterns. (If you weren’t surprised by this spot, then it’s probably because you are listening with 21st-century ears.)

Again, things seem to normalize for a while until rising to the song’s climax in m. 15 (and continuing through m. 18). Here it seems like the piano and voice are in very different worlds.

When worlds collide

Just look at all the sharps showing up in the piano part; how many sharps, or accidentals of any kind appear in the voice in the these bars? None. Then, beginning in m. 20, the voice starts using some sharps just when they disappear from the piano. (Oh, Ives, you old rascal!)

The end is perhaps my favorite part. The song ends in such a curious way, and I love it. The slowing down and decreased dynamics all indicate that we’re coming to a final cadence, but the pitches Ives uses imply that the song isn’t over.

The beginning and the end

There are a few ways we can understand that last chord:

  1. It could be some kind of polychord. The piano has a D-sharp minor chord in the left hand and what could be a G-sharp major triad in the right hand. It’s a bit nebulous since the right hand only has two of the three pitches. This reading holds that all pitches present are chord tones, but they might belong to different chords sounding simultaneously, and that is supported by the fact that Ives has already used polytonality earlier in the song.
  2. It could be a B-sharp half-diminished seventh chord (B-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, A-sharp) with an added 6th (the G-sharp). This reading would view the G-sharp almost as a non chord tone, because it doesn’t really fit into the half-diminished paradigm.
  3. Or it could be a G-sharp 9th chord (G-sharp, B-sharp, D-sharp, F-sharp, A-sharp). Since ninth chords usually function as dominants, this would help explain why this last chord of the song feels, as I’ve already noted, unfinished.
My vote goes to Option #2 by simple virtue of the voicing of the chord. I don’t hear Option #3 because the G-sharp is so high in the texture that it doesn’t sound like a root. And while I can intellectually agree with Option #1, the fact that the the pitches are so spaced out means that I cannot aurally perceive where the left hand ends and the right hand begins. Typical use of a polychord would put some space between the two so that the listener can tell that there are two chords going on. However, a case can be made for any of the options, and if you put three music theorists in a room, you will likely get three answers. (The room itself is optional.)

It’s really the G-sharp in the voice and piano’s right hand that causes all these possibilities. Interestingly, that same G-sharp is exactly the same oddity that began this discussion on dissonance. Remember the piano’s right hand in m. 2? The whole last phrase of text (mm. 20–end) sounds to me like the fulfillment of the hint given by the piano in m. 2. The the melodic gesture and contour of that last phrase is actually the same as that at the beginning! Yet it is still at odds (dissonant) with that beginning.

So yeah! Ives packs a lot of hidden (and not so hidden) stuff into only 22 measures! “The Things Our Fathers Loved” is a super-neato microcosm of interesting stuff.

Here ends Part the Second.

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2 thoughts on ““The Things Our Fathers Loved”–Part the Second: in which we learn a little more about Charles Ives and dissonance.

  1. I really enjoyed reading Part the Second, and now I don’t have an Unanswered Question 🙂

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

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