Charles Ives: Trio for Violin, Cello, & Piano The Van Baerle Trio

Charles Ives (1874 – 1954)

First, a little background. I was introduced to Ives’ Piano Trio two years ago, in May 2016, while I was working on my blog post about Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2. It’s part of the miracle of YouTube that, when you watch one video, links to other, related videos magically appear next to it. Both the Mendelssohn and Ives trios had been recorded by The Van Baerle Trio, and at some point, I clicked on the link to their performance of the Ives. Listening to the mournful opening duet between the cello and piano, I felt like I was listening to two unrelated pieces. The logic of the work eluded me, and one or two minutes into it, I decided that the Ives trio was not for me, and closed the video.

Isn’t that often the way with new music? We hear something new, and it doesn’t sound like anything we know and understand. In fact, it sounds very different. Our expectations are upset, and we may feel cheated, even angry. How much better – and wiser – would it be to acknowledge that the composer has understood something we do not, indeed, should not be expected to understand on first hearing.

What if we could learn to take a certain amount on faith – faith in the composer, in the performer, or in the music lover who introduced the piece to us. How much more music might wind up enriching our lives if we withheld judgment on it long enough to give it a second, or even a third hearing?

If, in short, we gave it a chance.

That is exactly how I came to love this trio. Such was my enthusiasm for The Van Baerle Trio (Hannes Minnaar – piano, Maria Milstein – violin, and Gideon den Herder – cello) and their performance of the Mendelssohn trio, that I recently decided to watch their video of the Ives trio again. I tried to listen with fresh ears, and to my delight, out of the apparent chaos of three seemingly unrelated voices there emerged the most glorious and uplifting music. I listened to it from beginning to end with tears streaming down my face, and realized at once that I had made a discovery of lasting importance.

It was a discovery I am eager to share with you, dear reader. I hope you too will give it a chance.

Our friends at Wikipedia have given us the following description of this remarkable work:

The Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano is a work by the American composer Charles Ives. According to Charles Ives’ wife, the three movements of the piano trio are a reflection of Ives’ college days at Yale. He started writing the piece in 1904, 6 years after graduation, and completed it in 1911. It was written c. 1909–10 and significantly revised in 1914–15. The piano trio consists of three movements:

1. Moderato [0:00]
2. TSIAJ (“This scherzo is a joke”) Presto [4:50]
3. Moderato con moto [11:04]

The first movement is the same 27 measures repeated three times, though the violin is silent for the first, the cello for the second, and all three instruments join for the third. Though the separate duets seem full enough on their own, yet all together sound amazingly and uncharacteristically consonant.

The second movement, TSIAJ, employs polytonality, timbral contrast, and quotation for a downright humorous effect. Fragments of American folk songs are intertwined throughout the movement, although often grotesquely altered with respect to rhythm, pitch, and harmonic connotation. Folk songs appearing in the scherzo include “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Sailor’s Hornpipe”, “The Campbells Are Coming”, “Long, Long Ago”, “Hold the Fort”. and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”, among many others… And although the composer himself acknowledged that the entire movement was a joke, it well characterizes the unique and novel musical world that only Ives had discovered.

The lyricism of the final movement of the piano trio contrasts strongly with the variegated montage of tunes in TSIAJ. Sweeping lyrical melodies alternate with lighter syncopated sections after the opening introduction and violin recitative. Nonetheless, Ives continues with his borrowing habits – quoting music that he had originally written for the Yale Glee Club (though it was rejected) in the lyrical violin-cello canon in bars 91–125. The coda quotes Thomas Hastings’ “Rock of Ages” in the cello, ending the movement with Ives’ characteristic rooting in American folk and popular music.

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Published in: on May 31, 2018 at 4:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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