A simple referencing of the past does not by itself make something nostalgic, though. Nostalgia involves an element of sorrow, even pain (the word itself originates from a combination of the Greek nóstos, meaning “homecoming,” and álgos, meaning “pain” or “ache”). It’s a sense of longing for something that has been lost to the passage of time (if it ever existed in the first place). Ives’s program note, for example, is tinged with sadness. The face of the woman in the boy’s daydream is “sorrowful” as she “[pleads] with the soldiers not to forget their ‘cause.’” And Ives’s use of the still recognizable but often dated tunes insured that his listener would reminisce with him on times long past.
With so much of Three Places in New England focused on the past, it may come as something of a surprise that the final movement, which was inspired by a decidedly non-imaginary honeymoon taken by Ives and his wife, is the only one of the three not to make use of quotation. (Although elements of this movement are paraphrased from one of the composer’s favorite hymns, it shows none of the hallmarks of his quotation-heavy style.) Such a sweet memory would seem ripe for the same treatment as the first two movements, and yet the song snippets, the very locus of Ivesian nostalgia, are absent. Why this seeming discrepancy?
The answer lies partly in the very real—and very grownup—nature of the memory in question. Treasured though it may have been, it wasn’t a reminder of a distant past. You see, nostalgia is not just a stand in for memories, nor are all memories nostalgic ones. It is as much a reaction to the present as it is a reflection on the past; part of what makes nostalgia so painful is precisely its juxtaposition of an idealized past with a present that is seen as somehow deficient, and as such, it has tended to gain broad cultural relevance during or after times of great change. Ives, for example, was writing works like Three Places in New England from the vantage point of the early 20th century. The past he drew upon, though, was pre-industrial, agrarian, and traditional. His personal writings make clear his feelings on many of the societal changes he had witnessed throughout his life. Writing on the subject of the “seed of 1776” and whether it had “gone soft,” Ives opined that, “There are probably several contributing factors. Perhaps the most obvious if not the most harmful element is commercialism, with its influence tending towards mechanization and standardized processes of mind and life (making breakfast and death a little too easy).” Viewed within this context, it isn’t difficult to read the entreaties of the “sorrowful” woman—who, by the way, Ives describes as resembling the “Goddess of Liberty”—as motivated by cultural and political changes.