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The World of Yesterday and Fantasy

Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England will be featured on the Academy Chamber Orchestra concert conducted by Larry Rachleff at the Granada Theatre this Saturday, July 31 at 7:30 pm. Get your tickets now for this concert, which also features Leonard Bernstein’s “Times Square 1944,” from On The Town: Three Dance Episodes and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. BUY TICKETS
*** “Here you leave Today and enter the World of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Fantasy.” Walk through the front gates of Disneyland, just past the iconic Floral Mickey Mouse and a bronze plaque emblazoned with these famous words, and you’ll emerge into a space that is partly a recreation of Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri. To stroll down Main Street, U.S.A. is to be transported to a bygone era, one where horse drawn trolleys whisk people past quaint storefronts with hand-painted signs and turn-of-the-last-century tunes ring out from cleverly disguised speakers. At its heart, Main Street, U.S.A., the core of Walt Disney’s “World of Yesterday,” is an exercise in nostalgia, a reminder of what Disney himself called a “carefree time.” To experience the music of Charles Ives is not unlike strolling down that Disneyland thoroughfare. Although their methods and artistic media obviously differed, much of Ives’s music is also defined the same sense of nostalgia, of yearning for an idyllic—and idealized—past.
The compositions of Charles Ives are filled with other people’s music. Quotations of other people’s music, to be exact. (So common is Ives’s use of quotation, in fact, that a scholarly book on the subject is entitled All Made Up of Tunes.) Hymns, patriotic songs, other classical music, and all manner of popular ditties are peppered throughout many of Ives’s works, including in the first two movements of Three Places in New England; among the quoted tunes in this work are “Yankee Doodle,” “The British Grenadiers,” “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries,” the Civil War songs “Marching Through Georgia” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and several songs by Stephen Foster. In a program note written to accompany Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut, the second movement of Three Places in New England, Ives narrates a sort of double reflection on the past. The place on which the movement is based— a park that marks the location of the Revolutionary War-era winter camp of General Israel Putnam’s Colonial forces—is already commemorative in nature. But the music tells a different story, one of a young boy who, while attending a music-filled Independence Day celebration “some time ago,” daydreams an encounter with a woman speaking to Putnam’s soldiers. The many disparate and overlapping tunes heard in the movement are connected to this narrative, both to the Revolutionary War bands of the boy’s imagination and the real ones that eventually awaken him from his daydream.
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.
As an element of the modern condition, then, nostalgia very often isn’t about remembering at all. At least not accurately. After all, idealizing a distant past isn’t exactly conducive to realistic depiction. Then there’s the fact that plenty of people feel nostalgic for times they never even experienced! Ives was no different in this regard. Many of the songs he was fond of quoting date not from his generation, but the preceding one; even the most recent of the songs quoted in Putnam’s Camp predate Ives’s birth by close to a decade. He certainly knew these tunes, of course, but he did so because they were meaningful to his father, who had been a Union bandmaster during the Civil War. Charles Ives worshipped George Ives and treated him as perhaps the central character in his own life story. That the nostalgia manifested in Ives the composer yearned for a past more likely to have been experienced by his sainted father should come as no surprise. There is a certain unintentional truth in the quote which began this note—Walt Disney’s “World of Yesterday,” it turns out, was also his “World of Fantasy.” Because that’s what nostalgia is: fantasy. Main Street, U.S.A. is not turn-of-the-century Marceline, Missouri. It’s not turn-of-the-century any town, really. In real towns the trashcans weren’t always empty nor the storefronts always clean. And idyllic as a horse-drawn trolley might be, in real towns the excrement wasn’t whisked away within moments of its appearance. Main Street, U.S.A is sanitized. It’s a fiction—Marceline as Walt wanted to remember it. Charles Ives’s music is by no means sanitized. It’s dense and complicated, often featuring conflicting meters and keys in an effort to realistically portray the messiness of life. But Charles Ives’s music is no less a fiction. Though hiding behind a veneer of realism, the soundscapes of the past that Ives so carefully crafted were no less imaginary than that row of brightly colored facades. And like those Disneyland storefronts, Three Places in New England, perhaps, tells us more about its creator and the anxieties of his time and place than it does about any supposed past. So, to end with a paraphrase of where we began: “Here you leave Today and enter the World of Yesterday and Fantasy.” – Henry Michaels Project Resonance Blog editor, Director of Audience Experience & Engagement, Music Academy of the West

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