Concert Notes

Charles Ives’ Overture and March “1776”

Notes by TŌN violinist Angeles Hoyos

The Composer 
Charles E. Ives was an American composer, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His father, George Ives, who conducted bands, orchestras, and choirs, inspired him in many ways, including his bold music experiments. Charles Ives studied music at Yale under Horatio Parker. After college he decided to go into business, and worked in insurance for 30 years. All of his works were composed in his free time. Ives created his own innovative musical language through his experience with American vernacular music, sacred protestant hymns, and European musical traditions. 

The Music 
The set of two pieces, Overture and March “1776,” was inspired by the events of July 4, 1776, the day of independence in the United States. They were written for small or theater orchestra (flute, oboe, clarinet, cornet, tenor, piano, bells, snare drum, bass drum, cymbal, and strings). Ives put 1903-4 as the dates of the set, but as with some other compositions for which no manuscripts survived, Overture and March “1776” could be dated differently (1909–10). In the first forty seconds, we hear the overture that was originally composed for an opera, based on a revolutionary play by Ives’ uncle—but the opera was never created. In the overture, we can enjoy the effects of polytonality; Ives was one of the first composers to use it, for example, in “The Unanswered Question.” The use of band instruments and triumphal sounds in the march are among the signature elements of Ives as an American composer. In this march, we hear many tunes and rhythms marching together and sometimes simultaneously—as it happened in Danbury in Ives’ childhood, when his father experimented with several bands. They also remind us of Ives himself playing drums in his father’s band (“on a rubber-top cheese box or on the piano,” as Ives recolled in his Memos). The march was also used by Ives in the second movement (“Putnam’s Camp”) in Three Places in New England. Overture and March “1776” was performed for the first time nearly 70 years after it was written, on March 3, 1974, in New Haven, Connecticut by the Yale Theater Orchestra under James B. Sinclair.