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Ives: “Largo”

Born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874, Charles Ives pursued what is perhaps one of the most extraordinary and paradoxical careers in American music history. Businessman by day and composer by night, Ives’s vast output has gradually brought him recognition as the most original and significant American composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.Inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, Ives sought a highly personalized musical expression through the most innovative and radical technical means possible.A fascination with bi-tonal forms, poly-rhythms, and quotation was nurtured by his father who Ives would later acknowledge as the primary creative influence on his musical style. Studies at Yale with Horatio Parker guided an expert control overlarge-scale forms. Ironically, much of Ives’s work would not be heard until his virtual retirement from music and business in 1930 due to severe health problems. The conductor Nicolas Slonimsky, music critic Henry Bellamann, pianist John Kirkpatrick and the composers Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell all played a key role in introducing Ives’s music to a wider audience. In 1947, Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3, according him a much deserved modicum of international renown. By his death in 1954, he had witnessed a rise from obscurity to a position of unsurpassed eminence among the world’s leading performers and musical institutions.

This brief work was a transcription of a Largo lifted from an early Violin Sonata he had begun while still at school (catelogued by Ives’ friend and biographer Henry Cowell as the “Pre”-First Sonata), and which he replaced in the Sonata with a movement based on the then-popular favorite, The Old Wooden Bucket. Sometime in 1902, Ives transformed the piece yet again into the Largo for Violin, Clarinet, and Piano, and probably incorporated it in that form into a larger trio for those instruments which has vanished without trace. (Ives was fond of such multi-generational music-making. Though it shows no trace of the overt nationalism that marks so many of his works, Ives’ Largo is in the most modern stylistic idiom of its day. More than in just its idiom, the Largo is also decidedly progressive in the single long arch of its formal conception, which begins and ends quietly with just the violin playing an expressive and wide-ranging melody over a gentle, ostinato piano accompaniment, but rises to considerable expressive vigor in its central regions after the entry of the clarinet. The Largo, like the man who created it, is flinty and rough-hewn and uncompromising, a miniature masterwork by the figure Leonard Bernstein called “our first really great composer – our Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson of music.”

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