Charles Ives-‘The Revival’

Posted on December 31st, 2009 by

PSS with Aaron Shorr-Piano

Wilton’s Music Hall June 2008

Engineer: Colin Still (Optic Nerve)

Aaron Shorr and PSS, Genova, October 2007

Aaron Shorr and PSS, Genova, October 2007


When I first started working with Aaron Shorr, twenty years ago, he was insistent that we play Ives together. I will always be grateful for his intractability on this subject.

This is the last movement of Ives’s 3nd Sonata, ‘The Revival’ (1906-1912), recorded with the late 19th Century Bechstein, at Wilton’s Music Hall.

Ives’ four violin sonatas were written in various pieces, between 1906 and 1913. I myself believe that they are the greatest sonatas that I have yet heard for piano and violin of the early C20th. They are a prolonged assault on the entire C19th sonata style, including passages of violent ‘anti-chamber music’, passages of quite deliberately sustained ugliness for both instruments, extensive referencing of American hymnody and popular music. My Favourite of the cycle, number 3, includes a show-stopping hoe down,’ In the Barn’, which climaxes, or rather collapses, when the page turner loses all patience with the proceedings and tries to drown out the musicians by bashing away at the keys at the bottom of the piano for several minutes, as the duo attempt to coordinate the toughest passage in the movement.

The enthusiastic violinist arrived at Ives’ house, and got his violin out. I like to imagine that his violin came in one of the old-fashioned ‘coffin-cases’ with a brass handle on the top. He placed his part on the music stand, and tuned his violin carefully. Ives sat down at the piano, which was a large ‘upright’. It was so large that when he sat down, only the crown of his head could be seen over the top. The two musicians were not able to see each other at all. Not that this seemed to bother the composer. He set to, and the two of them launched into the piece. The Sonata proceeded, and Ives played ever louder and louder. Soon it was impossible for the violinist to hear himself play at all over the din emanating from the piano. In his excitement, Ives was bent down low to hammer the keyboard, so that by now even his balding pate was no longer visible over the top of the instrument. The violinist stopped playing. Ives thundered on; apparently he had noticed. The violinist considered. What to do? It was obvious that his presence in the room was academic. So he packed his violin away carefully, and put on his coat and hat. He looked over to the piano, which was by now shaking under the beating Ives was handing out. The composer was still invisible. The violinist walked to the door, opened it, and turned to say adieu. He thought better of it, and left, quietly closing the door behind him. The piano roared on…

This was not atypical. Ives lived next to a church. Once during a violent thunderstorm, he was seized with the need to reproduce the sound of the bell in the rain and the storm, on his piano. He kept running out into the rain, getting wetter and wetter, dripping all over the rugs and furniture, and running to his much abused piano, where he would bang away to try and find the sound of the bell, before running outside to listen to it again, completely oblivious to his clothes being soaked, and dripping all over the house.