Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lookin' for Charlie Ives

Say Goodbye to Frank Foster, saxophonist, ex-Basie Band member:Frank Foster, 82, American jazz saxophonist and composer, complications from kidney failure.
Foto by tgw, "Charles Ives Birthplace," Danbury, Connecticut, 2011
Lookin' for Charlie Ives

thedailygrowlerhousepianist had suggested we go looking for Charlie Ives months ago. An excursion he called it. Our duty as Ives aficianados, we both agreed. Earlier in the week, I got an email from mi compadre saying, how 'bout we trek up to Connecticut and look for old Charlie's presence in Western Connecticut, where Charlie was born and where he spent most of his life--born in Danbury in 1874, going to college at New Haven, and after becoming a successful New York City insurance executive (Ives & Myrick) and living in Hartsdale, New York, he bought a farm and built a house on it in West Redding, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in 1954 at age 79, going on 80.

Both the House Pianist and I are died-in-the-wool Ivesians. We know most of his music--we oftentimes get together and listen to his music while following along with the scores (I own a large library of Ives scores), our favorite Ives being the 2nd Piano Sonata, the Concord Sonata, one of the most brilliant pieces of music ever written and certainly to us the greatest piece of American classical music ever written.

We started out from the Spuyten Duyvil train station on the MTA River Line, the old New York Central tracks, which is in The Bronx, though Marble Hill, one station back, where resides the House Pianist, which actually is a hill of marble, is in Manhattan though it's across the Harlem River from Inwood and Washington Heights and what's considered Manhattan Island. The Spuyten Duyvil station is right on the edge of Spuyten Duyvil inlet that is partially man-made, leading out by the next station, Riverdale, alongside the broad Hudson River (or the North River as I call it--yes, I am a bit of a contrarian).
Foto by tgw, "The Inlet From Spuyten Duyvil Train Station," 2011 (beyond the swing railroad bridge is the Hudson River)
We headed out, up to the Cross Bronx Expressway, then on up the Hutch (Hutchinson Parkway) to Danbury. It didn't take long at all. We got there around 10:30. It was a beautiful day both in the city and up in Danbury. The sun was shining brilliantly, friendly, warm, though a bit blistering standing in its direct beams.

Our first adventure started at the Danbury Historical Society building where we were met by two very nice and friendly and talkative ladies who began by telling us the Ives birthplace was closed for a complete renovation so we couldn't tour the house but we were welcome to go "over there" and explore around the outside of the house.

After roaming around a bit "over there" (at the front of the Historical Society property) for several look-sees, we at first did not recognize the house, only to finally realize if it had been a snake it would have bitten us--and then, there it was, the house that Charlie Ives was born in in 1874.

The house is a very old house--Charlie's grandfather Isaac Ives bought it in 1829. It stood originally on Main Street back up in the center of Danbury--on Main and White Streets, next to a church. Then it was moved a second time, just up Main Street a bit, and then finally it was moved to the Danbury Historical Society park, which is now called the Charles E. Ives Historical Park and Trail.

And soon, the House Pianist and I were in a bit of hog heaven, the old house there in front of us--though we faced the back of the house at first and didn't know it; only when we finally traversed the little sidewalk around back of the back of the house did we find the front of the house. And then, there it was, that house front so familiar to us from reading the many books we've both read on Ives's life and times. [Two books that are must Ives reads are Vivian Perlis Charles Ives Remembered, an oral history of Ives as told by his relatives, friends, and some critics (like Elliott Carter, to me, an unfair critic to say the least); and John Kirkpatrick's (pianist and Ives documentarian) massively edited and annotated Memos, which are a series of memos that Charlie dictated to his secretary over a period of several months in the mid-1930s, memos concerning his music in as much detail as Ives was capable of, plus the reactions of many musicians, conductors, and fellow composers to his music and in return Charlie's reactions to them, like the many European musicians and conductors who simply said his music was unplayable--and yes it is complicated music, but modern-day musicians with cleaned-up scores have mastered most of his pieces, especially pianists playing the Concord Sonata (Though I favor John Kirkpatrick's 1947 Columbia recording of the work--John had played it for the first time ever at Town Hall in 1938. John Kirkpatrick's '47 recording of the piece was my first-ever Ives LP. I bought it in a New York City thrift shop for ten cents). Also, starting in the middle 1950s, all the symphonies were performed in concert and recorded, conducted by some of the world's greats conducting some of the world's greatest orchestras: Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski and his American Symphony; Bernard Herrmann (who as a young man knew Ives and visited him many times in West Redding) and the London Philharmonic; and Leonard Bernstein, who with the New York Philharmonic recorded all four of the symphonies and was a true believer in Ives's music being the epitome of American classical composing.

It was quiet around that old house. It sat there so still surrounded by a thick woods in which was the Ives Trail, which the DGHP and I had no interest in. Dilapidated, moldy old, disheveled of coat, loosely hanging-on disintegrating shutters--but still as boldly present as the people who lived and loved in it, starting with Ives's grandfather and grandmother and all their children, ending with their youngest child, George E. Ives, Charlie's musical genius father.

The house (the photo at the top of this post) is in bad shape. It's a frame house, badly in need of repairs (rotting wood everywhere) and paint--plus it's a bigger house than the House Pianist and I realized. It was shut up tighter than a drum; there were two windows where there was enough crack in the old curtains that you could peer inside--old furniture--I had asked the historical society ladies if the furniture was original and they said some of it, though not all of it.

Soon we exhausted all we could get out of the house. We took a memory card full of photographs so we have proof we were there (who cares really?). Most people we met in Danbury and asked about Charles E. Ives didn't know who we were talking about. Danbury has a lot of Mexicans and Asians, an amazing attribute of most of our East Coast cities these days. I had been in Allentown, PA, just a couple of weekends before and at the Fairgrounds there they were having a Spanish Music Festival, Allentown having a very large Latino population of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.

After we left the house, and giving a quick glance over at the Danbury Railroad Museum--I saw a great old Erie-Lackawanna Alco diesel, plus a New York Central F unit diesel made by General Electric's Electromotive Division (EMD), and a steam switcher from the old New York-New Haven RR. It cost $6 to get in so we opted instead to strike a trot out Main Street headed for the Wooster Cemetery and the Ives burial grounds.

When we found the cemetery, a wildly spread-out cemetery, sprawling over a bunch of hilltops, some covered in gnarly old trees, others barren and out in the raw middle of the sun's by now high-noon mean glare. It wasn't hellishly hot, but it was crisp bright and blistering and kinda muggy hot under that water sucking-up sun.

At first we wrongly read the map showing where the Ives plot was--we thought Ives was in Section 3, which we found, parked the car, and began searching over the hundreds of graves in this large eyebrow-like section, going back and forth all over it, and up and down all over it, looking intently at each tombstone--finding no Ives anywhere amongst those haphazardly laid out graves. We went over that section with a fine-tooth-comb assiduousness but no Ives; no Ives of any kind.

We got frustrated to the point of giving up finding Charlie's bones and returning to Danbury for some lunch. And then the House Pianist noticed, Holy Cow, it's not Section 3 Charlie's in, it's Section M, subsection 3. The House Pianist after studying the map more intently, said he now knew where Charlie was--"He's over on the other side of the pond."

Then we proceeded around the edge of this sprawling village of the dead, around toward the pond, then coming up to the brink of the pond, where we started looking for Section M.

Suddenly we came upon a hill where the tombstones were importantly overlooking the pond and we thought surely Charlie's up on a hilltop like this one so we drove the car up a set of tire tracks (ruts really) as far as we could go up this slight hill to the major tombstones only to again be frustrated--NO IVES anywhere. And we're saying, come on, the Ives were a prominent family in Danbury; surely they've got a choice plot, a more impressive plot than any we'd seen so far. There were no Ives anywhere--we searched grave after grave, but no Ives.

Again we were about to give up this part of our search and get some lunch. Besides, suddenly, I had to piss like a Trojan (I don't know where I picked that phrase up, but I've been declaring it since I was in kid: "Damn, folks, where's the can? I've gotta piss like a Trojan." Probably influenced by when I was young and pissed in filling station restrooms where there were always rubber machines on the walls, some of which dispensed Trojan brand rubbers. I can only assume that's the reason I think of having to piss badly as having to piss like a Trojan).

Up on the bald hill we were on, I saw no place to take a whiz politely--and also at this point we seemed to be being followed by three Latinas, one cute one pushing a baby buggy and her two rather buttery plump companions--I mean every turn we made, there these ladies were, to the point we started waving at each other when we were so frequently crossing paths.

We decided we were still, though in Section M, not in the right section of Section M--and cemeteries are confusing when they are as old as this cemetery. We saw graves so old their inhabitants's names had been blown away by time leaving only their ancient stellae-like stones to mark their last remains. There were lots of early 1800s graves, and I'm sure there are some late 1700s graves in there to boot, but I only recall early 1800 ones.

On the cemetery map, Section M was huge, covering much more territory than the Section 3 we had searched so diligently. This section looped all around this pond--a pond brackishly full of lovely pond scum--so we got in the car and headed down this creepy dirt path of a road that looked like at any moment it was going to drive us straight into the pond. After bottoming out on this trail, we emerged up a steepish little hill and onto a truly magnificent part of this old cemetery, a large tree-covered hill crowned with the best plots and most splendid-looking plots. It was definitely Section M--and we were looking for Subsection 3, and then there it was, to our left a sign saying it was Section M 3 and before us was a flock of graves that staircase-stacked-up low-level and bald on back up to a large plot atop the hill among the cool dark shade of a small woods of ancient elms or oak trees. We knew we were close to the Iveses when we came upon a bunch of Merritts. Ives's family had married into the Merritts and it would be natural for them to be buried close to each other. And then we found another Merritt relative whose name we knew had married an Ives girl and then I looked over to my left at a somber slab of marble--and there it was:
Foto by tgw, "Charles E. Ives and His Wife Harmony Twitchell's Grave With Charlie's Father and Mother's Grave Just Off Behind It There," Wooster Cemetery, Danbury, Connecticut, 2011
And this little hill turned out to be the Ives's private hill--with old Grandfather Isaac's and Grandmother Amelia's tombstone at the top of the hill, a massive old tombstone that over the years had been cracked apart and repaired, as had several other of the older stones around this Ivesian burial mount. In front of the grandparents's grave was old Uncle Isaac Ives's grave...
Foto by tgw, "The Ives Plot," Wooster Cemetery, Danbury, Connecticut, 2011
That front line of graves contain the graves of Charlie's brothers and their wives. A hill full of Ives and Merritts. Someone had put a stone on Charlie and Harmony's marker. I've read where this is a new fad among grave visitors. I think it's a Jewish thing.

We spent a good deal of time at Charlie's grave, enjoying the peace of the place, and being so close to the old man's bones, those just beneath us--yes, probably in a splendid casket. The House Pianist took my photo laying on the grave, maybe over Harmony, leaning over to put my arm around my old pal Charlie. Also, this is where I had an opportunity to finally take that Trojan piss, slipping as I did way back over behind George E. Ives's grave, as far into a little woody area as I dared go...I was leery of those famous Connecticut ticks that carry the special Connecticut disease called limn disease.

Relieved and paying our last respects to Charlie and his family, around 1:30 pm, we drove back into Danbury to eat lunch.

The House Pianist had prior to this excursion checked out the restaurants in Danbury and he said there were several Mexican restaurants there. And sure 'nuff, right off the bat we found Pancho's Mexican restaurant, a big old long building on Main Street containing besides Pancho's restaurant, his Mexican bakery and Mexican crafts shop also.

Pancho's was Mexico tipico in its interior design. Why there was even a large portrait of Pancho Villa on one wall--thus perhaps why the joint was called Pancho's and not because it was owned by a man named Pancho, though who knows.

I ordered the chuletas and a Dos Equis and the House Pianist ordered a burrito and a frozen Margarita.

The ladies who waited on us were splendidly friendly and wide-eyed caring, one amusing us with her charm and good looks. Adding more Mexico tipico to the joint, a very pregnant woman's young Mexican son was attention-getting playing with a serape on the floor just in front of us, doing a little act and then checking to see if we were watching him, squealing his joy if we were, and bawling like a banshee if we weren't.

The food? My pork chops, thin cuts, like my mother used to buy at the grocery store in a best-buy 10-pack, were nicely flavored, though not as thick and tender as one would have liked. The pork chops came with some red beans and rice; the beans I gave to the House Pianist for his burrito, which he said, had hardly any beans at all in it; it was a vegetarian burrito that he thought should be mostly all beans.

We left Pancho's full but not that satisfied. The women were charming an reinviting as we left, but in terms of recommending it to our fellow beings--sorry, Pancho's, but no thank you.

After lunch, around 2:30, we decided to go to West Redding and see if we could find the Ives's farm. In August of 1912, Charlie bought 14 1/2 acres of "undeveloped hillside" on Umpawaug Road by West Redding. The following spring (1913) work began on the house, which was completed by July of that year, though it would be another whole year before they moved into the place for good in June of 1914, though they still came down to live in New York City during the deep winter months--on West 11th in Greenwich Village.

Just behind the dining room in the new West Redding house, Ives built a music room that contained his piano, an upright, from which during their stays there Charlie wrote most of his most famous pieces--or should we say "pieced together" from myriads of notated measures he wrote furiously out on haphazard pieces of both music score paper and any old other scrap of paper. From these notes he added them all up into his various masterpieces--like he finished the great Hawthorne movement of the Concord Sonata at the farm when they first moved up there in 1914.

Charlie and Harmony had bought this West Redding farm land from their neighbor, Farmer Frank Ryder. In June of 1918, Charlie had an ambition to join the Volunteer Ambulance Corps in France; however, he failed his first medical examination. In preparation for taking the examination for a second time, Charlie went to work on Frank Ryder's farm, "to build up his physique." He returned to his New York City apartment on September 15th "in a blaze of fitness," confident that this time he'd pass the medical with flying colors.

On September 20, Charlie's aunt Amelia (Uncle Isaac's wife) died at age 81. Charlie went up to Danbury to attend her funeral and while he was up there, he decided to go back out to Frank Ryder's farm and get in some more health-building farm work. On October 1st, the day before he was to take his second medical, "he collapsed, complaining of giddiness, fever, pains in his chest." At first he was diagnosed with the Spanish influenza (the epidemic that killed tens of thousands of Americans that year). "A more thorough examination showed a coronary trombosis with suspected extensive cardiac damage, and his doctor ordered him complete rest for at least three months. Six weeks later--November 11, 1918--the Armistice was signed in Versailles. The war was over. So, too, Ives's creative life as a composer" [from David Woolbridge's wonderful book, From the Steeples and Mountains, published in 1974 by Alfred Knopf].

So the House Pianist and I headed out of Danbury up toward West Redding. We were looking for the farm, but tooling around the West Redding area we couldn't find it. We crossed over or actually were driving on Umpawaug Road several times in our searching for and looking out for any sign of the farm; however, we were on a wild goose chase because neither of us had remembered, until we got back to New York City, that the farm was actually on Umpawaug Road. We gave up looking for the farm and instead went up and found General Putnam's Revolutionary War campgrounds, now a state park--but it looked like the main entrance to the park was closed for the day--so we gave up and around 4:30, we aimed the car back toward New York City, getting back to the Spuyten Duyvil train station close to 6; me getting back to my city digs via Grand Central and a $12 cab ride around 7 pm.

A glorious day of Ivesian pleasures--yet, during the whole trip, we didn't play any Ives on the car's CD player--why? I don't know; we had several Ives CDs with us. Our heads were in the highlands of this Ives environment--our heads already crammed full of Ives's music--some of which we had emblazoned on our memories note for difficult note.

for The Sunday Edition of The Daily Growler

How pleasant it was to be away from the childish activities of our lamebrained politicians, though even as I'm typing this to get it posted, they are still playing partisan games with a great majority of We the People's future--perhaps we are awakening to find out the American Dream was just that, only a dream; a dream turned into a nightmare by the power-hungry creepy goofs We the People did elect to office. As Ralph Nadir is still barking out, there is no difference between a Dumbocrat and a Repugnican these days. Selah [Mr. Ed: L Hat [] has corrected the Wolf Man by saying Selah is Hebrew for Amen and in Islamic use it would be Amin. Again, the Wolf Man is using his memory--he claims he swears he read the Koran one time and he swears at the end of Koran verses they used Selah. Perhaps he was reading the Hebrew version of the Koran. That should get me a horse laugh at least...Selah] . (And I use an Islamic "Amen" rather than a Christian one. It seems the revolutions going on in the Middle East today are more progressive in their political nature than the counterrevolution going on in this failing country).


languagehat said...

I fell in love with his symphonies in college, and when I moved to New Haven I used to tip my hat when I passed Center Church, where he played the organ. I'm listening to the Concord Sonata now -- thanks for the post and the inspiration!

(By the way, "selah" isn't Islamic -- it's from the Hebrew Bible. The Koran uses "amin," the Arabic equivalent of Hebrew "amen.")

Marybeth said...

Great post, and great, good pilgrimage, too. And of course lhat would know the meaning and use of "selah" and "amin". Hilarious.