Charles Ives’s First Symphony was written in partial fulfillment of his degree requirements for graduation from Yale College in 1898. In tackling his first large-scale orchestral project he turned out what from today’s perspective is a fine, often very beautiful, symphony in late-Romantic style.

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Its four movements were initially sketched out at different times, beginning in 1895. In his Memos (written in the 1930s), Ives recalled: “The first movement was changed. It (that is, the symphony) was supposed to be in D minor, but the first subject went through six or eight different keys, so [Horatio] Parker [professor at Yale] made me write another first movement. But it seemed no good to me, and I told him that I would prefer to use the first draft. He smiled and let me do it, saying ‘But you must promise to end in D minor’.” For the first theme, Ives used one of his well known hymns:

 


The second movement also caused trouble: What we have by way of Ives’s second try is a beautiful F-major Adagio molto in rounded binary form. Its most distinguished feature is Ives’s elegant and inspired melodic writing. It is difficult to believe a twenty-three-year-old student could have produced so fluent and polished a flow of melodic ideas. For the opening idea, the melody has a striking resemblance with Dovrak’s 9th Symphony, 2nd Movement:

 


The third movement, also from 1897, is the most conventional of the four-a Scherzo and Trio in standard A-B-A form. The Scherzo (Section A) opens with a rapidly moving theme in fugato style; the slower Trio (Section B) is Brahmsian in inspiration. We can find one other scherzo, also in D-minor, in an important work of the 19th Century:

 


The closing movement (“started Xmas vacation 1897-finished May 1898”), like the first movement follows an extended sonata-allegro design. It brings back two themes heard earlier in the work (the opening theme of the first movement and the lyrical second theme of the second movement), ending with a grand, march-like flourish. this march is based pitch by pitch on the main theme of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, 3rd movement:

 


Have you found more connections between these piece and other works of the universal literature? I would love to know about it! Let’s star a new conversation.

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Charles Ives

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