TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.
19. Charles Ives's Grand Metropolitan Hotel,
New York City
Most reference books state that Charles Ives gave up original composition
- as opposed to tinkering around with old works - in 1916, after the completion
of his 4th Symphony. But the award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 rekindled
the ageing composer to a last burst of activity. By now, however, a new
generation of radical young American composers had emerged and Ives was
hard-put to keep up with their startling innovations. Nevertheless, the
work under discussion bids fair to stand beside Ives's most original works,
even surpassing The Unanswered Question and Three Places in New
England for sheer audacity.
Inspiration came about in a peculiar fashion. The composer was staying
at the Grand Metropolitan Hotel in New York for the annual gathering of
the Mutual Insurance Fellowship when one evening, alone in his room, he
underwent an extraordinary sonic experience. In the apartment above, someone
was playing a recording of popular dance music. In the room below, the young
John Cage (who happened to be in town for a Mycologists' Convention) was
trying out his recently composed Music for Prepared Piano. Ives himself
was listening to a radio programme of old Shaker hymns, whilst, from his
open window came the assorted sounds of the New York streets. Overwhelmed
by this extraordinary aural panorama, he jumped out of his chair with a
mighty 'Goddam!' and snatched up pen and manuscript paper. The result: Grand
Metropolitan Hotel, New York City.
The piece, in one continuous movement, is scored for four completely
different groupings, to represent the four different 'musics': a 'big band',
with full saxophone line-up; a large mixed chorus (Ives specifies the Mormon
Tabernacle Choir in his score); a solo piano with the strings 'prepared'
with nuts, bolts, screws, razor-blades, strips of rubber, sellotape, etc.;
and, to represent the 'world outside', klaxons, car horns (12, each to a
different pitch), metal sheets and a range of sirens: 240 players in all.
Each group has its own music and its own conductor, with a 'Managing Director'
in the middle of the ensemble to co-ordinate where necessary. The work is,
mercifully, brief, for the ensuing cacophony could deafen even the toughest
It was after the first (and so far, only) performance that Ives made
his classic remark (on which he dined out for the rest of his life) to the
conductor, Koussevitsky: 'Are my ears on wrong?'; to which the maestro replied:
Copyright © 30 March 2000, Trevor
Hold, Peterborough, UK
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