Friday, Jan. 17, 8 p.m., $36–$42

Baldwin Auditorium, Durham

It often goes without saying that a composer was influenced by a musical childhood. 

But it has to be said of Charles Ives, for whom the unruly musical welter of late-nineteenth-century New England—a mess of Protestant hymns, marches and other band music, camp songs, rags, patriotic tunes, and classical music played in parlors—was both foundation and firmament. Its echoes can be heard in nearly everything the Danbury, Connecticut native wrote, from his hundreds of rather conventional art songs to his still-radical piano sonatas and symphonies. 

On January 17, in a Duke Performances concert at Baldwin Auditorium, violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk will show how that history animates Ives’s rarely performed violin sonatas. 

Written in fits and starts over the first 15 years of the twentieth century, these four sonatas are a solid introduction to Ives’s musical language. His music has earned a reputation for density and complexity. His pieces are full of blocky, dissonant harmonies; lines moving in different tempos or meters; multiple keys occurring simultaneously; and a sometimes-impenetrable amount of activity. The adjectives “craggy,” “flinty,” and “granite-like” get thrown around. 

“The chaos of Ives’s world laid the stage for this one quiet cadence to speak, and to feel new.” 

Jackiw, who had played only one piece by Ives before starting this project in 2015, learned all four sonatas simultaneously.

“It was a really immersive experience,” Jackiw says. “It was like learning another language, because I had spent my entire life playing kind of refined art music, and Ives’s music is totally reminiscent of the unschooled earnestness of community music, specifically in New England.” 

Part of that complexity comes from the way Ives constructs these pieces. In more traditional classical forms such as the sonata, a piece begins by presenting a few themes before exploring how those themes can evolve and interact. 

Ives takes a decidedly different approach in these sonatas. While each does have a few main themes that draw on those childhood songs, each movement begins with all the variations, digressions, explorations, dissections, and manipulations of those themes. Sometimes bits of the theme or related tunes flash by, only to be subsumed into his continued ruminations. 

Only at the very end, after he’s done everything he can think of and then some to his material, does Ives present the theme in its original, unadulterated form. And only then does the preceding music snap into place as a unified, if somewhat fuzzy, whole. 

At Baldwin, to help modern audiences recognize some of the now-forgotten source material, the vocal group New York Polyphony will sing the most important hymns for each sonata as Ives would have known them.

The effect can be ecstatic. Denk singles out the finale of the first sonata, which transforms the hymn “Work, for the Night Is Coming” into what he calls “a rambling and endlessly regenerating march.” After seven relentlessly tumbling minutes, the pianist concludes with a short gospel cadence whose meaning has been entirely transfigured. 

“The chaos of Ives’s world laid the stage for this one quiet cadence to speak, and to feel new,” Denk writes. For Jackiw, the third sonata—the longest of the set—contains such a moment. The entire sonata is based on the hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour,” and each movement has a complicated, cyclical form in which the hymn assumes numerous guises. Ives’s harmonic language is slightly less dissonant than usual, but his structures are no less labyrinthine. Nonetheless, when the hymn appears, unadulterated, at the end, Jackiw feels overwhelmed by the “breathtaking shock of beauty that wipes out the preceding chaos.”

For both Denk and Jackiw, these moments reveal a different side of Ives than his reputation for difficulty would suggest: a deeply nostalgic composer, forever trying to rearticulate some deep-seated emotional memory of his musical childhood. Jackiw’s experience of these pieces is like reading Proust or listening to Brahms, but in the context of a certain kind of Americanness.

To Jackiw, it’s as if Ives were walking down a busy city street, bombarded from all directions by sound, when he passes by someone wearing a particular scent. It triggers the vivid memory of a campsite from his childhood. Sometimes his memories are humorous and playful, sometimes wistful and longing, sometimes all of these at the same time. 

With each performance, Jackiw and Denk find another new articulation of a theme hiding somewhere unexpected. In that light, the complexity of these pieces is a profoundly human expression of that moment of sensory recall, which is always just beyond our reach. To paraphrase another maximalist New Englander, these pieces contain multitudes. 

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