In appreciation of Ives and Psalm 90

I’ll have many musical highlights from my 2022 Tanglewood residency — the soaring shouts of the chorus in Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, finally feeling comfortable enough with pronouncing the Russian in Shostakovich’s Third, and the double bass entrance in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that almost brings me to tears every time I hear it before we sing. That said, the most musically satisfying part of the weekend will be our performance of Charles Ives’ Psalm 90 as the prelude to the Beethoven Ninth on Sunday afternoon.

The piece itself, written in 1924, is primarily choral, accompanied by an organ, three racks of bells, and a gong. As a modernist composer, Ives is known for experimenting with polytonality, polyrhythm, and tone clusters… so I won’t lie, I was trepidatious upon learning it was on the program. A casual first listening verifies that, yes, many parts sound cacophonous to an ear expecting predictable cadences and chord progressions. In general, I don’t gravitate to modern pieces that revel in dissonance and gimmicks, and at first glance, Psalm 90 feels like one of those – obscure and intellectual just for the sake of being outrageous and challenging. But I read that Ives claimed this piece was “the only one of his works that satisfied him.” It took immersing myself in it to better understand its laudable cleverness and layered meaning.

First off, I’m a sucker for tone painting, be it lions leaping and worms crawling in Haydn’s The Creation, or the galloping horse in Schubert’s Die Erlkönig. Here, Ives even goes so far as to preview on the page who the musical dramatis personae are. The C major chord is “The Eternities;” a heavily dissonant chord is “God’s wrath against sin,” then followed by some mysterious chords for “Prayer and Humility,” and finally a quiet passage for “Rejoicing in Beauty and Work.” That low C from the organ plays throughout the entire piece, representing God’s constancy (and a great anchor for pre-tuning our tougher entrances.)

A-flat major on the bottom, then C minor, then E-flat major, then G minor…

Throughout, words like anger, wrath, destruction, and flood are accompanied by that heavily dissonant chord to communicate their accompanying ruin. But in preparing us for this piece, our conductor James Burton showed us that the notes in those dissonant chords actually have a very specific internal relationship. Take any three adjacent voices and they form a major or minor chord, laddering up by fifths. By the time you get to the top soprano note, it’s a half-step off of the bass note. Together it may sound like a mess, but it’s intentional and distinctive, and each voice can find anchors above and below to tune to and establish those resonances. Pretty clever, and it recurs throughout the piece despite the constancy of God’s C underneath it.

I underlined the words with stress to try and stay in time with everyone

In fact, what stands out about this piece is how unified and together the chorus must be, listening to each other, never being the first one in or the last one out. Take, for instance, the chanted verses. There’s no written pattern, no conducting… the chorus must feel the collective rhythm of the phrases and stay together. “The days of our years are three score years and ten…” in four beats… okay, go! It fits those verses: humanity musing and reflecting together.

Another innovative moment is in the middle of the piece, where the time between each note goes from 9 sixteenth counts… to 8… to 7, 6, all the way down to one, as the chorus further and further subdivides itself until we reach a giant cluster of notes (on “wrath,” no less)… then by 1 beat, 2, 3, 4, all the way back up to 9, we come back together and find unison. Sounds like there’s a message there, too.

There are other subtleties in the music too, like the verse about “from one generation to another… to another… to another.” The music gets quieter and “drifts,” like each generation inheriting from the previous but evolving… which again Ives notes in the text.

Out of this earlier recitation of chaos come the later verses, bringing us the others from the introduction: first prayer, then beauty. We basses chant on a C for almost the entire ending, mirroring the “God foundation on constancy” from before. There’s one mention of “evil” that sneaks in to interrupt the peace, like a bad memory briefly surfacing to interrupt one’s meditation… but the last few minutes of the piece construct this sublime ethereal beauty that hangs in the air as the chimes echo like distant church bells, with us getting softer and softer until the final peaceful Amen. It completes the journey of mankind causing our own downfall time and time again, yet pulling together to glorify the work we do as one. It’s a breathless experience that reaffirms my faith in humanity, that we will get out of the way of ourselves, each time I hear it.

James himself is conducting the piece for our performance, which has provided the opportunity to cue in specifically on his gestures and exhortations, rather than having to translate that to another conductor. I’m very much looking forward to sharing what should be a nice complement to the B9’s message of joy.

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