Among the many fascinating contradictions of the music of America’s favorite composer-cum-insurance-salesman, Charles Edward Ives–a body of work that decorated him as a homegrown cultural hero and sorted out the paperwork for his immortality–one of the most humorous and bewildering remains the frustrating series of conundrums it presents to any who attempt to analyze it. While the Second Viennese School was systematizing atonality with row-based composition, Ives sat devoutly on the fence, declaring, “Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good, I can’t see. Why it should always be present, I can’t see.” The resulting body of work speaks a hybrid musical language, one in which not only reassuring consonance and unidentifiable dissonance coexist but polymerize, frequently occurring simultaneously.
If you know me by now, then you may have seen past the tepid attempt at sleepwalking academic neutrality (neuter-ality?) and guessed already that I love that old crank and his music dearly for all of its plain weirdness, and continue to draw influence from him to this day (and right now, as I struggle to come up with enough jokes for this article and to shove in my next piece).
So this week, I thought I would throw a bone to my classically trained audience (holla!) by analyzing and talking about a composer who–really–nobody likes to play or talk about much. It’s what Ives would’ve wanted, after all. But in the spirit of gateway drugs, I’ve chosen to talk about one of his shorter songs to get people’s feet wet.
Ives frequently wrote songs for voice and piano throughout the course of his development, arguably the most consistent watermark of where his musical explorations took him. So–why not?–I decided to share my analysis of “Charlie Rutlage” to whet our appetites; written in 1920 and a cinematic song if ever there was one.
I’ll give you a minute to collect yourself…
Alright, so clearly, there’s a lot going on here (four-chord progressions, I’m pretty sure, Ives regarded like a red-headed stepchild). In two-and-a-half minutes, we’ve touched upon unusual diatonicism, whole-tone collections, arm clusters, and chromatic harmony–all familiar hallmarks of the “Ivesian” approach, and all a testament to his menagerie of alternative solutions he devised to the dissolution of tonality that his European colleagues developed. Schenkerian analysis be damned, we’re gonna dive right into it. You can follow along with a copy of the score here.
No system of analysis or notation (that I know of anyway) has been codified to reconcile the drastic fluctuations of harmony and mood of Ives’ music, and “Charlie Rutlage” ain’t gonna make this any easier on our parts. Ives seemed to be allergic to repeating anything strictly, and enough couch-diving through his body of work begs the question whether structural unity was important to him at all. The clearest notion of it in the piece available to us is the libretto itself, and the strong connection the music exhibits in illustrating its narrative.
So yeah, let’s go with that.
First, the song exhibits an informal ternary form (i.e., ABA), one that begins as firmly as we can expect from Ives in the key of F, reflecting the spirituality and harmony of the Quaker hymns he was so fond of as the tale begins with the narrator announcing that another soul has been lost. From there, just as the narrative leaps to describe the exact circumstances of Charlie’s death, the music moves into a rhythmically agitated, tonally ambiguous passage of harmonies derived from whole tone scales, and as the piece ascends in intensity, towards purely chromatic harmony. The climax of “poor Charlie’s” demise under a fallen horse is accompanied by a raucous series of clusters at quadruple-fortissimo (read: really fucking loud). Finally, the libretto returning once again to the present mourners, the piece follows suit and ends fairly diatonic, though not without surprise and a glimmer of humor (or darkness, depending on how you take your coffee).
Now then, getting to the nitty-gritty, within that fairly traditional framework, it can be quite revealing to point out the clever choices Ives makes throughout the piece to make even the most familiarly euphonic sound cheekily “wrong.” Charlie doesn’t beat around the bush; he’s messing with us before the singer even comes in:
The piece begins with the key of F rooted in the listener’s ear, though in a fairly unusual fashion. The rhythm and arrangement in the piano part–the “oom-pah” sensation of bass notes on the downbeats with the chords they belong to on the upbeats–is a device abound in American music of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which Ives could have adapted from sources as varied as protestant hymnals to African American ragtime. But, if you’re reading this (Bennett), you’re likely American yourself, so unless you live in a hole (or maybe a boat), you know this already, so why am I telling you?
However, the general pattern of those styles of music when confronted with a harmonically static beginning such as this is to oscillate between the tonic and the dominant of the key, i.e., the I and V7. Instead, Ives substitutes with an even more static alternative, having the chords move from the tonic to the sub-mediant to the mediant (i.e., the I, vi, and iii), the most consonant and resolved chords in any key. Moreover, the bass line fails to compliment the harmonies Ives chooses, instead moving from the tonic to the sixth degree and up a perfect fourth to the second degree. Relative to the chords, that bass is way off, so I chalk it up to Ives indicating the scale in which the piece is currently operating, and maybe just being a crusty old Yankee who does what he wants.
The result, while slightly surprising and off-putting, is eased by the fact that it remains diatonic and the bass line becomes a sort of brief ostinato that transposes itself with the chords a few bars later.
In this case, as before, the notion of the bass line outlining the scale as opposed to the chord progression is what I’m choosing to go with, as Ives writes the bass part underlying an A dominant-seventh chord (the V7/vi) as an A going up a perfect fifth and then up a tritone to Bb. Ives’ echo of the vocal part’s rhythm in the next bar on the third beat confirms the suspicion that while the composer is using a secondary dominant chord common to the key of F, he chose to harmonize it with the octatonic scale (also known to those infernal “jazz boys” as the A symmetrical-diminished scale).
Furthermore, from its inception, the vocal line reveals a unique characteristic of melodic development and repetition that persists in much of Ives’ work. While a motive is almost never repeated by rote, Ives constructs the line so that it dances around specific pitch ranges and rhythmic motives, so that while perchance no idea is replicated, nevertheless, either later in the piece or immediately afterwards a variation of it pops up, sometimes in the piano part, but especially in the vocal part. Ives deposits a clear example of this form of thinking starting from the second bar of Ex. 2 into Ex. 3:
At this point, Ives stations the vocal melody within a cell between the pitches F# and A a minor third above it. Within each of the three bars, as the narrator laments that “’Twill be hard to find another that’s liked as well as he,” Ives writes three motives all of them melodically and rhythmically distinct, yet composed of the same set of notes under the same harmonies and rhythmically similar enough to insist to the listener that the composer is clearly building upon the same idea. In the last bar of Ex. 2 and the first of Ex. 3, the motives are almost congruent. This policy of treating melody and rhythm was not unique to Ives, and later would become a standard device of several American postwar composers. However, in the case of this specific composer’s career, its use–especially in the songs–could possibly be seen as his efforts to reflect the informal, conversational style of the lyrics as well as (maybe?) to capture the particular colloquialisms of American speech: rough, direct and liberated from the comparably restraining order of European diction. Something tells me Ives wasn’t exactly fond of the French.
This observation of Ives’ particular melodic treatment can easily be expanded into the remaining melodic interactions between the vocal and piano parts, especially as the piece begins to wander outside its established key and into atonal territory. After several bars of glacial harmonic motion, the piece suddenly jolts into action with the mention of Kid White, the first to “meet his fate” while herding cattle on the ranch of the X.I.T. (see Ex. 3). The moment encompasses a two bar phrase which bears witness to one of the first moments in the piece where the piano and voice are rhythmically in unison, outlining quarter notes. In the second bar of Ex. 3, the piano outlines another unusual-yet-diatonic progression of IV, V7/IV, vi, iii, followed in the next bar with a ii- V7 resolving deceptively to IV, a Bb chord (in general, this series works as a consequence of the harmonies being resolved in stepwise motion). At the same time, the voice provides a melody harmonically coherent with the underlying progression and rhythmically in step. So far, so good.
Immediately in the next phrase, the same progression begins again an octave higher in the piano part, the vi chord landing on the downbeat of the next bar. From here, however, the piece–just as casually as it does suddenly–steps outside of the key from the diatonic iii to an F# major triad, moving stepwise in the new key a half-step up to the ii and up once more to a Bb major triad (see Ex. 4).
Meanwhile, the vocal part begins in agreement with the harmonies, but between F# and G# moves down chromatically in a way that may or may not agree with the chord progression. Nonetheless, it returns to a restful pitch on the downbeat of Ex. 4 on the Bb. Curiously, the vocal part in the second phrase imitates its immediate precursor in almost perfect rhythmic fashion, except stopping short on the aforementioned Bb triad on the downbeat of its second bar whereas the first went for another beat. The piano, in a hidden but certain moment of rhythmic imitation, finishes the rhythm of the phrase in the left hand with a low E and D in eighth notes (perhaps, in tandem with previous ideas, Ives used those notes to indicate his use of the Bb lydian mode to construct that chord).
Unfortunately, strictly diatonic thinking can only take us this far into the piece. From here, after a long chromatic descent in the bass line complemented by chords and the voice falling in the same manner, the vocal part all but drops out in terms of designated pitch, instructed within the second bar of this dissonant B-section to merely recite the lyrics in rhythm with the piano part, which by the way, is super-imposing an odd meter over 4/4. Good luck, kiddo:
Of course, the presence of only a rhythmically determinate vocal part begs the question as to whether or not the simultaneous piano part can be or should be analyzed with any diatonic inclination. Nevertheless, Ives does seem to be loosely anchoring us to a tonal center, given the C minor triad and the low bass octave of C that the right hand and left hand always return to, respectively.
Starting from Ex. 5, Ives establishes a consistent rhythmic and harmonic pattern in the piano that, while not a strict ostinato, does exhibit many of the formal characteristics of one. The entire section is composed of phrases lasting two-and-a-half beats each (or 5/8 meter), a new one starting every time the octave C sounds in the lower register. Additionally, with every octave, a C minor triad in root position cooperatively follows an eighth beat afterwards, resoundingly confirming C minor as some form of diatonic reference point.
The shortcomings of our method thus far arise when considering the clusters that inevitably land for a quarter note after the C minor figure, their top voices gradually ascending chromatically, one after the other. Admittedly, these chords have no tonal function; any attempt to do so would require excessive theoretical backflips, its difficulty only by compounded by the chromatic ostinato in the bass. It seems like Ives at this point is just winging it to see what happens.
However, we can try to explain it through a slight revision of ideas of consonance and dissonance.
Given that the C minor triad is so consistently uttered, the listener’s ear is never (entirely) pulled away from it. Accepting this premise, one could expand one’s ideas of tension and resolution in diatonic progressions to include any kind of dissonance so long as they return to the same tonal anchor. With C being established every two-and-a-half beats, the clusters only come to be heard as a brief dissonant tension that inevitably will fall back to the tonic, analogous to a dominant chord’s function. The presence of a Db for a quarter note just before the C sounds in the bass only amplifies the effects of this device, pushing the ear to hear it as a chord about to resolve. Thus, a flavor of the earlier diatonicism remains as Ives moves outwards into uncharted territory.
Beginning on the final bar of Ex. 5, however, tonality goes out the window in favor of a modal language based informally on whole-tone scales. On the example’s second line, the piano part employs completely chromatic harmony in stepwise motion in both hands to re-orient the previous rhythmic ostinato on a low A octave a minor third below the C. (It’s also interesting to note just how rhythmically distinct Ives has managed to make the piano and vocal parts, while still having them compliment each other; while vocal part dictates in two-bar rhythmic phrases, the piano still employs the two-and-a-half beat ostinato, an asymmetry uncommon to much music of the time.) Into the next bar, an A dominant-seventh chord is repeatedly established as Ives goes through different voicings of it to accommodate the melody of the top voice that he desires. The consistent presence of the F natural in chords suggests the composer’s use of the whole-tone scale.
However, Ol’ Charlie refuses to use it strictly, indicating the presence of both E natural and D natural, two pitches contradictory to the prospective scale. This may sound blasphemous, but I think we can write that off as an inessential detail. Though Ives certainly intended to have a more clustered sound at this point, necessitating the use of materials outside of any pre-packaged scale, to the listener, nonetheless, enough necessary agents of whole-tone harmony are present to make it the primary aural effect. Furthermore, the re-structuring of the bass line–to have it not resolve chromatically to A, but rather to have it outline the pitches of an A major triad to before the octave sounds– suggests the effect of a static harmony centered on A, further supporting the whole-tone scale’s dominance in this context.
This pattern generally continues, fluctuating between the two whole-tone scales at will until Ex. 6, where the arrival of the narrators declaration, “Nothing came back from him; his time on earth was spent,” is accompanied by a bar of purely chromatic motion to compliment the heightening intensity of the libretto’s content, which only amplifies in tension as it describes Charlie’s final moments with accelerating speed and anxiety. At this point, the piano returns to relative rhythmic agreement with the vocal part, but simultaneously divides into three different voices, each doing a separate task achieved through different ends:
The top voice, in the right hand, ascends in stepwise motion–alternatively chromatic or by whole-step–with a one-beat rhythmic cell consistently composed of chords and pitches derived from one of the two whole-tone scales at any given time. Initially, this begins as just transposing the motive up whole steps through one scale, but by the point of, “Charlie shoved him in again,” it becomes more explicitly chromatic.
Meanwhile, the middle voice in the left hand is simply a chromatic line in quarter notes on the off-beats, working in tandem with the upper voice to increase the tension as the piece reaches its climax.
Finally, the lower voice–in octaves in the bass–doesn’t reveal itself as clearly, jumping around wide intervals, maybe as a reference to the bass line at the song’s opening. Nonetheless, it to can be thought of as ascending chromatically, if we isolate the bass parts into melodic cells. Though again, Ives does not realize this exactly, starting on the second line of Ex. 6, you can hear on the down beat in the lower voice the theoretical motive Bb, followed by Eb and F; a perfect fourth followed by a whole step. Notice how Ives plays with the motive for two bars only to raise it perfectly by half-step starting on the lyric, “poor Charlie”. In the next two bars, Ives repeats this action twice more, confirming it as a more oblique, yet soundly chromatic device.
These three voices, pushed by the rising tempo, thrust the song to its climax, where harmony breaks down completely in favor of cacophonous noise in the piano while the singer shouts.
Protecting his title as the funniest writer of expression marks, Ives notates the clusters in the second bar with the word, “fists,” and in an asterisk at the bottom of the page writes, “In these measures, the notes are indicated only approximately; the time of course, is the main point.”
So, to recap: starting the piece in completely diatonic immobility, the composer has slowly transitioned through a variety of techniques to the other extreme, a process determined completely by the narrative, as the quadruple-fortissimo bangs in the piano coincide with the moment of the protagonist’s death.
Contrary, perhaps, to the listener’s expectations, the song doesn’t end with the death of its hero. Rather, with three chords ascending in whole-step motion, it returns almost note-by-note to the opening A-section as the narrative teleports back to the narrator himself mourning Charlie’s loss, confirming the piece’s ternary form.
The question remains, however, as to just how the piece will end, given that we have yet to hear a dominant cadence to the tonic F. Ives, ever the troll, reaches a resolution that nonetheless fails to sound like a resolution at all.
Repeating the same “Kid White” cadence on the second line of Ex. 8, and predictably landing as before on the Bb chord, the composer goes to the chord’s secondary dominant, F7 (i.e., V7/IV), extending the subdominants presence while the vocal part insistently pedals on F, promising us that we better hold onto their dicks for that resolution, ’cause it’s gonna be a fat one! In the last bar, the appearance of two G’s in the melody, immediately suggestive of the dominant, C7, scream for it; but Ives stays on Bb, and on the last two beats creates a plagal cadence to that very chord, ending the song on the fourth beat of the last bar. Though technically a perfectly acceptable method of diatonic resolution, the vocal line’s melody doesn’t exactly let us feel good about it; as a consequence of ending on both the subdominant and on a weak beat, no less, the piece leaves the listener grasping aurally for conclusion, perhaps suggesting, however humorously, that nothing can be resolved in facing the tragedy of death.
That’s some pretty heavy shit for a throwaway pop song. But that, I suppose, is probably what Ives chose to make the whole point of his career (or technically, his “hobby”). He’s notoriously indiscriminate of what he uses or where he borrowed it from, and he doesn’t care if you like it or not; regardless, you will take him seriously. He’s too smart to not be, and he jam-packs those quotidian ideas with so much next-level stuff that to look upon his work–a cornucopia of either trash or treasure–and go, “Meh,” makes you look like kind of an idiot. Love him or leave him, he’s some kind of genius. And he knows it. What a dick.