“Thoreau” — Charles Ives

“Thoreau” — Charles Ives

Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear “the Symphony.” The rhythm of his prose, were there nothing else, would determine his value as a composer. He was divinely conscious of the enthusiasm of Nature, the emotion of her rhythms and the harmony of her solitude. In this consciousness he sang of the submission to Nature, the religion of contemplation, and the freedom of simplicity—a philosophy distinguishing between the complexity of Nature which teaches freedom, and the complexity of materialism which teaches slavery. In music, in poetry, in all art, the truth as one sees it must be given in terms which bear some proportion to the inspiration. In their greatest moments the inspiration of both Beethoven and Thoreau express profound truths and deep sentiment, but the intimate passion of it, the storm and stress of it, affected Beethoven in such a way that he could not but be ever showing it and Thoreau that he could not easily expose it. They were equally imbued with it, but with different results. A difference in temperament had something to do with this, together with a difference in the quality of expression between the two arts. “Who that has heard a strain of music feared lest he would speak extravagantly forever,” says Thoreau. Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly. Herbert Spencer says that some men, as for instance Mozart, are so peculiarly sensitive to emotion … that music is to them but a continuation not only of the expression but of the actual emotion, though the theory of some more modern thinkers in the philosophy of art doesn’t always bear this out. However, there is no doubt that in its nature music is predominantly subjective and tends to subjective expression, and poetry more objective tending to objective expression. Hence the poet when his muse calls for a deeper feeling must invert this order, and he may be reluctant to do so as these depths often call for an intimate expression which the physical looks of the words may repel. They tend to reveal the nakedness of his soul rather than its warmth. It is not a matter of the relative value of the aspiration, or a difference between subconsciousness and consciousness but a difference in the arts themselves; for example, a composer may not shrink from having the public hear his “love letter in tones,” while a poet may feel sensitive about having everyone read his “letter in words.” When the object of the love is mankind the sensitiveness is changed only in degree.

But the message of Thoreau, though his fervency may be inconstant and his human appeal not always direct, is, both in thought and spirit, as universal as that of any man who ever wrote or sang—as universal as it is nontemporaneous—as universal as it is free from the measure of history, as “solitude is free from the measure of the miles of space that intervene between man and his fellows.” In spite of the fact that Henry James (who knows almost everything) says that “Thoreau is more than provincial—that he is parochial,” let us repeat that Henry Thoreau, in respect to thought, sentiment, imagination, and soul, in respect to every element except that of place of physical being—a thing that means so much to some—is as universal as any personality in literature. That he said upon being shown a specimen grass from Iceland that the same species could be found in Concord is evidence of his universality, not of his parochialism. He was so universal that he did not need to travel around the world to PROVE it. “I have more of God, they more of the road.” “It is not worth while to go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” With Marcus Aurelius, if he had seen the present he had seen all, from eternity and all time forever. Continue reading ““Thoreau” — Charles Ives”


“The Alcotts” — Charles Ives

“The Alcotts” by Charles Ives

If the dictagraph had been perfected in Bronson Alcott’s time, he might now be a great writer. As it is, he goes down as Concord’s greatest talker. “Great expecter,” says Thoreau; “great feller,” says Sam Staples, “for talkin’ big … but his daughters is the gals though—always DOIN’ somethin’.” Old Man Alcott, however, was usually “doin’ somethin'” within. An internal grandiloquence made him melodious without; an exuberant, irrepressible, visionary absorbed with philosophy AS such; to him it was a kind of transcendental business, the profits of which supported his inner man rather than his family. Apparently his deep interest in spiritual physics, rather than metaphysics, gave a kind of hypnotic mellifluous effect to his voice when he sang his oracles; a manner something of a cross between an inside pompous self-assertion and an outside serious benevolence. But he was sincere and kindly intentioned in his eagerness to extend what he could of the better influence of the philosophic world as he saw it. In fact, there is a strong didactic streak in both father and daughter. Louisa May seldom misses a chance to bring out the moral of a homely virtue. The power of repetition was to them a natural means of illustration. It is said that the elder Alcott, while teaching school, would frequently whip himself when the scholars misbehaved, to show that the Divine Teacher-God-was pained when his children of the earth were bad. Quite often the boy next to the bad boy was punished, to show how sin involved the guiltless. And Miss Alcott is fond of working her story around, so that she can better rub in a moral precept—and the moral sometimes browbeats the story. But with all the elder Alcott’s vehement, impracticable, visionary qualities, there was a sturdiness and a courage—at least, we like to think so. A Yankee boy who would cheerfully travel in those days, when distances were long and unmotored, as far from Connecticut as the Carolinas, earning his way by peddling, laying down his pack to teach school when opportunity offered, must possess a basic sturdiness. This was apparently not very evident when he got to preaching his idealism. An incident in Alcott’s life helps confirm a theory—not a popular one—that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues. It often appears that a contemplative mind is more capable of action than an actively objective one. Dr. Emerson says: “It is good to know that it has been recorded of Alcott, the benign idealist, that when the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, heading the rush on the U.S. Court House in Boston, to rescue a fugitive slave, looked back for his following at the court-room door, only the apostolic philosopher was there cane in hand.” So it seems that his idealism had some substantial virtues, even if he couldn’t make a living.

The daughter does not accept the father as a prototype—she seems to have but few of her father’s qualities “in female.” She supported the family and at the same time enriched the lives of a large part of young America, starting off many little minds with wholesome thoughts and many little hearts with wholesome emotions. She leaves memory-word-pictures of healthy, New England childhood days,—pictures which are turned to with affection by middle-aged children,—pictures, that bear a sentiment, a leaven, that middle-aged America needs nowadays more than we care to admit.

Concord village, itself, reminds one of that common virtue lying at the height and root of all the Concord divinities. As one walks down the broad-arched street, passing the white house of Emerson—ascetic guard of a former prophetic beauty—he comes presently beneath the old elms overspreading the Alcott house. It seems to stand as a kind of homely but beautiful witness of Concord’s common virtue—it seems to bear a consciousness that its past is LIVING, that the “mosses of the Old Manse” and the hickories of Walden are not far away. Here is the home of the “Marches”—all pervaded with the trials and happiness of the family and telling, in a simple way, the story of “the richness of not having.” Within the house, on every side, lie remembrances of what imagination can do for the better amusement of fortunate children who have to do for themselves-much-needed lessons in these days of automatic, ready-made, easy entertainment which deaden rather than stimulate the creative faculty. And there sits the little old spinet-piano Sophia Thoreau gave to the Alcott children, on which Beth played the old Scotch airs, and played at the Fifth Symphony.

There is a commonplace beauty about “Orchard House”—a kind of spiritual sturdiness underlying its quaint picturesqueness—a kind of common triad of the New England homestead, whose overtones tell us that there must have been something aesthetic fibered in the Puritan severity—the self-sacrificing part of the ideal—a value that seems to stir a deeper feeling, a stronger sense of being nearer some perfect truth than a Gothic cathedral or an Etruscan villa. All around you, under the Concord sky, there still floats the influence of that human faith melody, transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic respectively, reflecting an innate hope—a common interest in common things and common men—a tune the Concord bards are ever playing, while they pound away at the immensities with a Beethovenlike sublimity, and with, may we say, a vehemence and perseverance—for that part of greatness is not so difficult to emulate.

We dare not attempt to follow the philosophic raptures of Bronson Alcott—unless you will assume that his apotheosis will show how “practical” his vision in this world would be in the next. And so we won’t try to reconcile the music sketch of the Alcotts with much besides the memory of that home under the elms—the Scotch songs and the family hymns that were sung at the end of each day—though there may be an attempt to catch something of that common sentiment (which we have tried to suggest above)-a strength of hope that never gives way to despair—a conviction in the power of the common soul which, when all is said and done, may be as typical as any theme of Concord and its transcendentalists.



“Hawthorne” — Charles Ives

“Hawthorne” by Charles Ives

from Essays Before a Sonata

The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical—so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they—but a greater artist. Not only the character of his substance, but the care in his manner throws his workmanship, in contrast to theirs, into a kind of bas-relief. Like Poe he quite naturally and unconsciously reaches out over his subject to his reader. His mesmerism seeks to mesmerize us—beyond Zenobia’s sister. But he is too great an artist to show his hand “in getting his audience,” as Poe and Tschaikowsky occasionally do. His intellectual muscles are too strong to let him become over-influenced, as Ravel and Stravinsky seem to be by the morbidly fascinating—a kind of false beauty obtained by artistic monotony. However, we cannot but feel that he would weave his spell over us—as would the Grimms and Aesop. We feel as much under magic as the “Enchanted Frog.” This is part of the artist’s business. The effect is a part of his art-effort in its inception. Emerson’s substance and even his manner has little to do with a designed effect—his thunderbolts or delicate fragments are flashed out regardless—they may knock us down or just spatter us—it matters little to him—but Hawthorne is more considerate; that is, he is more artistic, as men say.

Hawthorne may be more noticeably indigenous or may have more local color, perhaps more national color than his Concord contemporaries. But the work of anyone who is somewhat more interested in psychology than in transcendental philosophy, will weave itself around individuals and their personalities. If the same anyone happens to live in Salem, his work is likely to be colored by the Salem wharves and Salem witches. If the same anyone happens to live in the “Old Manse” near the Concord Battle Bridge, he is likely “of a rainy day to betake himself to the huge garret,” the secrets of which he wonders at, “but is too reverent of their dust and cobwebs to disturb.” He is likely to “bow below the shriveled canvas of an old (Puritan) clergyman in wig and gown—the parish priest of a century ago—a friend of Whitefield.” He is likely to come under the spell of this reverend Ghost who haunts the “Manse” and as it rains and darkens and the sky glooms through the dusty attic windows, he is likely “to muse deeply and wonderingly upon the humiliating fact that the works of man’s intellect decay like those of his hands” … “that thought grows moldy,” and as the garret is in Massachusetts, the “thought” and the “mold” are likely to be quite native. When the same anyone puts his poetry into novels rather than essays, he is likely to have more to say about the life around him—about the inherited mystery of the town—than a poet of philosophy is. Continue reading ““Hawthorne” — Charles Ives”

John Cage’s A Year from Monday (Book Acquired 2.21.2012)


I found this one at random in my favorite used bookshop last week. Had never heard of it before, but it’s really neato—Cage’s lectures, notes, letters, etc. on  a range of subjects, including Charles Ives, Marcel Duchamp, and making the world better. Cover’s in rough shape, but it’s a first edition paperback, so all’s well &c.

A few pics from the strange interior (no worries, I will be plundering the book for posts in the months to come):