4. Charles Ives at the river’s edge

The Housatonic River

Since every writer I know writes – at least on occasions – while listening to music, I assume then that every writer has a sort of secret ‘soundtrack’ that they compile for each book that they author. Certainly a good deal of The Possessions of Doctor Forrest was written ‘on music’, rather in the way that a lot of novels we could name were clearly fuelled by the ingestion of vision-inducing drugs. Over the coming weeks I’d like to write about some of this music – or, to be precise, I should like to play you some of it, accompanied by the sparsest of textual annotation, since so much writing about music itself is pretty banal, and mine exceptionally so.
Of course, and mercifully, music does have its leading and outstanding interpreters and analysts, and Alex Ross is a distinguished name in this pack. In an essay for the New Yorker from June 2004 he said of Charles Ives’s first orchestral set Three Places in New England that “no American wrote music more momentous than this.” I’m not qualified to comment on that, but instinctively I’d like to agree.
If I was allowing myself the fantasy of a ‘Theme From Doctor Forrest’…? It’s probably this: the third movement from Three Places… entitled ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge.’ Ives was moved to write the piece after a walk he took with his wife by the banks of the Housatonic River. First drafts were written in the summer of 1908, final scoring completed in 1914. Alex Ross describes it as ‘a mystery in sound.’ I’ll concur, and say no more.


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