Kyle Gann has spent more than just a few years working to dismantle mythological presentations of Ives as primitive, for instance, or Ives as someone who was somehow unfamiliar with the Western European concert repertoire. That Charles Ives could write fugues and sonatas and then chose not to does not necessarily mean that he couldn't write in those forms or didn't understand them. During the 1970s through the 1990s there were scholars who went so far as to declare that Dmitri Shostakovich never properly "mastered" sonata form despite the fact that he wrote plenty of sonata forms, but did not necessarily always write sonata forms that hewed closely to "textbook" definitions of sonata forms.
To borrow the typology developed by Hepokoski and Darcy in Elements of Sonata Theory, Shostakovich didn't have to write "Type 3" sonatas all the time to demonstrate a mastery of sonata forms. Truncated and radically recomposed recapitulations are all over sonata forms from the 18th century up through to today if you care to look them up. Simply because some academics claimed Shostakovich did not master sonata form doesn't make it so, and by extension, simply declaring that Charles Ives didn't master sonata or fugue because he made use of cumulative forms and cyclical modes of thematic development that weren't explicitly tied to Western European norms of cyclical development doesn't mean he was a musical rube.
So it was interesting to read Borstlap link to an article in The Guardian recently about the art critic John Ruskin.
But I should do more than just summarize Burkholder. I should quote him.
All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing
J. Peter Burkholder
Copyright (c) 1995 by J. Peter Burkholder
Yale University Press
The ternary and sonata forms that Ives used in his First String Quartet and first two symphonies depended upon the presentation, development, and reprise of themes. But from about 1902, he turned increasingly to forms that did not use large-scale repetition and did not present their themes at the outset. The most significant of these new forms is cumulative setting. This is a variety of cumulative form, a thematic, non-repetitive form in which the principle theme is presented, not at the beginning as in traditional forms, but near the end, and is preceded, not followed, by its development. In cumulative form, there is no repetition of long segments of music, as there is in ternary, sonata, rondo, and many other forms, but rather a continual development that leads up to the definitive statement of the theme.
... In a cumulative setting, the borrowed or paraphrased theme is first heard in fragments, often varied; is gradually assembled and clarified; and appears in full for the first time near the end of the movement. In most instances, the full statement of the theme is accompanied by a countermelody that is developed in a similar manner and usually appears complete before the theme itself. In a cumulative setting, Ives uses paraphrase not only to create themes and countermelodies, but as part of a process of discovery, as the theme slowly emerges from the fragments and varients that precede its culminating appearance. The elements of the theme, its countermelody, and their accompaniment gradually accumulate until the borrowed tune and its setting appear together in their entirety--hence the name "cumulative setting."
... Once cumulative setting is recognized as a form, many difficulties in analyzing, understanding, and performing these works disappear, and both the overall design and the individual features of each movement come into sharper focus.
Now how would this proposal connect to Borstlap's claim that Ives had imagination and creativity but lacked the discipline or formal knowledge to "properly" develop his ideas? Let's go to what Burkholder has to say on page 146 of All Made of Tunes:
The form here is of particular interest, It is something like the development and recapitulation of a sonata form without the exposition. The two forms share the presence of two themes of contrasting characters; the process of developing these themes through fragmentation, variation, transposition, and recombination; the sense of arrival at a subsequent statement of the principle theme; and the harmonic closure created by presenting the secondary theme at the end in the tonic, after first presenting it in another key. Yet Ives avoids both the clear exposition of themes at the outset and the exact thematic repetition of traditional sonata form.
Burkholder spells out the significance of this formal reversal on page 147:
Saving the full presentation of the theme for the end of the movement reverses the sequence of other thematic forms, such as sonata or variation form. However, as one might expect, the surviving sketches show that Ives first worked out a countermelody and harmonization for the theme and then drafted the earlier sections in which those ideas were developed. Sketches for a number of other cumulative settings show a similar process, suggesting that it became Ives's typical practice to draft the theme, countermelody, and accompaniment in combination before sketching the earlier sections of the movement. The compositional process is not unlike that of other composers or of Ives's own earlier music, as it relies on common procedures of elaboration and development. What has changed is the order of events within the piece; we don't hear the parts in the order in which they were conceived, but rather begin with the peak of fragmentation and variation and work toward the relative clarity and directness of the theme itself.
I've quoted Burkholder at such length for two reasons.
The first has to do with an observation made about the evolution of sonata forms in the 19th century compared to the 19th century that was made by Leonard B. Meyer. Should we wish to get a sense of why an American composer in the early 20th century would make such a drastic change to the syntactics of procedural development of thematic materials let's look at what could be said about the way sonata forms were handled in the 19th century.
STYLE AND MUSIC: THEORY, HISTORY AND IDEOLOGY
LEONARD B. MEYER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS
COPYRIGHT (C) 1989 BY LEONARD B. MEYER
... our age has conceived of creativity almost entirely in terms of the discovery and use of novelty. ... undue emphasis on the generation of novelty has resulted in almost total neglect of the other facet of creativity--choosing. Of course, choosing is always done by some individual. But the constraints that seem most to influence the compositional choices which shape the course of music history are not those peculiar to the psyche of the individual composer, but those of the prevalent musical style and of the larger cultural community. [I will very quickly get to the choosing part as it connects to an 18th century compositional tradition, this isn't as much a rabbit trail as it seems]
Put aphoristically: radical individualism seeks to undermine the norms on which its expression depends
... While music of the Classic period employs plan-based patternings, these are almost always coordinated with and dominated by syntactic scripts. In the nineteenth century, the situation is more or less reversed: what had been specific syntactic scripts tend to be subsumed within or transformed into general plans. [emphasis added] For instance, from this very broad point of view, the history of the practice and theory of sonata form during the nineteenth century might be interpreted as the transformation of a script--a tonally defined hierarchic schema of slots--into a thematic plan, often of a dialectic or narrative sort (thesis/antithesis --> synthesis; opposition/conflict ---. resolution). More generally, as suggested earlier (and argued later), the role of the secondary parameters in the shaping of musical forms and processes becomes increasingly important during the course of the nineteenth century. The forms and processes thus shaped are based on plans, not on scripts.
So by Meyer's accounting, at least, the 19th century approach to sonata became more plan-based than script-based. As I've put it before, you can go "off script" any time you want but if you change your plan you basically need a whole new plan. Or you needed a whole new script, and the development by Ives (and others) of cumulative form and cumulative setting was the development of a new scripting possibility for composers.
The second reason has to do with the nature of cumulative form, and another charge that has been made against Ives, that he wasn't "original" enough to create his own melodies.
In her monograph on Haydn and variation (it's literally called Haydn and the Classical Variation, ISBN 0-674-38315 , Elaine Sisman's first page recounts how musicology has tended to look down on the Classic era variation tradition.
Why has variation form in general and the Classical variation in particular received such [harsh academic] treatment? Simply put, its common practices do not accord with several cherished assumptions about musical value. First, the form is associated with borrowing a theme and keeping it more or less in full view, thus violating the principle of original thematic invention. Indeed, the eighteenth century presided over the shift in meaning of invention from finding to making. [emphasis added] Second, as a repetitive series of short, discrete segments with the same structure, variations seem artificial and arbitrary, incapable of sustained organic structure, and thus violate one of the central tenets of German Romanticism. Third, the ornamental and decorative techniques assumed to prevail in the variations of Haydn and Mozart are considered "surface" features, failing to penetrate and transform the thematic model like "deeper" contrapuntal, characteristic, developmental, or transformational techniques. Finally, enormous numbers of variation sets produced by virtuosos between about 1790 and 1840 provoked a reaction against their empty display, or what Momigny called "much speech but little sense (Sisman, pages 1 to 2)
I realize I keep beating this particular drum but it bears re-beating--the people in "classical music" composition and theory who have been showing themselves most open to any kind of reproachment with popular and vernacular styles seem more in the 20th century (or, obviously, the 21st century), but also in 18th century specialization. I'm seeing attempts at a fusion of jazz with fugue, whether it's Nikolai Kapustin or Michelle Gorrell. Another way to put this, with a far more polemical twist, is to say that for people interested in popular music who are open to classical music, the "enemy" within the classical side is not necessarily going to be a "modernist" or a Baroque specialist but more likely a Romanticist, someone who advocates for the 19th century style post-Idealist Germanic or French art religion.
But where Ives is concerned, even if it were proven across dozens of his scores that he used tunes he didn't originally come up with this is hardly a charge to seriously hold against him for two reasons. The first is we've established that "sampling" has run through the Western art music tradition going back millenia, whether through parody masses or variations on popular ground bass lines in the Baroque era, variations on popular opera songs in the 18th century and folk songs in the 19th century up through Ives's day. The second is that copyright law was different and so whatever was in public domain in Ives's day was quite simply free to be appropriated. The trouble some people have with copyright may not necessarily be just that they feel copyright is too restrictive as much as too many composers these days only draw from the well of copyright-protected musical styles. I would strongly urge them to listen to a whole lot more public domain music that they can rip off with impunity ... it arguably worked out well enough for Ives!
So ... since the Romantic era moving forward inventio was regarded as the creation or literal invention of a thematic idea for formal development or variation, whereas in the 18th century inventio could be taken to mean you or some other composer discovered something and made use of it in an entertaining and surprising way. Haydn might make use of Croatian folk songs as the basis for movements in one of his symphonies, Wenzel Matiegka might transcribe materials he heard or read from Haydn scores or performances and transform those into sonatas or variation movements for solo guitar.
Now, of course, Matiegka is so late 18th century as to be early 19th century! But my polemical point is that it's been known that openly making use of someone else's tunes happened in the 18th century and that what might today be colloquially called "sampling" was okay back then, and probably in no small part because if you have military sinecure day jobs with the local militia, army or aristocratic courts you can quite literally afford to have your music known about via bootlegs the way Haydn's was. Or you had some other clerical job by day (Sor) or a teaching post (Matiegka, turns out, taught theology ... so perhaps readers will pardon my sympathy for a guitarist composer who occasionally likes to discuss theology ... . ) But I digress.
How does this connect to Ives? Well, Ives may be beloved by some "modernists" but his philosophy and approach to composition do not necessarily mean that he was a modernist, certainly not a modernist in a post-World War II sense or maybe even a post-World War I sense in any "Eurocentric" conception of modernism.
If Charles Ives didn't know how to properly develop his ideas by what standard did Ives fail? It's at this point we'll quote Borstlap's book to show what's going on.
... but Ives apparently needed to learn how to really develop his themes?
It may just come across as if when John Borstlap likes a composer their bridling at scholastic routine and rigor becomes a sign of their tortured and straijacketed talents but if Borstlap doesn't like a composer then all of a sudden the strictures of a conventional 19th century music education are what the unliked composer would have benefited from. What if it could be (and has been) demonstrated that Ives had that kind of education and also rejected it but that Ives simply chose to develop new syntactic processes and scripts that would help him avoid writing what were increasingly formulaic developmental procedures from the 19th century Romantic and post-Romantic eras?
What if, furthermore, this process could be shown to have been indebted to Ives' familiarity with John Ruskin? It's at this point I finally get to quoting Kyle Gann's monograph on the Concord Sonata. It is worth pointing out that for Borstlap to declare that Charles Ives composed from a "materialist" perspective has to account for why on earth a "materialist" would compose an entire sonata paying tribute to the New England transcendentalists while invoking Ruskin.
But there's this other element of a double bind or a double standard in Borstlap's polemics, which has to do with Benjamin Britten. But first let's get through a very long quote from Borstlap's concluding chapter of The Classical Revolution (this is all one undivided paragraph in the second edition):
But for all he has written Borstlap has nothing to offer by way of a conceptual renewal of the Western European art music tradition as a way of thinking. He has explicitly denied the possibility of it being reinvigorated by any infusion of popular music or jazz. Yet he has also made a point of subordinating any and all American (northern or southern American continents) to the fate of Western Europe. If the entirety of Western Europe were to get hit with a plague this week the guitar sonatas of Carlos Guastavino would still be around for Argentine guitarists to play. The piano sonatas of Myaskovsky would still get played in Russia, right? The piano sonatas of the recently deceased American composer George Walker can still be played.
If preserving the art music tradition that, however it clearly emerged within the context of Western Europe, has spread across the world depends entirely on the perceived (as distinct from actual) rejuvenation of Western European colonial powers as "really human" then everything hinges on the nation states as cultural iterations and not, weirdly, on preserving a way of thinking and making music. It's possible that the way of thinking in music, about music, and in making music that may have originated in Western Europe can migrate elsewhere. It seems dubious to claim a continuity of style and forms for Western Europe. Nobody is singing isometric motets on the streets or even in most of the churches. The scripts and plans of thematic development change over the centuries and will keep changing.
I've gone through Borstlap's book twice and while I still admire symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven and Shostakovich I can't share the impression that Borstlap is like someone who was a fan of late Renaissance ars perfecta looking at a new "second practice" and regarding it all as non-musical garbage that isn't even music. Well, advocates on behalf of the old Palestrina style could share similar put-downs about Monteverdi, too. In the galant style period Haydn got slammed for doubling octaves that made hsi counterpoint "bad". He was considered an impudent rule-breaker and yet within a generation he was treated as if he were the hidebound rule-maker whose symphonies were impeccable but whose example had to be transcended by Beethoven and Mozart. Not really, I love Haydn's music more than either Beethoven's or Mozart's. Now instead of ars perfecta from the late Renaissance we could say it was the 19th century Romantic and post-Romantic musical style refined by German composers and French composers into what some call "late late Romanticism". On the other side would be composers ranging from Stravinsky to Schoenberg to Hindemith to Milhaud to Berg to ... also Charles Ives.
And also Benjamin Britten ... which composer Borstlap regards as having had the "right" response to the horrors of World War II. But that's interesting because if Britten gets a plaudit across the board then there's a question that has to be asked. Britten wrote a work for solo guitar for Julian Bream called Nocturnal after John Dowland, one of the masterpieces of 20th century classical guitar repertoire.
How do we describe the piece ... ?
Not liking the music of Charles Ives is understandable. Most of my friends and family can't abide the music of Charles Ives. As tastes go that's fair enough. What I take issue with is when a case is made against the music of Ives that ends up relying on what seem curiously like double-standardized tests that other composers can "pass" but that Charles Ives "fails". Britten using cumulative form and reverse-variation, for instance, could establish that Britten used a compositional method that was also used by Charles Ives. If Borstlap were to say, "of the two composers who used reverse-variation or cumulative form, I think Benjamin Britten handled it better than Charles Ives did" I'd say that's a fair point both in terms of personal taste and musicological argument. Saying that Ives somehow didn't know how to develop his ideas "properly" is not nearly as persuasive an argument.
There are times when it is more intellectually honest to just say "I don't like composer X's music" and let that stand. Borstlap's attempts to formulate arguments as to why he doesn't consider Ives to be a good composer can boomerang on him. Even if we take Ives as having been a "primitive" or constrained by the limits of his educational approach, Borstlap's lengthy defense of Richard Wagner as someone who was largely self-taught but nevertheless an influential and important composer introduces another level of argument at which double standardized testing can get deployed.