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Musical sleuth: Jonathan Elkus' labor of love brings an Ives symphony back to life

By Amy Agronis on October 6, 2000 in University News

After a decade of historical detective work, music lecturer and bands director Jonathan Elkus has revitalized an icon of American music he Second Symphony composed by Charles Ives a century ago.

The work, as Leonard Bernstein premiered it at Carnegie Hall in 1951, contained more than 1,000 errors and was a far cry from what Ives intended it to be. Yet Bernsteinís recording became the standard for the piece.

Last week, Elkus' restoration came to life when the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Schermerhorn, performed Elkus' critical edition to a sold-out house, a standing ovation, and outstanding reviews at New York's Carnegie Hall.

"I felt very pleased, fulfilled," said Elkus, who heard the concert from the orchestra section. "I was thrilled."

The Carnegie Hall concert coincided with a CD release by Naxos records of the Nashville orchestra performing the Second Symphony as well as Elkus' edition of Ives' Robert Browning Overture. Elkus prepared both editions for the Charles Ives Society.

Ives wrote his Symphony No. 2 at the turn of the 20th century, composing in the evenings after working days in the insurance business.

Elkus believes the symphony, taken up seriously in 1907 during the Iveses' courtship, was intended as a wedding gift to Ives's wife, the former Harmony Twichell.

Ives based the symphony on two of his earlier organ sonatas and orchestral overtures-those latter including American patriotic marches, Stephen Foster tunes and gospel music.

However, with the declining popularity of American Realism, the work lay shelved for years and a fine ink copy of the work was lost. Bernstein based his interpretation on a published score hastily assembled for that occasion from old photostats. In Bernstein's interpretation, tempos were changed and entire sections cut.

Ives, who died in 1954, was in poor health and did not attend the premiere. However, he heard a broadcast of Bernstein's performance on the radio 10 days later. A neighbor said that Ives, once the recording ended, walked silently to the fireplace and spat.

To restore the symphony, Elkus worked from various sources, including Ives' fragmentary jottings to pencil full scores of the five complete movements.

Elkus said that unlike other critical editions he's prepared of Ives' works, where the composer's intentions were sometimes unclear, he believes this restoration is entirely faithful to the original.

Over the years, he said, the symphony has been criticized as a flawed Ives work.

But such judgments, he said, are based on knowledge of the symphony only through its 1951 publication and Bernstein's interpretation.

"It just hangs together-all five movements," Elkus said. "It is perfectly proportioned. There is nothing wrong with that symphony. "On the contrary, it's a gem, a masterpiece. None of Ives's model symphonists--Bruckner, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Chadwick--ever produced a finer work."

Reviews of the edition were immediately favorable.

New York Times reviewer Allan Kozinn that week described differences between the standard and new editions.

"Particularly striking were the shift from tutti to solo strings at the end of the first movement, and tempo alterations throughout the work," he wrote.

David Hurwitz of Classics Today said the CD was in effect, the symphony's second premiere.

"The real musicological job of eliminating thousands of errors, collating and evaluating sources, and deciphering Ives' text has only just been completed, with impressive results that you can hear for yourself."

Elkus is not the only UC Davis faculty member to prepare critical editions of Ives' work. Richard Swift, music professor emeritus, has prepared three shorter works for the Ives Society: "Tone Roads Nos. 1 and 3" and "Halloween."

The seminal study of the Ives' uses of vernacular music in the Second Symphony was published by music Professor Emeritus Sydney Robinson Charles in the late 1960s, Elkus said. Her viewpoint has informed the work of nearly ever Ives scholar since.

Elkus's serious interest in Ives' music began in the early 1960s when he scored one of Ives's Yale marches, "A Son of a Gambolier," for the first European tour of the Yale Concert Band. This was followed by the publication of his monograph Charles Ives and the American Band Tradition and his Ives Society critical edition of the symphonic movement Thanksgiving and Forefathers' Day.

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