Thursday, May 27, 2010

Variations on 'America' by Charles Ives (arr. Daniel Dorff)

Over the years, I have often wished that other collaborative pianists would share their insights into the works they are currently learning in the thought that it might prove helpful (or at least, insightful) when I ultimately encounter that piece of the repertoire.

Currently, I am preparing for a July 2 recital that is scheduled to showcase patriotic music for flute, soprano, and piano. The first work that I will examine is Charles Ives' Variations on "America," arranged for flute and piano by Daniel Dorff. As an additional help, I have found a single recording of this arrangement by Pam Youngblood, flute, and Gabriel Bita, piano, that appears to have been released on May 25 of this year.

The Variations were composed in 1892 for organ solo. They were premiered that same year by Ives at the Methodist Church in Brewster, New York. It seems that many of the variations were improvised at that time (as opposed to being completed) and were subject to the approval of the young composer's father. At that first premiere, the polonaise--which was re-inserted as variation IV--was considered inappropriate. The Variations on "America" would ultimately be orchestrated by William Schuman.

The organ composition is interesting because it contains some of the earliest examples of Ives' use of bitonality. The brief forays into bitonality appear as interludes that separate variations II and III and the final two variations. These brief interludes were added to the composition in 1909-10.

The work maintains some of its viability in its original form because it is the only major work for organ by Ives. Despite its historical importance, the important sonorities of the organ's registrations are lost in Dorff's arrangement and make the work rather dull in my opinion.

Regardless of my feelings about the piece, I will be performing it in just over a month, so let's take a look at some of the challenges. First is the question of key. I have not yet obtained a score of the organ solo, so I cannot verify this statement at this time, but let me share with you what my research suggests thus far. Several examinations of the interludes have been located that discuss the use of the keys of F major and Db major in Interlude I followed by Ab major and F major in Interlude II. Dorff's arrangement places both interludes a whole step higher. I question the necessity of this, especially in consideration of the impact that the new tonal areas will have upon the technical aspects of the keyboard part. (As a side note, Dorff's instruments are saxophone and clarinet.)

Both of the bitonal interludes are presented by piano alone. In the original organ setting, the use of contrasting manual stops for each key area allows the passages to be played effectively without forcing the audience to question the performer's ability to play! Dorff's suggestion is to play the right hand fortissimo while playing the left hand pianissimo. While this does lessen the offensive sounds, it also makes the bitonality merely an academic endeavor rather than an aural experience.

Lastly, I take issue with Dorff's metronome markings. When compared to the Youngblood/Bita recording as well as recordings of the organ solo and orchestrated versions housed at, Mr. Dorff's suggested tempi appear to be a bit extreme. For example, Dorff marks the allegro of variation V as dotted quarter note = 112 (noting that the allegro is in 3/4). Ives' marking at this point in the original composition suggests his intentions: "as fast as the pedals can go." Such comments clearly suggest that Ives preferred clarity over speed.

I am intrigued by the organ solo, but hope to never see the flute arrangement again after the July 2 recital. Based upon my time spent with the piece and listening to the available recording, I find it an ineffective arrangement with few redeeming qualities outside of variation IV (the polonaise).

If I come up with any new (and interesting) insights as I continue to work through it, I'll be sure to pass it on.