My Father Knew Charles Ives

for orchestra (2003)

John Adams on My Father Knew Charles Ives

The title, My Father Knew Charles Ives, may have been unconsicously suggested by that of a Morton Feldman of similarly challenged authenticity, I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenberg. Carl Adams, my Massachusetts-born father, did not in fact know Charles Ives. But for a few years and only a little distance to the north, the two yankees might well have met, and it’s not unlikely that they would have become good friends. Both were businessmen by day and artists by night. I imagine them exchanging a wry comment in front of the town post office, or, rake in hand, lending each other some help after the first October frost.

Like Ives, I grew up in rural New England, in Woodstock, Vermont and East Concord, New Hampshire. The young Charlie Ives received his first musical training from his bandmaster father, George Edward Ives. My first lessons on the clarinet were with my father, and together we played in marching bands during the summers and in community orchestras during the winter months. I grew up listening to both classical and popular music with little prejudice toward the one at the expense of the other. Although it was surely from my singing actress mother that I inherited most of my talent, my father’s patient and analytic approach to teaching gave me the security of a sound musicianship.

My father, like Ives, was drawn to the contemplative philosophy of the New England trancendentalists, particularly Thoreau, whose modesty, economy and fierce independence he admired, even when he could not always emulate it. Both fathers seem to have shared a certain dreaminess that expressed itself in speculating about art and, in the case of Carl Adams, took the form of several failed attempts to establish himself as a painter after an some earlier experience playing jazz clarinet and saxophone.

Ives’s music, for all its daring experiments in rhythm and polyphony, always mixed the sublime with the vulgar and sentimental, and he did so with a freedom and insouciance that could only be done by an American. This has always been a model for me, even though I have to candidly admit that many, if not most, Ives compositions present frustrating formal and technical problems that I cannot always resolve, even in repeated listenings.

My Father Knew Charles Ives is musical autobiography, an homage and encomium to a composer whose influence on me has been huge. Here are three more “places” in New England. My “Concord”, however, is Concord, New Hampshire, eighty miles to the north of the Concord of Ives’s epic piano sonata. And my “Mountain” must also include the beloved West Coast Sierras of my adult life.

“Concord” begins with the hazy stillness of a summer morning. A scrim of sustained harmonies in the strings is gently ruffled by the soft pecking and clucking of woodwinds, harps and keyboards. A distant trumpet floats in the air, intoning a long, meditative melody—the totemic Ivesian image, the unanswered and unanswerable “question” that is to Americans what the four-note tatoo of Beethoven’s Fifth is to the Old World.

The atmosphere begins to clear and movement stirs. Time to get ready for the parade, and Nevers Second Regiment Band, with whom I marched on summer days with my father, is playing. A note in the score stands like a sign on Main Street: “Parade Starts Here.” But first a clarinet lesson and a chance to play a little woodwind ditty by Beethoven in the front room.

March tempo announces itself and the familiar cadences kick in. Not to worry about the snatches of melody. They are as fictive as the title itself. As with the gaudy “ur-melody” in Grand Pianola Music, you’re certain you’ve heard this music before, but you are damned if you can identify it. Only a smirk from trumpets playing “Reveille” and, in the coda, a hint of Ives’s beloved “Nearer My God to Thee” are the genuine article.

“The Lake” is summer nocturne. Over the gently lapping sounds of the water distant lights glimmer and mosquitos hover. The Mount Washington, an old mailboat, emits a few lazy groans from its horn, prelude to a long, shakuhachi-like melody for the oboe. Far across the water the distant sound of a dance band floats off the dance hall pavilion, the Winnipesaukee Gardens owned and operated by my mother’s stepfather. It was here that my father, playing clarinet in a visiting swing band, met my mother in the summer of 1935. I still have a picture of him sitting with the band, Ed Murphy’s  Orchestra, wearing white shoes and holding his clarinet in a relaxed pose.

The distant trumpet returns at the start of “The Mountain.” Mountains are mysterious archetypes for me, as they surely were for Ives. In his second string quartet, several men have a conversation that turns to a heated argument, and then go out into the night air and walk up a small mountain to view the firmament above. From behind my house in central New Hampshire I could look across the expanse of the Merrimac River valley and see looming in the distance Mount Kearsarge, part of the Appalachian chain. The crooked profile of that mountain commanded not only my view by also my adolescent mythic imagination.

What begins in “The Mountain” as a distant reverie grows into a gigantic mass, an implacable wall of granite. From its crushing weight a pulse emerges, an insistant trochee, charging headlong in a series of vigorous upward ascents. Over a landscape of undulating harmonic regions, much more Adamsian than Ivesian, the upward movement forges ahead until suddenly and without warning the summit has been gained. Many years after the excursions of my own boyhood I ventured a hike up a much higher California peak with my son, Sam. There, on a July afternoon, the struggle of the final ascent ended abruptly as we came over a rock-strewn knoll to see the mythic, snow-capped peak of Mount Shasta shimmering in the light summer haze, an image of serene majesty and majestic serenity. “The Mountain” ends with such a surprise, a moment of sudden, unexpected astonishment after a hard-won rush to the top.


30 April San Francisco (world premiere)

1/2 May San Francisco

8 May Dublin (European premiere)

9 May Barbican, London

11 May Brighton Festival

13 May Brussels

16 May Düsseldorf

18 May Cologne

21 May Konzerthaus, Vienna

24 May Prague Spring Festival

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Commissioned by The San Francisco Symphony

First performance:
April 20, 2003 Davies Hall, San Francisco
by The San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

I. Concord
II. The Lake
III. The Mountain

Orchestra: piccolo, 3 flutes (3=picc), 3 oboes, English horn; Eb clarinet (=Bb clar 3), 2 clarinets in Bb, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 4 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, 4 percussion* piano, harp, strings (16-14-10-10-8)

* (4 percussion): crotales, glockenspiel, cowbell, xylophone, marimba, snare drum, small suspended cymbal, low suspended cymbal, 2 low toms, vibraphone, almglocken, 3 high, triangles, chimes, crash cymbals, bass drum, 2 bowl gongs, tuned low gongs (D2, D#2, F2, B2, C3, C#3), tam tam

Published by Hendon Music (Boosey & Hawkes)

Duration: 28 minutes



BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams, conductor (Nonesuch 79857-2)

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