Louisa May Alcott in classical music

The American author appears in Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata

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Little Women is one of the most famous works of American literature, and its author was immortalised in music by fellow East-coaster, Charles Ives.

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Louisa May Alcott and her father Amos Bronson Alcott are depicted in the beautiful slow movement of the Concord Sonata, for solo piano. Each of the piece’s four movements depicts one, or two in the case of the Alcotts, of the famous writers who clustered in the small Massachusetts town of Concord: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Amos Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau.

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‘Some nice people object to putting attempted pictures of American authors and their literature in a thing called a sonata, but I don’t apologise for it or explain it. I tried it because I felt like trying [it] and so, Good night shirt!’ said Ives, of his unusual decision to write a programmatic sonata inspired by real authors.

What did Ives describe the Alcotts?

While the other three male authors are remembered today, Amos Bronson Alcott was, Ives noted, a better conversationalist than writer. It was his daughter, Louisa May, who found fame and fortune – and the pair are both portrayed in a movement that is in many ways the emotional heart of this sonata.

Ives described Amos Bronson as ‘an exuberant, irrepressible, visionary absorbed with philosophy’, who spoke with a ‘hypnotic mellifluous effect’.

Louisa May, he noted, ‘supported the family and at the same time enriched the lives of a large part of young America, starting off many little minds with wholesome thoughts and many little hearts with wholesome emotions. She leaves memory-word-pictures of healthy, New England childhood days,—pictures which are turned to with affection by middle-aged children,—pictures, that bear a sentiment, a leaven, that middle-aged America needs nowadays more than we care to admit.’

How did he depict them in music?

If the other three movements display a typically Ivesian love of discords, note clusters and experimentalism, as well as popular marches and hymn tunes, ‘The Alcotts’ is infused with, at first, serenity, and then a fierce sense of hope.

It’s in this third movement, too, that the thematic ideas set up at the start finally flourish, in a melody the composer dubbed ‘Human Faith’. The opening motif from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounds throughout the sonata, and the quotation returns at this musical culmination.

‘All around you, under the Concord sky, there still floats the influence of that human-faith-melody – transcendent and sentimental enough for the enthusiast or the cynic respectively – reflecting an innate hope – a common interest in common things and common men – a tune the Concord bards are ever playing, while they pound away at the immensities with a Beethoven-like sumblimity,’ wrote Ives.

When was the Concord Sonata published?

Ives first self-published the Sonata in 1920, along with an accompanying book Essays Before a Sonata. He later heavily revised the piece, publishing this later version in 1947. And in 1996, composer Henry Brant transformed the piece into a fully-blown orchestral work, A Concord Symphony.

This Sonata wasn’t the first time that Ives, whose music is deeply rooted in his home county, its landscape, sounds and communities, had been inspired by the Alcotts. He had previously made a sketch for an overture about the Orchard House, where Louisa May grew up.

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