A guide to Ives’s Symphony No. 2

We take a look at the American composer Ives’s second symphony

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American composer Charles Ives began work on his Second Symphony in 1897, shortly after graduating from Yale University. Ives later referred to it as one of his ‘soft’ pieces, as it lacks some of the dissonances that appear in his later works.

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Within it, he alludes to American tunes such as ‘Camptown Races’, a feature of much of his compositional output. The piece also references western classical music, including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and a motif from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The Second Symphony was well received by audiences at its belated 1951 Carnegie Hall premiere, despite being allegedly met with ambivalence by Ives himself, who failed to attend the concert and instead listened back to a recording of the performance on the radio.

Bernstein, who conducted the New York Philharmonic in the piece’s premiere, made significant changes including a substantial cut to the finale, adjustments to the instrumentation, harmonic resolution and tempo indications.

The symphony’s first studio recording was made two years later by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Frederick Charles Adler. Bernstein returned to Ives’s Second Symphony in a recording in 1958.

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