Ives – Symphony No. 3 “The Camp Meeting”

by Max Derrickson

Charles Ives   (b Danbury, CT, 20 October, 1874; dNew York, 19 May, 1954)


Symphony No. 3 “The Camp Meeting”

  1. Old Folks Gatherin’: Andante maestoso
  2. Children’s Day: Allegro
  3. Communion:Largo


On any given day or night, you can walk out into your backyard and listen.  You will hear something, in fact, many things, and your head will fill with thoughts as the sounds of the day sift through the air.  Your heart will feel emotions, memories will flood in, and all the while music and sounds of all sorts, the ongoing sounds of the universe around you, will accompany your reverie.  Charles Ives understood this as a fact of human existence, and cherished it in all its transcendental beauty.  His music strove to capture what sound meant to the human existence.  As an American, New Englander, and church musician at the turn of the 20th Century, old folk tunes, church and patriotic hymns played an important role in his life, as did the religious customs of his time.  If one could capture in sound a moment in a church pew in Danbury, CT on a summer Sunday morning, doors wide open to the pedestrian traffic outside, while one’s mind contemplates the poetry of Emerson and Hawthorne, during the minister’s plea for their soul and a fine hymn belting out of the organ, it was Ives.  The sound captured would be chaotic, but, in a greater sense, the beautiful fabric of living and being present.  Said Ives, “the fabric of existence weaves itself whole . . . There can be nothing exclusive about substantial art.  It comes directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life.”

[. . .]

The theme of the camp meeting in the Third Symphony was dear to Ives from his childhood days.  His father occasionally led choirs during those special religious services with young Charlie in tow.  Camp meetings were holdovers from the frontier days, and they held special meaning to its pilgrims; the journey was often laborious, and their occurrence rare.  The devout had few chances on the frontier for fellowship and communal worship, and the meetings were always highly spiritually charged.  In Ives’ day, their spiritual significance still remained.  In capturing the gravity of the meetings, Ives begins the symphony with a ponderousness — old Christian folks have traveled a long and arduous road, and are arriving at camp with their bodies tired but their hearts expectant.


To convey the scene and emotion, Ives selects three hymn tunes for the first movement as his main themes – Azmon, Erie and Woodworth (otherwise known by their textual counterparts respectively as O For a Thousand Tongues We Sing, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Just As I Am [Without a Plea]).   Azmon is heard almost immediately in the lugubrious and somber beginning, but only in fragment.  As the first section builds, more of the tune is heard, as fragments of Erie and Woodworth make their entrance.   Termed as “cumulative setting,” the familiar tunes, either in whole or fragments, are intertwined, modifications of them are made as counter-subjects, and any or all variations can play at once.  Ives also uses his surprisingly curious technique known as “shadow lines” — very soft, short phrases played by one or two instruments,    [. . .]


The second movement’s, Children’s Day, main themes are Fountain (There is a Fountain Filled with Blood) and Happy Land (There is a Happy Land), but with plenty of other hymn fragments, especially Erie.    [. . .]


The third movement, Communion, uses mainly Woodworth as the campers fulfill the most important part of the services.  The tenor of this final movement is quite reminiscent of the first, [. . .]


It’s interesting that with Ives’ intense devotion and study of music through his college years he had probably never intended to make a living with it.  Instead he turned to the fairly new business of Life Insurance, and he distinguished himself in the field, by writing some of the groundbreaking sales tracts that forged the door-to-door sales industry (some may recall his pamphlet “The Amount to Carry”), and eventually becoming senior partner of his own Insurance business.       [. . .]