Charles Ives, said Stravinsky, "quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before anyone else had even found a seat at the same table." True to form, Ives's spirited violin sonatas, written between 1903 and 1916, seem to prefigure specific musical developments up to and including contemporary polystylism, even as they bear anecdotal witness to the sounds of rural Connecticut of the late 19th century and comment, often laconically, on the concert music of Ives's day. As Giselher Schubert writes in his liner notes to this CD : "The Sonatas are capable of adopting the character of purely 'late Romantic' music, of anticipating the neo-classicism of the twenties, or portraying a disreputable march or ragtime tune, of taking up the style of wild fiddling familiar from American folk music, of masquerading as simple, naive songs without words, or of ascending into the ethere *al spheres of church music."
Ives completed only four violin sonatas although fragments of others remain, including the withdrawn sonata of 1901 that Henry Cowell called, somewhat confusingly from posterity's perspective, the Pre-First Sonata and from which material was taken and redistributed through the two sonatas that followed. Moreover, thematic-motivic material is linked through all the sonatas. The best account of the genesis of these works is to be found in Ives's Memos, splendidly candid because, as Ives scholar and pianist John Kirkpatrick has noted, the composer was not dictating for publication but to "get things off his chest."
The era of the violin sonatas was a complicated period in Ives's never-straightforward biography: the composer was leading, at least, a double life. His insurance business flourished - Ives & Myrick outdistanced all competitors, in 1909 even opening a school for insurance agents. By day Ives penned instructional materials for his teams of budding salesmen, by nigh ˜t he wrote music that almost no one wanted to hear. This took a toll on his health and in 1906 there were early intimations of serious heart illness. Mounting stress on all fronts was counterbalanced by courtship and finally marriage of Harmony Twichell, his partner and muse.
Meanwhile, experts continued to assure him that his compositions were both unplayable and unpalatable. Ives's Memos detail a disastrous encounter with a German violinist, invited to play through the early violin sonatas and unable to get beyond the opening page of the first. "I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears!" Ives: "I began to feel that if I wanted to write music that seemed to me worthwhile I must stay away from musicians." The third violin sonata, as if reeling in shock from Ives's collision with the "hardboiled, narrow-minded, conceited prima donna violinist" looked back to old Camp Meeting and ragtime pieces for security and although the composer used these imaginatively he feared the themes may have repre sented too many concessions "to the soft ears." Lack of dependable instrumentalists to play his pieces prompted Ives to draft his fourth sonata as a piece that his nephew, 12-year old Moss White, might be able to play. This too was wishful thinking. Unable to keep to his own game plan, Ives drifted far away from it in the second movement (which neither Moss nor his teacher Clarence Nowlan - personally tutored by Ives's father - could master). The work is one of those Ivesian compositions soaked in memory, of hymns and spirituals sung down by the river in Brook side Park, of the marching bands led by George Ives...and its good humour is also tinted with regret. As Stuart Feder points out in his "psycho-analytic biography" of Ives, My Father's Song, "Music itself may be the mo Ære intimately related to mourning and hence to acts of remembrance, since of all the arts it is, par excellence, the art of time." Ives the innovator and Ives the chronicler are both well-represented in the music of the Sonatas for Violin and Piano.