Psalm 90 (1923)
“[Psalm 90] previews all the compositional effects and devices that composers used in the century that followed it. Although it was written in the early 1920s, Ives was already sketching things like bi-tonality in the 19th century.”
— Julian Wachner
“Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.”
— Charles Ives
Charles Ives — organist, insurance executive, composer — is unlike anyone in American music. Born and raised in Danbury, Conn., he grew up with a variety of musical traditions — New England Protestant hymnody, military-style marching bands, Stephen Foster-style parlor music, his father’s work as bandleader and organist, and parental encouragement for unorthodox musical experimentation. As a child, he was fascinated by the sound of different bands performing at the same time in different parts of the Danbury town square — in different keys and rhythms and at different tempi.
Team captain and pitcher, left, for Hopkins Grammar School
Undergraduate at Yale
He was 14 years old when he took his first church organist job, a calling he would continue as he moved from Danbury to New Haven (Yale) and to New York. One of his best-known works, Variations on “America” for organ, appeared when he was 18, written for a Fourth of July concert. He was an athlete, pitching in prep school and playing varsity football at Yale, but spent so much of his time composing and studying music that his football coach complained. He wrote his Symphony No. 1 as a senior thesis at Yale.
Ives earned his living in the insurance industry, but he remained a prolific composer for choral and instrumental ensembles into the early 1920s even though much of his music was ignored until late in his life. He did have his admirers, including Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and Aaron Copland, and later champions Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, Lou Harrison, and others.
This is the Providence Singers’ third performance of Psalm 90, though the first in more than a decade. The work sounds “crunchy” and new almost a century after its creation. (Ives famously misdated and revised many of his creations. Psalm 90, nominally completed in 1923 — or 1924 — was likely well underway at the turn of the century. An earlier version, left at Central Presbyterian Church when Ives resigned as organist in 1902, was lost when the church later moved.)
The work begins with a low-C pedal point in the organ, which continues throughout, and a series of long chords above. Ives labels these chords in the score: “The Eternities,” “Creation,” “God’s Wrath Against Sin,” “Prayer and Humility,” and “Rejoicing in Beauty and Work.” Although no audience will hear those labels, the chords signal a bit of what is to come — two bits especially: Verse nine, “God’s Wrath,” and verse 17, “Rejoicing in Beauty and Work.”
Ives treats verse nine — the textual center of the 17-verse psalm — as a palindrome. The chorus begins on a unison C. At the direction of the conductor, the voices begin to move in whole-step scale degrees, sopranos and altos upward, tenors and basses downward. A few men’s and women’s voices hold each new note as the other voices continue their journey, all arriving at a massively dissonant, fortissimo, forearm-on-the-keyboard, 22-voice SATB tonal cluster on the words “our days are passed away in thy wrath” — which then unwinds stepwise at the conductor’s direction back to a forte unison C on the text “we spend our years as a tale that is told.”
After 16 verses of struggle and dissonance, verse 17 concludes the piece on a sublimely restful musical and textual note. Ives instructs the organ to use “Salicional only,” a soft flute-like sound. Tubular bells and a low gong have returned (Ives instructs the bells to sound “As church bells, in distance”), and the chorus slowly sings the text, “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” The work ends at the softest pianissimo. Psalm 90 is said to be the only work with which Ives was completely satisfied.
A final aside about Charles Ives, the insurance executive. After graduating from Yale, Ives worked as an actuary for the Mutual Life Insurance company of New York, moved to Charles H. Raymond & Co., and then, after 1907, founded the insurance agency Ives & Myrick with his friend Julian Myrick. He was a creative force in the life insurance world as well, figuring out a way for people of means to use life insurance as a tactic in managing the inheritance tax, a foundation of what is now estate planning. He literally wrote the book on that strategy: Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax, published in 1918.
1 Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place from one generation to another.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
3 Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, “Return, ye children of men.”
4 For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
5 Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
6 In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
7 For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
8 Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
9 For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.
12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
13 Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.
14 O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.
16 Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.
17 And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. Amen.