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Sports Were Music to His Ears
Jay Feldman
October 07, 1991
The American composer Charles Ives was as much a fan of baseball as he was of Beethoven or Bach
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October 07, 1991

Sports Were Music To His Ears

The American composer Charles Ives was as much a fan of baseball as he was of Beethoven or Bach

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Charles Ives was unquestionably an American original. Born in Danbury, Conn., on Oct. 20, 1874, Ives was a ninth-generation New Englander who redefined the boundaries of American music. "Charles Ives, quite individually and brilliantly turned the corner from European romanticism, which he had learned quite well, and translated it into something distinctly American," says James Sinclair, conductor of Orchestra New England and Executive Editor of the Charles Ives Society. "He then went beyond and invented a whole new way of using music to represent America's spirit and to capture American history, people and events. He freed himself from simple symphonic forms and accompanimental ideas and, by 'layering,' let music imitate life in the multitude of things that can happen at once."

Beyond all that technical stuff, Ives was a big sports fan. And among the quintessentially American activities he depicted in music were sporting events.

As a youngster, Ives was gifted at both sports and music. Often, when people who had heard of his musical talent asked him what he played, he answered "shortstop." In 1889, he pitched for the Danbury Alerts, a town-league team. Three years later he was captain of a combined Danbury High-Danbury Academy football team. At Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, where Ives was sent in 1893 to prepare for Yale, he played tennis as well. The highlight of his Hopkins athletic career came in the spring of '94, when he pitched the baseball team to victory over Yale's freshman nine.

At Yale, Ives played intramural ball. In 1898, he was on the senior-class football team and rowed with the class crew.

He had not, however, forsaken music. While at Yale, he frequently entertained himself and his friends with piano improvisations that he called take-offs or stunts. In these, Ives experimented at the keyboard, often in a humorous vein, taking for his subject matter the daily events of college life. A decade later, he used his stunting techniques in creating several pieces of music that were inspired by athletics.

Probably the best known of Ives's four baseball compositions is All the Way Around and Back, a scherzo for piano (four hands), violin, clarinet, trumpet (or bugle) and bells (or French horn). Ives wrote in Memos, a book about his music, that the piece depicts "in sounds and rhythms, a very common thing in a back lot—a foul ball—and the base runner on 3rd has to go all the way back to 1st." All the Way Around and Back, which was composed sometime before 1908, is simultaneously an elaborate technical exercise and a musical joke. It grows in complexity for 17 measures, after which there is a note-for-note turnaround that winds back to the beginning.

In two 1907 orchestral sketches, Giants vs. Cubs and Willy [sic) Keeler at the bat, Ives whimsically depicts action involving popular big league ballplayers of the day. Although the two pieces survive only as fragments, they were performed by several members of Orchestra New England, joined by the Paul Winter Consort, at a 1974 centenary event that was held on the lawn outside Ives's former home in West Redding, Conn.

In what remains of Giants vs. Cubs, Ives pits Chicago second baseman Johnny Evers against Giants centerfielder "Turkey Mike" Donlin. Scrawled in pencil on Ives's original sketch is: "NY, Aug. 1907, Polo Grounds. (A) 1st Mike Jaunts out to C. F, Johnny at Bat, (B) Johnny at bat HITS OVER MIKE'S HEAD. Johnny comes Marching (sliding) Home Sale."

After two introductory measures that accompany Donlin's jog to centerfield, the pitcher delivers the ball—a glide down the strings by the violins. The umpire (trumpet) barks out the call ("Ball," writes Ives). On the next pitch, the trumpet calls a strike. After, five pitches the count is full. All of this drama is spelled out in the margin notes. Regarding the payoff pitch, Ives writes "Hit" on a musical rest. In the '74 performance, the hit was conveyed by the sound of a baseball bat striking a two-by-four.

"Mike running in CF," read the margin notes, as the woodwinds and violins begin a chromatic scale, first climbing 2� octaves, then coming back down. The scale represents the are of the ball as it sails over Donlin's head. Meanwhile, the cornet—"Johnny running around Bases," according to Ives—takes flight. At the same time, Ives calls forth the theme of When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again. As the page ends, the margin notes read: "Johnny in a slide, Home Run, great excitement, all fiddles roll up and down, scratch." Whatever other musical action occurred between the Giants and the Cubs is forever lost.

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