Ives's Prophetic Music, Post-9/11

By James David Jacobs

Sept. 9

On Friday, September 14, 2001, I was one of around two thousand people who gathered in New York City’s Union Square to hold a vigil for the victims of the preceding Tuesday’s terrorist attacks. Many of the people were standing in a semi-circle on the low steps facing 14th Street, looking as if they could be members of a choir.

They were all singing different songs, however, and it seemed as if about half of them were holding candles singing "Give Peace a Chance" while the other half were waving flags and singing "God Bless America". Seeing and hearing these people all passionately holding their respective melodies as they tried to out-sing each other, I had a startling revelation: So THIS is what Charles Ives was getting at.

Public responses to 9/11 at Union Square, New York, Sept. 22, 2001 (source:  AP)

As a child, Ives’s father, a marching band director, would amuse young Charles by dividing his band in two and having them enter the field from opposite directions, playing two different tunes in two different keys. Ives later incorporated this kind of juxtaposition into his compositions, frequently for the purpose of illustrating a scene from a New England village during a holiday. In one work, however, he uses the technique to illustrate a scene that eerily foreshadows the atmosphere in New York ten years ago.

On Friday, May 7, 1915, at 9:30 AM EST, German U-boats torpedoed the ocean liner Lusitania, killing some 1,200 people and pulling the United States into World War I. Thanks to radio and wire services, most Americans knew about the tragedy by the time of their evening commute home from work. Charles Ives was one of them. His insurance firm, Ives & Myrick, had its offices at 38 Nassau Street (just a few blocks from what would become the World Trade Center site).

The full title of third movement of Ives’s Second Orchestral Set is "From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose." Ives considered this one of his best works, and wrote the following about it:

We were living in an apartment at 27 West 11th Street. The morning paper on the breakfast table gave the news of the sinking of the Lusitania. I remember, going downtown to business, the people on the streets and on the elevated train had something in their faces that was not the usual something. Everybody who came into the office, whether they spoke about the disaster or not, showed a realization of seriously experiencing something. (That it meant war is what the faces said, if the tongues didn't.) Leaving the office and going uptown about 6 o'clock, I took the Third Avenue "L" at the Hanover Square Station [Stone and Pearl Streets, just south of Wall Street]. As I came on the platform, there was quite a crowd waiting for the trains, which had been blocked lower down, and while waiting there, a hand-organ, or hurdy gurdy was playing on a street below. Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain. A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn't seem to be singing for fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long. There was a feeling of dignity all through this. The hand-organ man seemed to sense this and wheeled the organ nearer the platform and kept it up fortissimo (and the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it). Then the first train came and everybody crowded in, and the song eventually died out, but the effect on the crowd still showed. Almost nobody talked-the people acted as though they might be coming out of a church service. In going uptown, occasionally little groups of would start singing or humming the tune.

Now what was the tune? It wasn't a Broadway hit, it wasn't a musical comedy air, it wasn't a waltz tune or a dance tune or an opera tune or a classical tune, or a tune that all of them probably knew. It was(only)the refrain of an old Gospel Hymn that had stirred many people of past generations. It was nothing but -'In the Sweet Bye and Bye.' It wasn't a tune written to be sold, or written by a professor of music - but by a man who was but giving out an experience.

This third movement is based on this, fundamentally, and comes from that ‘L’ station. It has secondary themes and rhythms, but widely related, and its general makeup would reflect the sense of many people living, working, and occasionally going through the same deep experience, together.

It's a piece of music that speaks to the human spirit as we remember the tragic events of ten years ago.


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