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Song-Collection In Flanders Fields

by Charles Edwards Ives, 1874-1954

The song In Flanders Fields was Ives's response to the entry of American forces into World War I. While the socially conscious Ives had been steadfastly against the war, the participation of the United States in the war, following President Woodrow Wilson's insistence that "the world must be made safe for democracy," and calling for the establishment of a world "league of peace" turned Ives into a supporter of the war nearly overnight. He donated funds and even volunteered to drive an ambulance on French battlefields for six months (a duty for which he was apparently not accepted).

Despite Ive's support of the war, In Flanders Fields depicts the conflicting emotions of patriotism and tragedy associated with armed struggle. The unrelieved sequence of dissonant intervals of the seventh as well as the octaves played in the low range of the piano with which the work begins establishes at once the work's ominous tone. While heroic elements are introduced which resemble the patterns and simple harmonies of hymn tunes -- even fragmentary references to America, La Marseillaise, and The Battle Cry of Freedom may be heard -- the persistent dark, percussive chords in the bass which permeate so much of the work are all that remain at its conclusion, reiterated more and more softly, like the solitary beat of a drum (or perhaps the strumming of a celestial harp?) steadily moving farther off into the distance, underscoring the tragic loss of so many lives as the price paid in war.

The première perfomance of In Flanders Fields was as non-traditional as Ives's music itself, taking place during a luncheon held at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on April 15, 1917 for insurance company managers (one of whom was, of course, Ives himself). At the suggestion of Ives's business partner Julian "Mike" Myrick, Ives composed a song based on the poem "In Flanders Fields" written by John McCrae, a Canadian army doctor and medical examiner at Mutual Insurance and published in Punch magazine (December 1915). It was also Myrick who suggested a performance of the song at the managers' luncheon. The idea of a collaborative creative effort between two insurance men apparently appealed to Ives, as did the fact that the occasion would represent a rare instance of a public performance of his work, so Ives consented to Myrick's plan. While representing one of Ives's more approachable works, and despite its patriotic rhetoric (it was composed and performed, after all, only days after America entered the war), the song was nevertheless "challenging for ears of the time," writes Ives biographer Jan Swafford. The complexity of the song was also not supported by its apparently substandard performance on this occasion, which proved to be a great disappointment to the composer. "[D]espite [Ives's] coaching neither singer nor pianist was up to [the performance]. Likely an embarrassed time was had by all."

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