Music Made From Memories Charles Ives' Holiday Symphony


“The way I’m constituted,” Ives once said, “ writing soft stuff makes me sore—I sort of hate all music.”


When the piece actually made its way to performance, Ives reports, it didn’t fare much better:

Arthur Bodansky

“‘The Decoration Day’ score was played (or rather "played at") by the National Symphony Orchestra, which had offered to give an invitation rehearsal-concert playing American manuscript compositions. This took place at Carnegie Hall in the spring of 1920. Mr. Bodansky was the conductor of the orchestra, but did not conduct this piece, and I don’t think that he saw the score. It was picked out by a committee of the orchestra, but I don’t know who they were. I’m pretty certain that, had Mr. Bodansky seen the score, it would not have been played. At the concert, Mr. Bodansky’s head was sitting right in front of us. He looked as though he didn’t know what it was all about (that is, the music), and always smiled at the wrong time.”

Ives’s experiments in ‘Decoration’ Day set off some explosive reactions, even among the musicians who attempted to perform his pieces. Typical was that of Paul Eisler, Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, as we see in a letter he wrote to Ives in 1920:

Charles Ives

“After reading over your score carefully, I have come to the conclusion that it is absolutely impossible for us to play this composition at our rehearsal, as it is much too difficult to read at sight, and inasmuch as the time limit for our rehearsal period would not allow more than a reading. I trust, however, that the opportunity for us to play it will present itself in the future.”

There were some, however, who understood and appreciated what Ives was trying to do. Stravinsky, for one, really loved the piece:


“‘Decoration Day’ is a masterpiece, with an ending that is the loneliest and one of the most touching I know of.”

What's Your Reaction?

Ives’s shadow instruments add another layer of complexity to an otherwise complicated score. How effective are they? Do you think they enhance the scenes Ives is trying to memorialize?
Anthony (not verified)
March 5, 2011
The Decoration Day movement of Charles Ives' Holidays Symphony is one of the most moving pieces of music anybody will ever write. It doesn't exactly have the heart-on-sleeve character of Barber's Adagio, as it is more subtle, but has extreme power nonetheless. In its ability to express sorrow with or without redemption, I would say it ranks up there with: Shostakovich's Fourth and Fifth Symphonies Adams' On the Transmigration of the Soul and his operas (yes, ALL of them.) David Diamond's Elegy in Memory for Maurice Ravel Frank Ticheli's Sanctuary (for wind ensemble) Karel Husa's Music for Prague (1968) and Apotheosis of this Earth (Apotheosis feels like there's a humongous weight on your chest in the first movement, profoundly moving in power. The second movement is comparable to A Survivor from Warsaw, by Schoenberg). Mahler's Sixth Symphony Alban Berg's Violin Concerto and Lyric Suite These are all pieces I can't help crying with sorrow at times when listening to. And yet, there is a sort of small hope, that, despite all of it, we will get through, a trait not found in Shostakovich's Fourth, Mahler's Sixth, or Diamond's Elegy.
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