(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)
And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.
The woman, quietly concentrating on her knitting by the fireplace in a living room more elegant than plain, was of an age no longer young but neither on the verge of being dismissed as old, herself more elegant than plain. Clearly she was a beauty, once, and she'd be beautiful still if the culture would admit to that. Tall and poised, she was thin enough to be considered slender when most women her age tended toward the matronly, her hair piled up in a careful mound more gray than dark. At the same time, she was aware of various odd discords and strange rhythms emanating from an invisible piano somewhere upstairs, sounds creating a dissonance with the style of the furnishings and one which might have prompted a visitor happening upon the scene to think a child was banging away merely to enjoy the noise. The hallway where we stood, facing a set of steps leading to an upstairs lost in the late-afternoon shadows, was a narrow-enough affair, a vestibule helping to block out the day's chill and noise from the street, though by modern standards, it was certainly quieter than I'd expect for a large city. Before us, a coat rack hung to overflowing with heavy coats and scarves nearly blocked the view that led toward other rooms further back that at this point I could only guess at – dining room, kitchen.
When we arrived, the Kapellmeister and I, it wasn't so clear in my mind about that “when” since we stood before an old brownstone mansion, fairly timeless like most of Manhattan, and judging from the few cars on the street, sometime before the 1930s, though I'd never paid much attention to details about cars, their makes and models. It was old enough to be “before my time” yet modern enough to be an improvement on our latest jaunt to Boston assuming history advances and society evolves with technological progression. Once I'd given up arguing with him, there was little chance for him to explain anything before we saw a man approaching us who clearly thought we were lost and needed help.
“We're looking for the home of the composer, Charles Ives, and I suspect,” my companion said, gesturing toward the steps, “we've found it.”
Two children wrapped in warm-looking coats with long colorful scarves and matching mittens came running up behind the man, excited after their outing, and stopped suddenly at the sight of two coatless strangers barring their way, their gentle laughter coming to a halt more out of curiosity than fear.
“Then you are in luck,” the man said, holding out his hand, and introduced himself as Dashiell Belcher Quigg, a friend of the family, and the children as his son Edward and the daughter of Mr and Mrs Ives, Edith.
“Belcher,” I thought, my eyebrows arching as I glanced at the Kapellmeister, “this is no coincidence we arrive at Charles Ives' house the same moment as a man who's middle name is Belcher.” The Kapellmeister, meanwhile, put away the silvery pen he called his “tonic screwdriver” and shook the gentleman's hand, nodding at the children.
“Aren't you cold?” asked young Edward, following us to the front door. His father, also warmly dressed and far more suitably for such a winter's day than we were, apologized for his son's rudeness.
“We've just come from the park,” he explained, gesturing back toward Central Park, “where it was much windier than we'd expected.”
“Well, I can't wait to sit in front of the fire,” Edith said, “my fingers are bone-cold frozen!”
And with that, they burst into the living room, disturbing the woman who'd been patiently knitting.
“Ah, Dash,” the woman said, putting her knitting aside, and rose to greet them, giving the children a hug before eying us with some concern. We could hear the piano in the distance which I assumed meant Charles Ives, one of the greatest, if not most innovative of American composers, was somewhere hard at work.
When Mr Quigg introduced us, the woman – who was Harmony Twichell Ives, the composer's wife – said without fuss or further explanation her husband was busy, pointing toward the ceiling, and could not be disturbed.
“He's not been well, lately,” Mr Quigg explained as Mrs Ives helped the children out of their coats, “but he has been working hard today, it seems, and that must be a good sign.”
“Come, children,” Mrs Ives said, nodding at us, “let's go into the kitchen and I'll make you some nice hot chocolate.”
|Mrs Ives with daughter Edith (1915)|
“Charlie doesn't usually work this late into the afternoon,” he resumed. “By now, I would find him sitting here with Harmony reading to him.” He picked up a book on the table by the window. “Ah, Dickens, today – Hard Times, not one of my favorites.”
He wondered what our business was with Mr Ives who, Mr Quigg said, was not used to visitors and rarely expected or enjoyed them, even, at times, old friends. “In fact, I'm surprised you'd found him out already, since they only moved into this house a little over a month ago.”
The Kapellmeister offered no explanation beyond saying he – or rather, we – were looking for an old document which we – or rather in this case, he – thought Mr Ives might have come across during his student days at Yale.
Meanwhile, I'd noticed a periodical on the table next to the Dickens, a volume of the “Musical Quarterly” dated 1926. “Ah,” I thought, a little closer to knowing one answer. I'd considered asking Quigg “the time” but knew he'd only give me the hour and wonder why I'd need to know what year it was...
The Kapellmeister described it as an old manuscript written on a rather unusual piece of leather rather than parchment, so perhaps more durable than the standard “old manuscript.” More to the point, it was a list of Ten Commandments as might apply to beginning composers.
I could see a glimmer of recognition as Mr Quigg struggled with a distant memory.
“It was known as 'The Belcher Codex' which might be familiar to you, though I'm not sure the document itself is signed or referred to as that. Sound familiar?”
Quigg motioned for us to be seated as he leaned against the mantlepiece in the manner of someone about to launch into a lengthy tale. I suspected Mrs Ives would not be pleased to find us not only still here but so comfortably ensconced in her living room. The fire, I admitted, felt quite pleasant.
Quigg's Cousin Emaline, a cousin of the great singer Lillian Nordica – the family name had been “Norton” but her agent thought “Nordica” would be a memorable improvement for an opera star – anyway, “Cousin Emaline told this story about some old family heirloom, a curiosity going back over a hundred years ago, by now, I'm guessing. She was a student at that Harvard School for Women and studied with John Knowles Paine to, of all things, become a composer – a 'female composer' – therefore not one worth paying much attention to.”
“Eventually,” he explained, “she married and stopped composing, what with the busy-ness of being a wife and, soon, a mother, but she'd married another student of Paine's who was also a composer. Now, as I remember it, he had been badly injured in a fall, something about a student prank in the library one night. But Cousin Emaline said they had been looking for this old leather scroll that Professor Paine had stored away in Harvard's library which Paine said he'd been given by his organ teacher in Berlin.
“She described it as previously belonging to her great-something-or-other-grandfather” – I found myself nodding in recollection – “but as she never saw it and only knew of it through some strange tale her great-something-or-other-uncle used to tell, it was never enough to convince anyone the thing was real and not just the stuff of legend, after all.”
By this point, anyone else might have become impatient, but for me it was catching up with an old friend, nice to know Miss Norton survived that night in the library but saddened to know not only had she married the man I suspected she would but had also ended up no longer composing. But though, aside from Mrs Beach, there were no “female composers” of note from that period of our nation's musical history, how many might have proven talented enough to have been “worth paying attention to”?
“She became more of a nursemaid than wife to her husband,” Quigg continued, “especially after their only child – a daughter, I believe – died, but then Jeckelson Hyde never amounted to much of a composer himself and soon stopped all forms of creativity. He died a bitter young man shortly after the turn of the century.”
Everything left from Mr Hyde's creative life had been placed into a box, mostly unfinished manuscripts, some completely illegible, but all, as far as Cousin Emaline could tell, “very weird stuff, to put it mildly.” I was curious where this box might be and was tempted to ask Mr Quigg if he knew its whereabouts.
After a lengthy silence, we heard a mighty thump of a racket from the piano upstairs, perhaps both forearms slamming onto the keyboard but an actual “chord” or made out of frustration, who knew?
The sound startled Mr Quigg from his reverie – apparently some fond memory of his long-suffering Cousin (she would be, what, only 60 by now) or perhaps pity for the promise her husband's career never realized – and he lowered his voice as he continued, as if not to be somehow overheard by his friend upstairs. Again, the thread vaguely continued, as often happens, with Antonin Dvořák teaching here in New York City when a student of his found this “ancient colonial parchment writ on leather” in some Boston antiquarian's shop.
“There were long discussions about 'American' music, all their models being Dvořák's models – Brahms or Wagner, Beethoven or Bach – all Europeans. So this 'quaint' bit of frontier wisdom amused them and Dvořák had a good laugh over it, even though he left it behind when he abruptly resigned his post and returned home to Prague.
“We became friends, Charlie and me, at Yale. He was a year older and a class ahead of me. In a way, Charlie later reminded me a bit of my Cousin Jack – Jeckelson, but everybody called him 'Jack' – writing these strange pieces. Some things I'd heard Charlie play were enough to amaze or confound anyone! Considering the time and what 'good music' sounded like, then, I wonder what Charlie would've made of Cousin Jack's scribblings? Anyway, most of us thought Charlie was either nuts or a genius, possibly both.
“Then one of Dvořák's students – I've forgotten his name – arrived at Yale to finish his studies with Professor Parker” – Charlie's own long-suffering teacher – “and brought this 'backwoods manifesto' with him, telling us how they'd all laughed with Dr Dvořák over it after a few beers. No one took it seriously or thought it worth considering. It never occurred to him who might have written it or how long ago that'd been. At the time, I certainly had no idea any ancestor of mine had anything to do with it.”
Quigg explained he didn't know much about his Cousin Emaline then – his father always referred to her as “your poor Cousin Emmie,” always in that typically condescending tone of his. It wasn't until after her husband died she'd told him the story and he remembered Dvořák's colonial commandments, but by then, it had disappeared again.
The noise from upstairs got louder, more intense, more insistent as he repeated a passage several times as if Ives were trying to work out some subtle detail. The studio, Quigg said, was on the fourth floor, but at times I thought the whole house was shaking. Other times, I could barely hear Quigg talking. Then there would be a sudden silence and we'd all stop and wait, afraid to interrupt his concentration while he scribbled something down on paper. Then it started up again from a different spot.
And so Quigg would also resume his story, how a group of friends presented this leather scroll to Ives one night while celebrating one of his wilder “sound experiments” with the theater orchestra, suggesting perhaps these basic rules would help soften Charlie's “frontier roughness” and smooth the edges off those “Yankee crudities” he called style.
“Everybody but Charlie had a good laugh over it but he controlled himself well and didn't lash out at his friends like I thought he might once the fun-poking got a little too personal. Charlie was famous for his rages even then, and his temper could easily flare up and become nasty, venting his soul. When we got back to his dorm room, Charlie just threw the thing into the fire and walked away, but I was able to pull it out before it more than singed the edges.”
Quigg kept it for a while and forgot all about it, dismissing it with an airy wave of his hand.
“But then, after Charlie had his heart attack – this was, oh, eight years ago, now? – I remembered it and practically tore the place apart trying to find it. My wife, Dulcie, recalled seeing it one summer and after a thorough search of the house managed to unearth the box I'd stuffed it into. I guess it's true: she always said, even before we married, I never threw anything away.
“Well, it was a time when I thought Charlie could use some cheering up. Harmony said he was never a very good patient, always worried something would happen to him and he'd never be able to compose again, so I thought it might, you know, amuse him, maybe even inspire him. Unfortunately, it did neither...”
Quigg tried imitating the scowl Charlie'd given him, and described the rage with which he'd tried to tear it up, forgetting it was leather, not paper. “And I assure you, he pelted me about the ears with language of such pure Yankee cussedness which I dare not repeat with a lady and children in proximity.”
Exhausted, Charlie'd thrown it on the floor beside his bed and would have tried hitting him with his cane had Quigg bothered to retrieve it.
“And that's the last I saw of the thing.”
During a pause while we waited for the piano-playing (or rather, -pounding) to resume – I couldn't begin to imagine what the noise would sound like if it were only in the next room – Mr Quigg fixed us with a speculative stare as if a thought had come to him like one of Charlie's out-of-left-field inspirations.
“And why, may I ask – having done most of the talking – are you gentlemen interested in this old joke of ours?” After poking at the fire, he straightened up, his elbow against the mantlepiece.
The laughter of children could be heard coming from the kitchen and getting closer.
“How, for that matter, do you even know about it?”
“It may be of great value,” the Kapellmeister began, “to someone who's heard stories about it. I feel it should be in... well, a museum.”
“You mean, that thing's worth money?”
Harmony's return – that is, Mrs Ives' – was preceded by the eruption of the children who, ignoring the unknown visitors better than Mrs Ives had managed, made a bee-line for the ornate dollhouse that stood on a low table beside the front window. Unlike the children, Mrs Ives took a moment to eye up her unwanted company with pursed lips and, after giving Mr Quigg a quick scowl, no doubt for having detained us, took the box she was carrying and placed it on the floor next to the children.
“Here you are, children,” she said, her voice devoid of any tension she might have regarding our presence. “Mr Ives should be down shortly, however, since it's soon time for him to rest before dinner, so then it will be time for you, Eddie, dear, to take your father and head back to 67th Street.”
From upstairs, the sound of a familiar hymn began to unwind, phrase by phrase, first harmonized as it might be sung in any church service of the time, but then gradually wandering farther afield into an overlay of soft contrapuntal lines and chords creating such delicate dissonances, any congregation would be brought to a halt.
Not surprisingly, we all stopped – except for the children who merely became quieter – to listen and smile. I think I saw Mrs Ives' lips move as if she were about to start singing along.
Ives made a habit of quoting anything and nearly everything in his compositions. Also not surprisingly, poor church-goer that I had been all my life, I was vaguely familiar with the tune but had no idea which hymn it was or what the words might be.
Once it went beyond a simple Sunday sing-along, I leaned forward and asked Mrs Ives what it was her husband was working on, hoping to start a conversation the Kapellmeister – now with Quigg's curiosity aroused – could modulate into something about the Belcher Codex.
“What is it Mr Ives is composing today? I don't recognize it.”
She picked up her knitting, quite comfortable pretending she needn't bother with the duties of a hostess: not that she was rude, by any means; just indifferent.
“How could you, sir,” she said without looking up, “as he hasn't finished composing it yet?”
True, I nodded, aware I'd made what must be the typical time-traveler's gaffe about knowing how things will work out in the future. While there was a lot of Ives' music I did not know – or did not know well – I did know this much: by this time in his life, Ives wrote very little any more and had had very little of what he did write performed. The incompleteness of the Creative Cycle, from composer to performer to listener, was something that frustrated his career his whole life.
“His music,” she hesitantly began, “has always been a mystery to me, however much his beautiful soul shines through it, even the strangest bits, the sheer wildness of so much of it – but that's Charlie.” I wasn't sure at this point whether she would continue or merely give over to her knitting and her memories.
|Charles Ives w/Edith, Passport Photo 1924|
Quigg added the symphony was getting its first performance at Town Hall next month with Eugene Goosens conducting. “You should come!”
“That is if,” Mrs Ives said, “you'll still be in town for it?”
“Harmony,” Quigg said as she resumed her knitting once softer piano chords began floating over us like bells from far-off churches, “these gentlemen were asking about that old leather relic I gave Charlie back...” – he cut himself off before he'd remind her of the timing of the gift, a difficult time following that heart attack.
“Oh, that old thing.” She smiled without looking up. “Charlie hated the sight of it when I'd stumbled across it during the move here. I'm surprised we still had it after all those years. When I opened this one box and showed it to him, he clawed the air trying to get at it and shouted over and over, 'burn the thing!'” Her laugh sounded pleasant and childlike, the tinkling of little bells. “Well,” she admitted, “that was not the exact wording he used, but there are children present...”)
“No, Harmony, you didn't burn it, did you?” Mr Quigg sounded devastated, imagining a fortune going up in smoke. “These gentlemen said it could be very valuable...”
The piano had gone eerily silent for nearly a minute, underscoring the news the Codex was no more, the tolling of chords having dissolved into nothingness just like one of Ives' more ethereal soundscapes.
“Not in so many words, Dash,” Mrs Ives said. “It was a very nice piece of old leather and would've been a shame to destroy it like that.”
She nodded toward the children, explaining how Edie wanted it for her “fashion line for Lady Beautiful” – Eddie was playing with the boy doll she called Prince Rollo – something about a “rustic frontier costume.”
“The rest of it ended up in the dollhouse which she claimed needed new drapes and upholstery, though I suggested some other nice fabrics I had would have been more suitable. Leather was such an odd look for wallpaper.” Harmony shook her head and returned to her knitting. “Whatever Edith wants, Edith gets, you know...”
I noticed the Kapellmeister's eyes widen in disbelief at the discovery he'd come to the end of the road searching for the Belcher Codex. I hoped this meant he no longer needed my help.
“You seem disappointed, sir: perhaps I should get you a glass of water?” Then she noticed the piano-playing hadn't resumed yet.
The violence of the sound emanating from the composer's fourth floor studio had, over the course of our visit, gradually subsided and the quaint old brownstone, typical of many on Manhattan's East Side – I had not been aware at the time the original Mannes School of Music, one of America's great conservatories, was located across the street! – returned to its typical late-afternoon calm. But now the silence lasted longer, became if possible deeper, and Mrs Ives grew increasingly nervous, glancing at the ceiling, worried if something might be wrong.
The Kapellmeister sat stunned, his search for the so-called Belcher Codex over. Yes, he'd tracked it down but he was too late. There it was, in tatters, turned into doll costumes and dollhouse accessories!
And I, trying to conceal my excitement, was about to meet the idol of my musical youth, the incredible Charles Ives!
Mrs Ives apologized as the awkward silence continued – even the children had grown quieter. She'd said her husband wasn't in the best of health lately and his rages and frustrations sometime have been more difficult to defuse. She must be thinking she ought to go check on him, find out if he's – what, still alive?
But she'd also said this was the time he'd stop working and join her in the parlor so he could listen to her read aloud to him – Dickens, I remembered, glancing toward the book.
I'm sure that's all it is: his work-day was over and he was putting away his papers and pencils. Soon, we would hear his footsteps on the stairs and he would enter the room, exhausted from work – and, of course, probably not be pleased to find strangers waiting for him when he wanted to rest.
She rose and hurried toward the hallway when, in fact, I did hear footsteps on the stairs. She would probably divert him, take him out to the kitchen, make him some hot chocolate, too.
But the voice I heard was not the booming, cantankerous Yankee individual I would have expected, the sharp eyes peering out mischievously over the trim beard: the face, clean-shaven, was haggard, vacant, even scared; the voice, catching, a shredded whisper. The man leaned against the newel post for support, afraid without it he might fall.
“I can't seem to compose any more,” the voice stammered, “nothing comes!”
His wife fussed about him as one might comfort a frightened child, soothing his nerves, and led him to the kitchen.
“Come, Charlie, let's have some nice hot cocoa,” and they slowly shuffled down the hall, away from us. She didn't give us a backward glance.
“Nothing comes out right anymore, Harmony – no matter what I try, it all sounds wrong...” His voice trailed off as he hobbled out of view, an old man, his spirit broken.
It was not what I expected, not the image I had of Ives, the Great Innovator whose cussedness railed against anyone who couldn't stand up to his dissonance, to music that – to him at least – sounded right.
Quigg, his eyes shining with tears, called to his son and told us we too should leave quietly.
While Quigg and Eddie fussed with their coats, the Kapellmeister and I hurried toward the front door. His plans dissolved silently with the cosmic reverberations of distant church bells barely felt in the soul.
So, what about Supply Belcher's great joke, his Ten Commandments for Beginning Composers, nothing left but shreds after all these years?
The dollhouse stood in a soft pool of light from the nearby lamp, the street beyond the window deep in shadow. Edith's hair shone like spun gold as she sat there, clutching her doll.
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Wednesday, November 28th]
A historical note: while much of the novel is fiction, much of this scene is based on fact: the house at 164 E. 74th Street is real, the piano upstairs is real, even the scene in which Ives tells his wife he can no longer compose is real, though based on an elaboration by his biographers based on a later interview with Mrs Ives (recounted in Jan Swafford's marvelous biography, Charles Ives: A Life with Music, p.348).
Whatever Ives might have been composing that day, I imagined it sounding something like the ending of the Piano Trio with its Rock of Ages (in this clip, it begins c.10:26). The "Comedy" is the epic scherzo of the 4th Symphony which would indeed be given its first performance a few weeks later (the whole symphony was not premiered in its entirety until 1965). Here's a performance with the Yale Symphony & Concert Band conducted by Toshiyuki Shimada. This movement requires, at times, two conductors, and I am delighted to discover the band conductor, seated behind the pianist in the center, is a former student of mine from our University of Connecticut days, Thomas Duffy!
The final movement, which adds a choir to the ensemble, ends with one of Ives' more ethereal sound-scapes with reverberations hovering through the universe.
Most of the more familiar photographs taken of Ives and his wife date from either earlier in their lives or much later. These two are as close as any I could find: a painting from 1915, when Edith was 1 year old; Harmony, 39. The photograph with the composer was a passport photo taken before their trip to England in 1924 when Ives was 50 and Edith was 10.
This scene takes place not quite three years later, actually in early January, 1927. Most people would be unaware that Ives stopped composing when he was 52 even though he lived another 27 years, and that he was still working at his insurance company's New York City office until he retired on New Year's Day, 1930.
The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.
©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.