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The memory of Composer Charles Ives (1874-1957)
Chimes-in Every Day at Cornell University


By Peter Barton, BFA, Class of ’65.


How this article came to be written-- Ken Schneider our Senior Editor is a Cornell Engineer who happens to have founded a company 26 years ago which develops, manufactures and sells telecommunications test equipment worldwide. Recently he was quite happy to be invited to an all day conference organized by the Argyle Group on “deal making in the Telecom Sector.” But, he knew that he had somehow been invited my mistake. The type of “deal making” they were talking about were things like “ATT taking over Bell South” or “Alcatel taking over Lucent” not selling loop simulators or noise generators or Ethernet test equipment and the like- his expertise.

Nonetheless, he really wanted to go the conference. For one thing during these economically challenging times any information that he could pick up or contacts that he could make would be welcome. Furthermore, the conference was being held at the legendary New York Athletic Club on Central Park South in Manhattan- a place he always wanted to visit and a place that he doubted would ever have him inside.

So he accepted the invitation and in the early morning of February 10, 2009 headed west on the Long Island Express to the Mid Town Tunnel and Manhattan.

It is his habit every morning during the week to listen to WQXR. Owned by the New York Times it gives him the morning news (although lately they have been supplying this via Bloomberg Radio News) and gives him the easy listening of Classical Music.

When he was just at about Main Street, close to LaGuardia Airport, he was pleasantly surprised to hear the “early morning man”, Jeff Spurgeon, say “Students and graduates of Cornell University will be happy to listen to this next piece.” His ears perked up expecting to hear a familiar Cornell song. But, what he heard was totally unrecognizable. After the song played Jeff Spurgeon mentioned that this was the Intercollegiate March of composer Charles Ives- who had given this song to the University as a present. The conference that day went well. But, he was intrigued by this unknown song and its relationship to our Alma Mater. When Ken returned to his office the next day he contacted me and asked if I could check out the connection and write a piece on the results of his investigation. That is how the article below came to be written.

There is a great man living in this country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.

Arnold Schoenberg

Ezra Cornell created his wealth in the telegraph business and as one of the founders of Western Union. A significant part of that net worth is said to have been generated with the laying of the Transatlantic Cable. Cornell University, as everyone knows, is built on Cornell’s estate grounds, a site he chose because of his contemplative fascination with viewing Lake Cayuga from its high ridges. His estate house, Llenroc (Cornell backwards) is still maintained on Campus as a fraternity house. This bit of history is important because the life of this visionary entrepreneur and opportunist mirror the age in which he lived. It was an age where creativity and innovation were laying the foundation for an entirely new way of life, an American way of life, the pragmatist’s way of life where ideas take precedence over ideals for solving the socio-economic problems. Even in the academic realms, there was the search for the original and unique vision of a culture creating and building itself from the ground up, upon fresh earth with no ruins of past empires to disturb the rush to the future.

The reason I bring this forward in an article on the Yale educated composer Charles Ives, is because there was a thread of connecting vision which tied so much of the consciousness of the American Canon of Arts, Letters and Sciences at their inception and which, even today, serves as the impetus for the cultural eidos of this nation. That is, the living, palpitating heart of this American civilization, innovation. Innovation not only as a tool for achieving practical aims in the mission of engineering a great society, perhaps evolving to a great empire, but innovation for its own sake irrespective of any functional application.

Cornell University was founded as an alternative academic Institution, one which from the very start turned away from the Classics and Euro-centric dogmas and sought to teach and inculcate a yearning for new ideas and new ways of addressing the human condition by avoiding the ‘Endless Dialogue,’ as Pragmatist William James termed it, generated by religious dogmas, metaphysical speculations, Classical visions and questions whose answers lay hidden in the imagination and the psyche. It may be stated with impunity that Cornell was actually founded for the purposes of creating a different approach to both learning method and subject matter. The meaning of Life, it may be said, was in the very air of this fledgling empire, and that air has always been enriched with the elixir of opportunity burgeoning in, quite literally, a New World without dogmatic limits from older civilizations. Cornell and founding partner Andrew Dickson White were both committed to the supremacy of secular humanism in academic life and White championed scholarship free from religious interventions or subordination of any sort, most especially with regard to the struggle between religion and science which was his enduring thesis and claim to intellectual fame.

So it is that there stepped into the arena of culture and music, a man who never made a living at either. Charles Ives graduated Yale with honors enough to pursue a rewarding life in music and the opportunity for world renown on international stages. But for reasons speculated upon by many but known only to himself, the composer chose instead to start and direct an Insurance Company, Ives and Myrick, in New York City; a company which was for a time the largest in the country. A life of luxury and comfort seemed satisfying enough for this corporate baron, but stood in direct opposition to his stylistically erratic penchant for breaking through convention and into a virgin realm of populist naturalism and that sort of culture and music which rose up from the earth and the people who worked it. He listened to the sounds of a bustling urban and rural America, its machines, its voices, its farmers and miners and its working class folk music from back-country communities, and sought to weave them all into an inseparable tapestry that would be the unique American "sound".

Ives approach was one part impulsion to two parts listening. His fascination was piqued more so by the sounds of the life going on around him than it was by the Classical themes and dogmas. This is clearly annunciated in his Wikipedia profile by an un-credited writer: "In 1906 Ives would compose what some have argued was the first radical musical work of the twentieth century, "Central Park in the Dark". The piece evokes an evening comparing sounds from nearby nightclubs in Manhattan (playing the popular music of the day, ragtime, quoting "Hello My Baby" and even Sousa’s "Washington Post March with the mysterious dark and misty qualities of the Central Park woods (played by the strings). The string harmony uses shifting chord structures that are not solely based on thirds but a combination of thirds, fourths, and fifths. Near the end of the piece the remainder of the orchestra builds up to a grand chaos ending on a dissonant chord, leaving the string section to end the piece save for a brief violin duo superimposed over the unusual chord structures."

Easy to see that, while not creating a vast quantity of compositions in his life, Ives became known for his innovative and sometimes dissonant orchestrations that mimed his everyday world-around, imbuing it with all the mysterious qualities for which Classical music is meant to ennoble an ideal or idyllic realm of the creative spirit and excite our esthetic sensibilities. Ives, right from the start and through almost every composition, asserts not the listening pleasure of a musical score, but the attention of the astute listener who is curiously awakened by the natural world and not captivated by the traditional way of delivering a musical score or orchestration or both. It is difficult to ascertain just how brilliant these flights of genius were, and still are today, unless one is familiar with music composition not only from a few historical eras and styles, but across the entire historical spectrum of musical achievement.

Tackling one of the core issues of Pragmatism, the Endless Dialogue, Ives took on a musical interpretation of the theme in his symphony "The Unanswered Question."

"Ives had composed two symphonies, but it is with The Unanswered Question (1908), written for the highly unusual combination of trumpet, four flutes and string orchestra that he established the mature sonic world that would become his signature style. The strings (located offstage) play very slow, chorale- like music throughout the piece while on several occasions the trumpet (positioned behind the audience) plays a short motif that Ives described as "the eternal question of existence". Each time the trumpet is answered with increasingly shrill outbursts from the flutes (onstage) — apart from the last: The Unanswered Question. The piece is typical Ives — it juxtaposes various disparate elements, it appears to be driven by a narrative never fully revealed to the audience, and it is tremendously mysterious. It has become one of his more popular works. Leonard Bernstein borrowed its title for his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1973, noting that he always thought of the piece as a musical question, not a metaphysical one.

Ives, largely ignored in his own time, remains at the forefront of New Sound composers as an “American Original” and is often referenced directly by vanguard composers as an influence for pushing the envelope. The only woman vocalist ever employed by the Philip Glass Ensemble, for example, soprano Dora Orenstein, created a CD dedicated to Ives’ compositions which has become a cult classic in the contemporary context. Such audio-logical inventions as polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatoric and quarter tones, foreshadowed virtually every major musical innovation of the 20th century.

Cornell students for that same century have been listening to Ives’ stylings in an equally unusual way, The Olin Library Bell Tower, known as McGraw Tower, plays an Ives rendition of an American folk ballad titled “Annie Lisle” which he incorporated into an eclectic band song rendition. At least, that is one interpretation of the origins of this musical score. The composer often incorporated or ‘borrowed’ songs, melodies and ballads as we have seen from “Central Park in the Dark” where everything gets thrown into the soup. Dogma-less and vivid, the compositions are left open to chance and circumstance as if one is listening to the variations of sound while taking a long and leisurely walk.

The band song score was originally titled "March Intercollegiate; Fugue in C minor," but most often pays tribute to its folk song inspiration as "March Intercollegiate with Annie Lisle" in the Ives archives. "Annie Lisle" is the name of an 1857 ballad by Boston songwriter H. S. Thompson, about a young woman stricken with Consumption. The haunting, melodic ballad might have slipped into obscurity in spite of its catchy and lilting charms had the tune not been adopted by Ives in and subsequently by countless colleges, universities, and high schools worldwide as their respective alma mater songs. In 1870, two years after The Cornell Chimes began to ring out on campus, and four years before Ives was born, students Archibald Weeks and Wilmot Smith wrote new stanzas for the Annie Lisle ballad and called it "Far Above Cayuga’s Waters," once again invoking Ezra Cornell’s first impression of the Ithaca landscape and lasting vision for his university on the heights. I find no references anywhere that Ives was aware or took influence from the Weeks-Smith rendition of the song. The chances are he was fully aware of both versions. Whichever the case, he donated his March Intercollegiate’ score to Cornell which adopted the ballad and adapted the Alma Mater ad infinitum.

The first two verses and the chorus are the best known and are usually the only verses sung. These verses and the rest of the song are as follows:

Lyrics: High above Cayuga’s Waters

Far Above Cayuga’s Waters
With its waves of blue,
Stands our noble Alma Mater
Glorious to view.

Lift the chorus, speed it onward,
Loud her praises tell.
Hail to thee, our Alma Mater,
Hail, all hail, Cornell!
Far Above the busy humming
Of the bustling town;
Reared against the arch of Heaven,
Looks she proudly down.

Sentry-like o'er lake and valley towers her regal form,
Watch and ward forever keeping, braving time and storm.
So through clouds of doubt and darkness gleams her beacon light,
Fault and error clear revealing, blazing forth the right.
To the glory of her founder rise her stately walls.
May her sons pay equal tribute whene'er duty calls.
When the moments, swiftly fleeting, ages roll between,
Many yet unborn shall hail her: Alma Mater, Queen!

In the music of the waters as they glide along,
In the murmur of the breezes with their whispered song,
In the tuneful chorus blending with each pealing bell,
One refrain seems oft repeated: Hail, all hail, Cornell!
Here, by flood and foaming torrent, gorge and rocky dell,
Pledge we faith and homage ever to our loved Cornell.
May time ne'er efface the memory of her natal day,
And her name and fame be honored far and wide alway!

And for traditional ballad buffs here are the lyrics of the original "Annie Lisle" which was featured, by the way, in the film "Dirty Dancing".

Lyrics: Annie Lisle

Down where the waving willows
’Neath the sunbeams smile,
Shadow’d o’er the murm’ring waters
Dwelt sweet Annie Lisle;
Pure as the forest lily,
Never tho’t of guile
Had its home within the bosom
Of sweet Annie Lisle.
Wave willows, murmur waters,
Golden sunbeams, smile!
Earthly music cannot waken
Lovely Annie Lisle.

Sweet came the hallow’ chiming
Of the Sabbath bell,
Borne on the morning breezes
Down the woody dell.
On a bed of pain and anguish
Lay dear Annie Lisle,
Chang’d were the lovely features,
Gone the happy smile.
"Raise me in your arms, O Mother;
Let me once more look
On the green and waving willows
And the flowing brook,
Hark! the sound of angel music
From the choirs above!
Dearest mother, I am going;
Surely God is love."

In the Wikipedia entry for the CU Alma Mater it states the following schedule and agenda:

For class of ’65ers, it may be worth a brief note on The Sherwoods since it was across the decade of the 60s—from 1958 through 1973—that the green jacketed vocal chorale appeared regularly on and off campus, even on national Television shows which brought the Cornell Alma Mater to popular attention. "First appearing at the Glee Club's 1956 fall concert, The Sherwoods gained popularity quickly and by 1958, they followed the pattern set by Cayuga's Waiters and parted ways with the Glee Club due to the time demands of both groups. The Sherwoods toured extensively, traveling to Hawaii, the Far East, Bermuda, The Virgin Islands, and Jamaica. They commonly wore dark green jackets and ties for performances. Their popularity slowly faded and the group stopped auditioning new members sometime around 1973. The alumni still actively perform and can be seen on campus every June at Reunions Weekend. The Sherwoods released seven albums during their tenure; more recently, a compilation CD titled Try to Remember - The Reunion Album was released containing the Sherwoods greatest hits from the previous albums. Noted hit singer/songwriter Harry Chapin joined the Sherwoods twice, dropping out of CU shortly after each time. He never did receive his degree."

For an in-depth read on Charles Ives go to: a Website posted by the Charles Ives society.

You can hear a rendition of March, "Intercollegiate" by clicking here

You can read more about the history and lore of the Cornell Chimes and McGraw Tower in “The Cornell Chimes,” by Ed McKeown, available at the Cornell Store. A recording of the Chimes is also available. It is unfortunate that about 15 years ago the original chimes mechanism was replaced so what is heard today is somewhat different from what Class of ‘65ers will remember. “Unfortunate” because the skillfully crafted original mechanism, a work of art in itself, was simply dispatched to the junk yard.

Or go to: for an interesting overview and history of McGraw Tower and its dedicated ’chimemasters.’

And you can Google just a few of the more interesting renditions of High Above Cayuga’s Waters through the following links: