Ives’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces: Adventures in Microtonality

Quarter tones occupy the narrow spaces halfway between the pitches of the chromatic scale. In other words, they are approximately half as wide as a semitone. Venture into their colorful domain, and you arrive in a wild new microtonal universe which expands the expressive possibilities of tuning and tonal color.

Traditional Persian music is filled with quarter tones. These intervals also can be found in numerous works by twentieth century composers. Charles Ives’ father, George, an adventurous musical maverick who undoubtedly instilled similar qualities in his son, experimented with quarter tones in the nineteenth century. As Johnny Reinhard writes, George Ives’ inventions included “a slide cornet, filling glasses with differing degrees of liquid to get microtonal intervals (a microtonal version of a glass harmonica), and a machine involving violins stretched across a clothes press and let down with weights.”

Charles Ives wrote the Three Quarter-Tone Pieces in 1925 for a concert designed to showcase a quarter-tone piano developed by Hans Barth. Scored for two pianos, the work is set in three brief movements: Largo, Allegro, and Chorale. Ives considered these pieces to be little more than adventurous “studies.” Yet, if you listen repeatedly and attentively, you may gain entry to a powerful and vibrant drama. The atmospheric Largo is filled with haunting mystery. Its veiled opening chords suggest tolling church bells on a foggy night. The Allegro erupts with swinging ragtime rhythms. It’s a delirious musical conversation which is continuously stretching our ears. The concluding Chorale drifts off with dreamy intimations of My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. 

This performance features Alexei Lubimov and Pierre-Laurent Aimard:

Recordings

  • Ives: Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, S.128; K. 3C3, Alexei Lubimov, Pierre-Laurent Aimard prestomusic.com

Photograph: “The Avenue in the Rain,” (1917), Childe Hassam

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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