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Inspired by the Housatonic’s ‘restive ripple’

Robert Underwood Johnson
Robert Underwood Johnson

This Sunday, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons accompany their traditional end-of-the-summer Tanglewood performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” the third of Charles Ives’s “Three Places in New England” (and a place within a healthy walking distance of Tanglewood itself). Ives conceived the piece in 1908 while strolling alongside the Housatonic River with his wife, Harmony, not long after their wedding. The conception was given focus by Robert Underwood Johnson (inset) in his 1896 poem “Ode to the Housatonic at Stockbridge.” Ives included an excerpt from the poem in the printed score, and later reworked the swirling, sonorous music into a voice-and-piano setting of some of Johnson’s lines. But the lines Ives left out suggest how composer’s and poet’s perceptions of the nation diverged.

One of the most influential American men of letters of his time, Robert Underwood Johnson (1853-1937) was an editor of The Century Magazine, a highly visible platform from which to bend American turn-of-the-century ideals: high-minded, genteel, prizing both oratorical finery and homespun common sense. But behind it was a post-Civil War desire to meld the riot of competing American cultures — North and South — into a unified whole. (Johnson had grown up on the war’s divide: One part of his family harbored escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad while another sent officers to fight for the Confederacy.) Sharp edges of regional difference (including, in the South, slavery’s fractious legacies) were to be smoothed out, massaged into universality.

In Johnson’s poem, a firsthand impression of the Housatonic (probably registered on a visit to Richard Watson Gilder, editor-in-chief of The Century, who had a summer home in nearby Tyringham) is immediately transmuted into an assertion of American identity: While other observers compare the river to pastoral English scenes, Johnson warns it to “Beware their praise who rashly would deny / To our New World its true tranquillity.” The placidity forms a contrasting backdrop to the course of American industry.

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A “restive ripple” on the water prompts a peroration extolling the country’s restless expansion, the poet eager to follow the river “to the adventurous sea.” Ives kept those last lines — the pursuit of the transcendental was among his favorite themes — but excised much of the rest, including the passages contrasting the Old and New Worlds. The composer’s sense of place was, perhaps, too strong, instinctively resisting the attempt to subsume the river’s particularity into a homogenized nationalism. As in so much of Ives’s music, the polyvalence of “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” its tunes, harmonies, rhythms layered in flowing profusion, is congruent with Ives’s vision of America: distinctly, sublimely plural.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs music of Beethoven and Ives, Aug. 27, 2:30 p.m., in the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood. Tickets $23-$114. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.