"Ich grolle nicht"
Manuscript sketch, 1898?
As an undergraduate at Yale, Charles Ives (1874–1954) set to music Heinrich Heine’s “Ich grolle nicht” (“I’ll not complain”). You might be surprised that Ives, the quintessentially American composer, would choose a German poem. He composed this song for a class taught by Horatio Parker (1863–1919). Heine’s text is famous—even in the English-speaking world—because of Robert Schumann’s celebrated setting in the song cycle Dichterliebe, which is also on display in this exhibit. For the same assignment in Parker’s class, Ives also composed his own setting of “Feldsamkeit” (or “Summerfields,” in the translation Ives used) by Hermann Allmers, a more obscure poem that was previously set by Brahms.
In the spring of 1898, the composer George Whitefield Chadwick (1854–1931), the head of the New England Conservatory, visited Parker’s class and heard these two songs. According to a note that Ives wrote on a copyist’s manuscript of “Ich grolle nicht” (later published in Memos, edited by John Kirkpatrick), Chadwick—who arrived after lunch with beer on his breath—particularly admired “Summerfields,” saying that it was almost as good as Brahms. Winking at his friend Parker, he added, “That’s as good a song as you could write.” Ives tells us less about the reaction to “Ich grolle nicht,” except to report that Parker deemed it nearer to Schumann’s setting than “Summerfields” was to Brahms.
The manuscript displayed here is an early sketch for “Ich grolle nicht.” In 1922, Ives published his 114 Songs, including both of the songs mentioned here. Nearly a quarter century had passed since his graduation from Yale, and he had produced a long series of remarkably modern compositions, but he still worried about where he stood in relation to Schumann; his footnote to “Ich grolle nicht” reads:
The writer has been severely criticized for attempting to put music to texts of songs which are masterpieces of great composers. The song above and some others were written primarily as studies. It should be unnecessary to say that they were not composed in the spirit of competition; neither Schumann, Brahms, or Franz will be the one to suffer by a comparison,—another unnecessary statement. Moreover, they would probably be the last to claim a monopoly of anything—especially the right of man to the pleasure of trying to express in music whatever he wants to. These songs are inserted not so much in spite of this criticism as because of it.