Listen & Do #4: Ives Variations on “America”

This is a face-melting fun-house fantasy of Americana. Even the choice of organ as instrument is interesting. It sounds not like a traditional church organ, but a circus organ or movie-house organ. The music mocks, cajoles, shrieks, and pumps its way through “My Country Tis of Thee”. It’s a virtuoso performance on the part of the composer.

QUESTION: The variation form was traditionally used by virtuosi as a way of showing off their skill on an instrument. Composers used variations as a way to explore an idea, a theme, and see how many ways they could take a theme and dress it up. What was Ives trying to do with this and why did he choose this theme? How does it make you feel about the original hymn?


  1. William Duxler says

    I don’t know who created this video that let’s us trip through the musical notes along with the organ performance, or who thought of including it in this lesson, but bless you all!

    At the beginning I was hit by the ocean wave of the organ beginning the first variation. It was a strong and satisfying feeling that reached all the way into my core. From one variation to the next, the everyday common “My Country Tis of Thee” became a dynamic, living, pulsating, beautiful musical organism that kept spreading out and blossoming into more and more dimensions. This kind of expansiveness requires variations that go in different directions. By the end I could hardly believe where Ives manged to go and how much depth could be revealed as he went from one variation to the next. It certainly made me more appreciative of the original hymn. I believe this was Ives way of expressing love for his country. He did this by writing variations on an American song that is normally sung for the purpose of expressing exactly that sentiment. In this way Ives magnified the effect in a way that only music can do.

  2. festive feeling for me!

  3. Susan Weaver says

    The variations might also be interpreted as commentary on the origin of our country since the melody is British and in most countries (and by hockey fans) is recognized as “God Save the Queen (King).”

  4. ojaijayar says

    anytime one can follow the music from the score greatly enhances the experience. thank you!

  5. Dell Anderson says

    As an amateur organist, I am very happy to see my favorite music festival become acquainted with the pipe organ. Thank you Mark Morris!

    Too long the organ has been perhaps unfairly haunted by its middle history period church-y associations. Ive’s Variations on America, it is not really my favorite organ piece (simultaneous playing in two different keys doesn’t do much for me) but it is definitely an creative work and quite a challenge to play. E. Power Biggs is a somewhat surprising yet perfect choice to demonstrate this piece because he is arguably one of the best classical organists but knew how to let his hair down when appropriate.

    Watching the score (some of it apparently original manuscript?) at the same time only adds to the richness that is Ojai.