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Willy Keeler at the Bat celebrates the great hitter Wee Willie Keeler, star of the New York Highlanders, whose theory of baseball was summed up in his famous statement, "Hit 'em where they ain't." The surviving page of Ives's sketch begins with a pitch, a descending chromatic scale. Then a notation reads, "Willy swings bat." Willie is represented by a clarinet. Again, a trumpet makes the call. Again, the count goes full. At one point, writes Ives, a "coach/bassoon" shouts three brief notes of encouragement. With the sixth pitch, the music climaxes in a stupendous tone-cluster chord. Here Ives writes, "All notes but B natural, Willy HITS! where they ain't!" Once again, Keeler has found the hole.
The final Ives piece having to do with baseball is Some Southpaw Pitching. The title of this piano sketch, which was written as a tribute to the game but which concerns no particular contest, refers to the work's difficult left-hand part.
The most fully developed of Ives's sporting pieces is Yale-Princeton Football Game, subtitled "Two Minutes in Sounds for Two Halt's within Bounds." Originally a piano stunt, by 1907 it had evolved into a full orchestral score. This brief yet complex piece describes the final game of Yale's undefeated 1897 season and illustrates Ives's brilliance as a musical innovator. In Memos, Ives writes that in trying to "picture a football game" it seemed natural "to use sound and rhythm combinations that are quite apart from those that would be a "regular music' For instance, in picturing the excitement, sounds and songs across the field and grandstand, you could not do it with a nice fugue in C."
The game, which Princeton had been favored to win, was played in New Haven. The highlight of the first half came when Yale quarterback Charles DeSaulles grabbed a blocked Princeton kick and weaved 55 yards to the Tiger 10-yard line. But the Elis fumbled away the ball, and at halftime the score stood 0-0. In the second half, using its grind-it-out flying-wedge offense, Yale drove 90 yards, and halfback Charles Dudley went over for the game's only touchdown. The Elis held on to win 6-0.
In his music, Ives plays fast and loose with these facts. He reduces the action to two sets of downs, and he makes DeSaulles's run the winning play.
The piece starts with the strings sounding quite like an orchestra tuning up—this represents the hustle and bustle of people entering the stadium. Soon the winds, trombone and snare drum begin rhythmic cheers. On top of these sounds are brass and wind quotes from the Yale and Princeton school songs. Suddenly, the referee's whistle (a piccolo trill) tells us the game is about to start. The tension builds for a few seconds, and then—Whomp!—a bass drum signifies the opening kickoff. A trombone slide indicates the flight of the ball, and bodies clash for three measures until the referee's whistle blows. The Princeton team runs three plays, each marked by the whistle. According to Ives's margin notes, the oboe is a "dodging half back." The bass fiddle makes sounds "like grunts—Fat centers." Similarly, the bassoon is "fat guards pushing and shoving." The referee's whistle indicates that there is a change of possession. Yale takes over, and we are given the flying wedge three times in a row. In a supreme bit of whimsy, Ives portrays the wedge pictorially on paper, with simultaneous descending and ascending scales meeting at middle C.
On the Elis' final down, a "run around right," pandemonium breaks loose. DeSaulles, as a trumpet, begins a zigzag run of scales. The "trombones blurt rush and run fast," the snare drum rolls and "all woods run up and down chromatic-scale as fast as possible." Ives even calls for the use of a kazoo to augment the din. Finally, when the trumpet has found the end zone, he notes: "every other instrument just make a hell of a noise and stop."
After this crescendo, Ives's notes read, "Touchdown Game won & over." The piece ends with a reprise of the string opening—the crowd is leaving—followed by cheering winds, trombone and snare. "It's a wonderful little slice of American life," says Sinclair, whose recording of Yale-Princeton Football Game can be found on Orchestra New England's The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives.
Although Ives lived until 1954, a heart attack in 1918 severely curtailed his musical productivity. By 1927 he had stopped composing new music altogether. The bulk of his work, done between 1900 and '15, is as alive and arresting today as when it was written. "It seems," says Sinclair, "every first step that Charles Ives took to experiment with something was so brilliant a concept that it hardly needed to be developed any further."
He was, in other words, a superstar.