Dramatic Vocalise Database

Charles Ives (1874–1954)

Symphony No. 4 (ca. 1912–18; ca. 1921–25)

American composer Charles Ives included a “Distant Chorus” in the fourth and final movement of his Symphony no. 4 (1909–1916). Although the first two movements were played in 1927 and the Fugue in 1933, the complete work was not performed until 26 April 1965 by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

In an autobiographical memorandum from 1932, Ives stated the following:

Scholars and critics alike have echoed this sentiment, although none specifically discusses the novelty of the wordless chorus. According to Wilfrid Mellers:

In his review of the work, Kurt Stone similarly writes:

And Eric Salzman joins the chorus of praise in his notes for a 1976 recording of the work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa:

At the end of the last movement the distant, wordless chorus sings the first phrase (mm. 9–11) from the second half of Lowell Mason’s hymn Bethany (“Nearer, my God to Thee”).

Mason, Bethany (“Nearer, my God to Thee”)

Ives does not provide a vowel indication in his score for this wordless rendition. After the prolonged last note of the hymn, the background gradually recedes into the distance as one instrument of the orchestra after another falls silent.

Ives, Symphony no. 4, mvt. 4, mm. 78–88 5

In commentary to a 1929 printing of the second movement in the publication New Music, Ives provides a clue as to the meaning of the chorus:

Whatever the personal meaning for Ives, this example shares characteristics with several other pieces included in this database. The chorus is wordless, and the hymn tune symbolizes Ives’s transcendentalist philosophy, much as Holst’s and Vaughan Williams’s compositions relied on dramatic vocalization to symbolize theosophy and mysticism respectively.

(Nauman 2009, 212–15)



mvt. 4, mm. 78–88


1 Quoted in John Kirkpatrick, preface to Symphony no. 4, by Charles Ives (New York: Associated Music Publishers, 1965), viii.

2 Wilfrid Mellers, review of Symphony no. 4, by Charles Ives, American Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski, Musical Times 107 (1966): 610.

3 Kurt Stone, “Ives’s Fourth Symphony: A Review,” Musical Quarterly 52 (1966): 11.

4 Eric Salzman, liner notes to Symphony no. 4, by Charles Ives, Deutsche Grammophon DG 423 243-2, 2–3.

5 Charles Ives, Symphony no. 4 (New York: Associated Music Publishers, 1965), 177, 179, 181.

6 Quoted in John Kirkpatrick, preface to Symphony no. 4, by Charles Ives, viii.