Shortly before coming to work at Chautauqua Institution in 1996, Jared Jacobsen made a stop at a tiny parish church in London around July 4 to play a recently restored 16th-century pipe organ. He performed “Variations on ‘America,’ ” by Charles Ives, and “the aisles went crazy.”
England won the World Cup during Jacobsen’s service, and the audience thought he was playing “God Save the Queen” — although it was actually a version of “America,” or “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” an English national anthem that the United States claims as one of its own great patriotic songs.
Jacobsen, Institution organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, has played “Variations on ‘America’ ” at Chautauqua many times since, and he will open the Tallman Tracker Organ Recital with it at 12:15 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ for a Fourth of July celebration.
The performance is titled “Music for ‘The Most American Place in America’ ” — a tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion — and Jacobsen plans to showcase the inventive piece by Ives, whom Jacobsen considers the “bad boy of American music.” With a local bandmaster for a father, Ives grew up around myriad sounds, inspiring him to compose far-out pieces with ensembles playing in two or three keys or rhythmic patterns at the same time. Although audiences perceived Ives as a lunatic in the late 19th century, Jacobsen said, they came around in the 1950s and realized how ahead of his time he was.
The piece was technically written for a large organ, but Jacobsen said it works on the Tallman Tracker Organ — and the fact that the organ was made stateside in Nyack, New York, fits perfectly with the patriotic theme.
“This piece is a product of an American mind, who took what he grew up with and processed it,” he said. “They’re hearing a pure slice of Americana, so what more could I do on the Fourth of July week than play that piece?”
The piece requires a “willingness to giggle,” Jacobsen said — it transitions from portions in minor keys that lend the song a sad air, to calliope portions fit for a circus, to sections to be played as fast as the feet can go.
“Everything you can possibly do to this poor little tune, [Ives] does it,” Jacobsen said.
When he’s played the piece elsewhere, Jacobsen said it hasn’t always gone over well because audiences take it seriously, but the Chautauqua audience is always willing to have fun with it.
Jacobsen will then play pieces of different styles by American composers, rounding out the evening with another set of variations on “America,” by I.V. Flagler, who was Chautauqua’s organist for 19 years. Although the variations are not as unusual as Ives’, the piece always excited audiences in the last part of the 19th century, Jacobsen said.
Whereas Jacobsen described the Ives variations as “building blocks,” one after another, the Flagler variations are more stream-of-consciousness and tightly knit that Ives’.
“These are not wacky at all,” he said. “They’re very conventional compared to the other ones.”