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Musings on a Musical Drive

Driving north to the family homestead in Connecticut, I often remark to myself (or to my unfortunate passengers) of the musical significance as we pass over the George Washington Bridge, the span over the Hudson River connecting Fort Lee, New Jersey, to upper Manhattan. Once I leave New Jersey, the prominent musical landmarks abound (Manhattan alone features a seemingly infinite number of composers, significant locales, and programmatic whereabouts), but the sixty miles of highway between Fort Lee and Danbury, Connecticut feature a curious set of musical landmarks for a wind conductor.

Map of the drive - click to explore.

The tour begins with the vista that inspired William Schuman's George Washington Bridge (Map: A); according to the composer's notes in the score,

There are a few days in the year when I do not see George Washington Bridge. I pass it on my way to work [at Juiliard] as I drive along the Henry Hudson Parkway on the New York shore. Ever since my student days when I watched the progress of its construction, this bridge has had for me an almost human personality, and this personality is astonishingly varied, assuming different moods depending on the time of day or night, the weather, the traffic and, of course, my own mood as I pass by. I have walked across it late at night when it was shrouded in fog, and during the brilliant sunshine hours of midday. I have driven over it countless times and passed under it on boats. Coming to New York City by air, sometimes I have been lucky enough to fly right over it. It is difficult to imagine a more gracious welcome or dramatic entry to the great metropolis.

After passing both over and under the enormous bridge, my drive then winds its way up the Henry Hudson, Cross County, and Hutchinson Parkways, before taking the entrance ramp to Interstate 684 near White Plains, New York, the home of one Percy Aldridge Grainger (and his mother) for much of his adult life.

​I have made the short detour off the highway to visit the Grainger House at 7 Cromwell Place (Map: Red Pin), and was lucky enough to get a private tour from the head of the International Grainger Society. [A bit of advice: do not drop in unannounced, as I did; instead, schedule a tour ahead of time. I was very lucky that someone was there at the house that day, and doubly so considering who it was.] White Plains, and the house itself, is unseen from I-684, but when traffic causes me to avoid the George Washington Bridge altogether, and cross the Hudson River on the Tappan Zee Bridge, I pass right by the city on Interstate 287, just before connecting with I-684.

My drive continues up I-684, tracing the highway from its outset to its terminus, connecting to Interstate 84 in Brewster, New York. Shortly thereafter, I cross the border into my home state of Connecticut, and into the hometown of Charles Edward Ives, America's original iconoclastic composer. Ives was born at 210 Main Street, Danbury (Map: Orange Pin), in a house that has since been moved to 5 Mountainville Avenue (Map: Green Pin). [The Danbury Historical Society has closed the Ives House for renovations, with an as-yet unannounced reopening in the works some time in the future.]

While the composer spent his childhood in Danbury, he later attended Yale, in New Haven, and then moved to New York City, beginning his professional life as an insurance salesman, and later, executive. However, this lucrative profession allowed him to purchase a house in Danbury-adjacent Redding, Connecticut, where he and his wife, Harmony, spent their weekends, and eventually retired. [Side note: could Charles Ives have chosen a more appropriately-named wife? Despite his compositional style, apparently he did love Harmony.]

Charles, Harmony, and other Ives family members, including his father and mentor, George, lay interred at the Wooster Cemetery of Decoration Day fame, which is adjacent to, but nearly invisible from the highway (Map: Gray Pin). Like the other landmarks, I have also made the detour to find the Ives family plot at the cemetery, on a weekend amidst a concert cycle when I was conducting Decoration Day. That night, as the first few raindrops of a spring thunderstorm began falling, and the day crept towards twilight, I whistled the first few bars of the memorial tune, and finished my drive home.

Should I decide to take a few more detours on a future trip, two additional landmarks are available within a short drive. Further up the Hudson River, roughly aligned with Danbury, but on the western side of the river, lies the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York (Map: Purple Pin). The 1952 sesquicentennial of America's oldest military academy led the West Point Band to request celebratory pieces from prominent composers, and a handful answered the call, including Morton Gould, with his Symphony No. 4, "West Point," and Darius Milhaud, with his West Point Suite.

The last potential detour again concerns Charles Ives; when his Redding house was sold by his family in 2012, the American Academy of Arts and Letters (Map: Yellow Pin) was granted the rights to his studio, which they painstakingly moved, piece by piece, to a permanent exhibition in New York City. Luckily for me, the exhibition is mere blocks from the George Washington Bridge.

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