The Symphony No. 4 is Ives' greatest completed work—the boldest in conception, the most universal in theme, the grandest in execution. The piece is another journey through life from the worldly to the sublime. It starts with a heroic bass proclamation answered by a gentle distant choir of strings and harp intoning the hymn "Nearer, My God to Thee," which is the symbolic foundation and destination of the symphony.
Another hymn in the first movement gives us the figure of the traveler, the pilgrim, and points him toward the "glory-beaming star" of the spirit. The second movement, an Ivesian version of the traditional symphonic scherzo that he called the "Comedy," is, among other things, an image of modern urban life. It conjures a kind of aural traffic jam that can leave listeners uncertain whether to clutch their sides laughing, to run for their lives, or both.
The third movement Ives called "an expression of the reaction of life into formalism and ritualism." This stage of the pilgrimage is set, in other words, in church, by way of a sonorous and beautiful fugue in C major.
Traditionalists would say that Ives is mixing styles incoherently; Modernists tend to feel he mounted a revolution in the second movement and deserted it in the third; Postmodernists hail a kindred spirit. But none of those aesthetics are relevant to Ives. He believed that what lay within music, its spirit and ideas, was more important than what it sounded like. The surface is mere "manner"; under that lies "substance," the real thing.
The setting of the Symphony No. 4's finale is a starry mountaintop. In a remarkable, luminous haze of myriad voices (all individuals on their own paths, yet all headed in the same direction), the music gathers to an ecstatic climax. Then from the haze emerges a familiar chordal introduction to a hymn, which brings us to the mystical coda, the chorus wordlessly intoning the symphony's essential musical and spiritual theme: "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
The music seems to evanesce into the stars, still searching.
That was the furthest way station in Ives's pilgrimage as a composer. To complete who he was, he had to return to the old European genres remade with his musical voice and his vision of the connections of music and the human spirit. The Symphony No. 4 is a work of universal religion, made from the concrete stuff of everyday American music and life but leaving our gaze turned upward.