At 9:40a.m. on June 14, 1904, an excursion boat named The General Slocum (after a Civil War general) departed from the East Third Street pier in the East River, transporting the congregation of St. Mark’s German Lutheran Church to the north shore of Long Island for its annual church picnic. Precisely 16 minutes later, a fire was discovered in one of the boat’s forward cabins. By the time the captain, William Van Schaick, was notified (seven minutes later), the fire was raging out of control, and the boat had entered the dangerous currents of Hell Gate (near where the Triborough Bridge stands today). Unable to beach the vessel in the rocky channel, Captain Van Schaick headed for North Brother Island, a mile and a half to the north. By the time it arrived, the boat was little more than a smoldering carcass. The passengers really didn’t have a chance: the canvas fire-hoses and life-jackets had all rotted and only served to fuel the flames.
Of the 1,331 passengers aboard The General Slocum that day, at least 1,021 died in the fire, which stands as the single worst accident-disaster in the history of New York City. Funerals continued for more than a week; one of the precessions included 156 hearses, and stretched on like a macabre parade fro a mile and more. The captain, who had been decorated the preceding year for his exemplary safety record, was found guilty of dereliction of duty and sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. (President Taft pardoned him after three-and-a-half.) The tragedy decimated Kleindeutschland, the German community of Manhattan’s Lower East Side; those of its residents who survived were so traumatized that they moved four miles north to reestablish themselves in Yorkville, and for many years they held an annual commemoration at the Lutheran Cemetery in Queens.
Ives was living at 65 Central Park West at the time, and was swept up uin reports of the accidents along with the rest of New York. About a month after the fire, he sketched a composition inspired by the disaster. (His sketches are dated “Pine Mt. July 1904.”) In the 1930’s Ives mentioned the piece in his memo book:
“[It] was a sketch made for a tragic tone poem written after the General Slocum steamboat disaster in the East River, I don’t believe I had a serious intention of finishing it. The awful catastrophe got on everybody’s nerves. I can give no other reason for attempting to put it to music, and I’m glad to look back and see the sketch is hardly more than a page. It starts with several bands playing popular tunes on the boat, people singing—and then the explosion.”
In expanding Ives’ page-long sketch into a finished three-minute piece, Guther Schuller obviously needed to go beyond the usual duties of an editor; he might reasonably be considered the work’s “co-composer.” The boat creaks at the outset, and bellows its whistle (with a striking orchestration of bassoons, double basses, and baritone saxophone). Soon the deck’s orchestras enter, building up a joyful cacophony (replete with quarter-tones) in which “Little Annie Rooney” and “The Sidewalks of New York” help paint the convivial ambience. (The instrumental groups overlap in a way that calls to mind the three orchestras Mozart put to use in the party scene of Don Giovanni.) Disaster strikes, and the orchestra lets loose with a terrifying fortissississimo shrieks. The rest is silence, as a four-bar coda dies away with a hint of “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”