Monday, September 3, 2007

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Sierra Club


But maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.


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Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954) was an American composer of classical music. He is regarded as possibly the first American classical composer of international significance. Ives was born on October 20, 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut, the son of a US Army bandmaster. He was given music lessons by his father at an early age, and later studied under Horatio Parker at Yale University. After graduating, however, he decided to pursue a non-musical career, believing that he would be forced to compromise his musical ideals if he made a living from music. He therefore followed a career in life insurance, although by the time he was thirty he had been organist at Danbury, New Haven, Connecticut, Bloomfield, New Jersey and New York, New York. He composed music in his spare time. After marrying Harmony Twitchell in 1908, Ives moved to New York, and remained there for the rest of his life, making a living directing his own insurance firm, Ives & Myrick. He continued to be a prolific composer until he suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1918, after which he composed very little, writing his very last piece, A Farewell to Land, a song with words by Lord Byron, in 1925. He died on May 19, 1954.

Ives' Music

Although Ives wrote many songs with often strikingly original piano accompaniments, he is now best known for his instrumental music. His work as an organist led him to write Variations on "America" in 1891, which he himself premiered at a recital celebrating the Fourth of July. The piece takes the tune (which is the same one as is used for the national anthem of Great Britain) through a series of fairly standard, but witty variations. One of the variations is in the style of a flamenco, while another is probably Ives' first use of bitonality. A version for orchestra was made by William Schuman and premiered in 1964, demonstrating how highly regarded Ives was following his death. However, Ives' tendency to experimentation and his uncompromising use of dissonance won him few fans in his own lifetime. One of the most damning words one could use to describe music in Ives' view was "nice," so his unpopularity cannot have been any surprise to him. One of the first, and one of the most striking, examples of this experimentation is The Unanswered Question (1908), written for the highly unusual combination of trumpet, four flutes, and string quartet (he later made an orchestral version). The strings play very slow, chorale-like music throughout the piece, while on several occasions the trumpet plays a short motif that Ives described as "the eternal question of existence." Each time apart from the last, the trumpet is answered with a shrill outburst from the flutes. The piece is typical Ives - it juxtaposes various disparate elements, it appears to be driven by a narrative that we are never made fully aware of, and it is tremendously mysterious. Pieces such as The Unanswered Question were almost certainly influenced by the New England transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These were important influences to Ives, as he acknowledged in his Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-60 (1909-15), which he described as an "impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago... undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a Scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne." The piece is possibly Ives' best-known piece for solo piano (although it should be noted that there are optional parts for viola and flute). Rhythmically and harmonically it is typically adventurous, and it also demonstrates Ives' fondness for quotation - on several occasions the opening motto from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is quoted. It also contains one of the most striking examples of Ives' experimentalism: in the second movement, he instructs the pianist to use a 14 3/4" piece of wood to create a massive cluster chord. Perhaps the most remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives ever completed was his Symphony No. 4 (1910-16). The list of forces required to perform the work alone is extraordinary; as well as a large symphony orchestra, the piece requires a massive percussion section, two pianos (one tuned a quarter tone apart from the other), an organ, an extra group of distant strings, a full chorus and (optionally) three saxophones and a theremin. The program of the work echos that of The Unanswered Question - Ives said the piece was "a searching question of 'What' and 'Why' which the spirit of man asks of life." Use of quotation is again rife, especially in the first movement, and there is no shortage of novel effects. In the second movement, for example, a tremolando is heard througout the entire orchestra. In the final movement, there is a sort of musical fight between discordant sounds and more traditional tonal music. Eventually a wordless chorus enters, the mood becomes calmer, and the piece ends quietly with just the percussion playing. The symphony did not have a complete performance until 1965, almost fifty years after the completion of the work, and eleven years after the composer's death.

Father of American Music

Ives was fond of saying that pretty music was for pretty ears, and he had no regrets that his music was not considered "pretty". Not until 1939, twenty years after he stopped composing, did the American public become aware of his music. Acceptance came much later.

Charles Ives' first and most influential teacher was his father, George, a Civil War band leader, who introduced him to the concepts of polytonality and multiple meters. Young Charles grew up listening to his father's bands marching up and down Danbury's Main Street and was greatly influenced by his father's frequent musical experiments. One popular anecdote recounts the occasion when several of George's bands marched to Elmwood Park from different directions, simultaneously playing marches in different meters and keys. Another tells of George's experiments with quarter tones, which were inspired by the out-of-tune church bells of the First Congregational Church next to his home.

George Ives' musical innovation and the sights and sounds of the Danbury area had a powerful impact on young Charles and contributed to his unconventional approach to music. Charles Ives began composing at a young age. In 1888, he played his composition Slow March at the funeral for Chin-Chin, his cat. He was fond of using fragments of music familiar to Danburians. Patriotic music, hymns, and marches figured prominently in his compositions. He combined fragments of this conventional music with the unconventional compositional techniques he learned from his father. The result was uniquely American and uniquely Charles Ives.

His music did not meet with acclaim either in Danbury or anywhere else in the United States. Europeans, however, were very curious about Ives and everything American. Renowned Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic, reportedly happened upon a copy of the Third Symphony (Camp Meeting). He brought the score back to Europe in 1911 with the intention of performing it, but died before doing so. Several published sources, however, report that the symphony was indeed played in Munich. The score Mahler took has never been recovered.

In the early 1930s, American conductor Nicholas Slonimsky premiered several Ives orchestral works in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston to unreceptive and hostile audiences. Subsequent performances in Cuba and in Europe, funded by Charles Ives, were met with enthusiasm. Success in Europe lent Ives' music a modicum of respectability here in the States. Gradually, his music began to be performed in American concert halls and slowly, over the years, the public began to understand and accept the music of Charles Ives.

Ives' interest in Transcendentialism and the Concord Four - Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau - is apparent in The Concord Sonata and its accompanying literary work Essays Before A Sonata published in 1919. In creating a unique musical style, Ives may have been influenced by Emerson, who wrote: ...imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. Ives was a weekend composer, deliberately choosing to make a living selling insurance rather than music. Perhaps he suspected that his music might not sell. Ives subscribed to Thoreau's words from Walden, ...instead of studying how to make it worth men's while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.

In 1918, Ives suffered a serious illness and stopped composing shortly afterward. He continued, however, to extensively revise his compositions while concentrating on making a living in the insurance business he co-founded with Julian Myrick in 1907. Ever the innovator, Ives became well known in the industry for introducing new concepts such as estate planning. In 1930 he retired, a very wealthy man.

Charles Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Third Symphony. Over the years, his "grand and glorious noise" has gained popularity and a large following. The centennial of his birth was widely celebrated, and his music is now played to appreciative audiences. Such celebrity would have been inconceivable to Charles Ives during his lifetime!

List of selected works

Note: because Ives often made several different versions of the same piece, and because his work was generally ignored during his lifetime, it is often difficult to put exact dates on his compositions. The dates given here are sometimes best guesses: Variations on America for organ (1891); String Quartet No. 1 (1896); Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1896-98); Symphony No. 2 (1897-1901); Symphony No. 3, The Camp Message (1901-04); Central Park in the Dark for chamber orchestra (1898-1907); The Unanswered Question for chamber group (1908); Violin Sonata No. 1 (1903-08); Piano Sonata No. 1 (1902-09); Violin Sonata No. 2 (1902-10); Robert Browning Overture (1911); A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904-13); String Quartet No. 2 (1907-13); Three Places In New England (Orchestral Set No. 1) (1903-14); Violin Sonata No. 3 (1914); Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60 (1909-15); Orchestral Set No. 2 (1912-15); Violin Sonata No. 4, Children's Day at the Camp Meeting (1912-15); Symphony No. 4 (1910-16); Universe Symphony (uncompleted, 1911-16); 114 Songs (composed various years 1887-1921, published 1922); Three Quarter Tone Piano Pieces (1923-24). [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Charles Ives and Nancy F. Sudik ]

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