Charles Ives: lonely American giant

'He plunged ahead solely on the basis of his ear, his stamina, his conviction, his talent and his need to create' (John McClure, Gramophone, April 1967)

Charles Ives (Tully Potter Collection)
Charles Ives (Tully Potter Collection)

First of all it should be stated that although I can see flaws and mis­calculations in the music of Charles Ives as clearly as most musicians who are acquainted with it, it can usually move me to tears even when not trying to. 

This is not a confession of disqualifying bias, but more one of empathy and familiarity. Pure objectivity is essentially a myth after all and so I consider my heightened response to Ives an asset not a liability in assessing his music. Perhaps in searching for the sources of these strong emotional reactions, shared increasingly by music lovers both American and British, we can explain some of the significance that Ives has now for our generation and perhaps sketch out some of his quirky, abrasive greatness. 

For those totally unfamiliar with the music or even the name of Ives a capsule sketch is in order. Born in 1874, Charles Edward lves chose his parents wisely. His father George lves, a well-trained musician of eclectic tastes and enterprising spirit, was a renowned band master and music teacher in Danbury, Connecticut from the time of the Civil War in 1865 through the closing decades of the century. A natural talent, he played and taught every available musical instrument and his home was always full of music and the spirit of experiment and curiosity. One of young Ives's first memories was seeing his father standing out in the pouring rain listening to the nearby church bell and running repeatedly into the house trying in frustration to duplicate the overtone structure on the piano. 

From his father young Charles received a thorough grounding in traditional counterpoint and harmony but at the same time was encouraged during his piano lessons to 'stretch his ears' by playing melody and accompaniment in two different keys or even unrelated pieces simultaneously in each hand. He witnessed his father's 'Venetian' experiments – placing small instrumental groups in various parts of the town square and church belfry to 'try out the effect'. Ives senior was also fascinated by quarter tones, partials and harmonics and built rather elaborate machines to make quarter tones a practical affair. The confusion of several bands playing or rehearsing at the same time or overlapping as they marched past was a common aural souvenir of Danbury's holiday celebrations, and the father's delight in the resulting aleatoric confusion was transmitted to the son. 

Charles Ives's musical memory was like fly paper. Everything stuck: Brahms, church hymns, college songs, Beethoven, gospel, singing at revival meetings, sounds of nature, military marches, ragtime and anything else that could be called music. All of these were digested and transformed into the thematic material on which Ives later drew for his complex and original musical constructions. One particular musical obsession was Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean which reappears as often in his music as the parade-ground trumpet calls that haunt the music of Mahler. 

An otherwise normal adolescence full of athletics and high spirits led him to the Yale Music Department and the kind of conservative musical thought which always aroused his rebelliousness. Of course he could write a four-part fugue for his academic teacher Horatio Parker, but it would be in four different keys. As Parker criticized Ives withdrew and like JMW Turner kept his experiments to himself. He knew very early that he must compose. A job as church organist at age 14 started him writing for choir already in the 1890s. This music, almost unknown and unperformed since the time of its composition, is proving, as we record it, to be some of the strongest and most exciting choral music ever written. 

Before Ives left Yale he made a decision as remarkable as it was pivotal in his life. Bound to music by both talent and passion, he decided on a career in business - the insurance business in fact, an industry then in its infancy. Music was a suspect and unrewarding pursuit in the America of those days and because he doubted there was a current audience for the music he wanted to write, he saw no reason for his family to suffer because of his artistic needs. Composing became necessarily an evening and weekend activity, but Ives's phenomenal stamina and drive more than compensated for this handicap and his output was enormous. 

The insurance business thrived and soon Ives was able to take a partner and start his own agency which prospered mightily in those years of growth, making him a wealthy man. This had an important long-range effect on his music. It freed him of the need to tailor his writing to prevailing taste. He was at liberty to follow his own highly individual musical impulses wherever they led and they led in some very exotic directions indeed. There was little thought about whether audiences would 'like' his music or not or indeed if performers could or would play it. Ives was a spikey and outspoken man. He hated what he called 'pretty music'. There was a high proportion of rough-hewn New England granite in his skeleton, as well as a conscious identification with the philosophical and literary heritage of Emerson and Thoreau and the New England philosophy of transcendentalism. In his loyalty to these principles and his determination to be American, Ives had to reject the formal academic training of his time if only because it was still completely European in character. Any serious cultural effort was still slavishly measured by the European yardstick. 

Ives therefore became the first American composer to fashion his own language and even alphabet out of native American materials. This creation of identity is as moving and significant to Americans as the restoration of Middle English after the Normans is to the British. It is the first flexing of genuine American musical muscle. 

And a sophisticated flexing it is too. It is tiresome to point out that much of Darmstadt and Donau-Eschingen can be found in lves manuscripts from 1910; that much of his music is still beyond the technical limits of instrumentalists and orchestras although hard work is rapidly pushing back the barrier; or that Ives was using polyrhythms, tone-clusters, poly-tonality, grupetti, etc, long before Stravinsky or Schoenberg and the Viennese school. When this was pointed out to him by critic Howard Taubman, Ives retorted characteristically, "That's not my fault" . 

What is touching and moving about Ives is that he fashioned this new music in solitude, unsupported by school, tradition, teachers or pupils. He plunged ahead solely on the basis of his ear, his stamina, his conviction, his talent and his need to create. His work was almost entirely unplayed; rejected by musicians because of its difficulty and thorniness. Outwardly this seemed not to deter him, though it saddened him and doubtless cost him considerable internal pain. At least there was no sign of retreat as there was in Schoenberg's later return to tonal writing. 

Gertrud Schoenberg found a jotting among her husband's effects in 1951. It read, "There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives". I'm sure that the indifference Ives developed to the everyday world of music appealed greatly to Schoenberg who was always bitterly conscious of the considerable disparity between his enormous talent and his lack of acceptance. 

Ives, off in his own world, made no compromises. He would try anything, whether or not there were performers or audiences ready for it. A note in the margin of a song for voice and piano says, "These six measures would sound better with string quartet if one is available". His Second Orchestral Set has in the third movementtwelve bars for chorus in a work of over twenty minutes of fiendish difficulty. The impracticality of these demands never troubled him. He assumed anyone performing his Fourth Symphony could arrange for two orchestra pianos plus a third one tuned in quarter tones. It must be said in his defence that he had no fixed ideas about how his music should be performed and left much to circumstance and the performer's initiative. The current musicological fervour for authentissimoperformances would make him snort, as he did when a devoted friend would ask him to adjudicate this or that small point in his instrumentation. After all, the only way he ever heard any of his four symphonies was an after-hours read-through by a friendly band or theatre orchestra. 

Quarter-tones fascinated him as they did his father before him. The Ives family practised singing quarter-tone songs and dissonance was something strong and good and cleansing. It was somehow linked in Ives's mind with the sturdy integrity of the Puritan fathers who had set the tone for New England culture several hundred years before. The sight of an audience recoiling from dissonance enraged him and he was known to shake his cane at them and shout: 'You goddam sissies. Use your ears like men!' or stalk out of the hall in disgust. 

Although he knew and loved BachBeethoven and Brahms he liked the 'pretty' Mozart and Haydn less. He and his father were ambivalent about Wagner, initially fascinated but ultimately repelled by what they called his unreality. Ives revealed that during his peak composing years (1900 to 1918 roughly) he attended few concerts because the music interfered with his own composing process and the unwritten music he was carrying around in his head. 'It just so happens,' he said 'that I felt I could work better if I kept to my own music and let other people keep to theirs'. 

It was not that he set out deliberately to shock or create unnecessary difficulties. He would have been delighted with performances had they been possible, but not so delighted that he would soften or bowdlerize the music he heard in his head. When asked by a well-meaning friend why he couldn't write music others would like he answered in genuine distress, 'I can't do it! I hear something else'. No one liked his music except his wife, Harmony Ives, and Ralph Griggs, a pastor who was an old family friend. 

The rest of his friends and relatives thought he was cranky, perverse and untalented and told him so at every opportunity. So, alas, did 95 per cent of the professional musicians who saw his work as it was 'being written. 'Unplayable...idiotic' were typical comments and they refused to become involved. Although this shook him repeatedly, his wife's faith and his own individualistic ego were enough to keep him going: 'Mrs Ives never once said or suggested that there must be something wrong with me - a thing implied if not expressed by almost everybody else including members of the family'. She never said 'Now why don't you be good and write something nice, the way they like it! Never!' Had he been a Greenwich Village bohemian or part of the international artistic underground of the time and known of the parallel struggles of Stravinsky and Schoenberg in Europe, he might have been greatly heartened and his physical collapse in 1918 avoided or ameliorated. 

The war had a crushing effect on his optimistic spirit and transcendentalist views. When it combined with consistent rejection by other musicians and the inhuman 18 hour days of business and composing, the result was a serious collapse that incapacitated him for almost a year and left him with a cardiac condition at age 44, which hobbled him to the end of his days. The great creative burst from 1910 to 1918 was over, and the rest of his life until his death in 1954 was mostly devoted to his business and to putting his incredible output, often in undecipherable pencil manuscript stacked in his Connecticut barn, into some kind of publishable and performable shape. 

What was this music? We are only now beginning to find out. Much of Ives is still in manuscript, a fault equally shared by publishers' somnolence, enormous editing difficulties, and Ives's unique insistence that he should not profit personally from his music or even hold copyright on it. But the biggest problem is still the performer; the eternal scarcity of talented musicians who will forsake the certainty of their Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Rachmaninov applause for the hard work and unpredictable reception of an Ives programme. Many works are still unrecorded and, because of their difficulty, few have found their way into the repertoire. 

We know the two String Quartets but not the 'Sets' for string quartet, and instrument or voice. We have finally heard all four symphonies (the first three solid and original; the fourth a leap forward into the unknown) but not the Second Orchestral Set, performances and recordings of which are scheduled for the autumn. The choral works, most of them still in manuscript, are just now being heard and are a revelation. Many were thrown out by Ives's New York City church when he left his job as organist and, like the Bach Cantatas, have never been recovered. Ives's organ book is lost.

The collection '114 Songs' printed at his own expense may possibly be the greatest collection of songs written since Brahms, and like Sacre and Pierrot and Wozzeck, one of the aesthetic pivots of the 20th century; a pivot only because of its influence on composers - certainly not on the public who has heard only a few of them. After all, Ives's great influence until now has been not on the public (who is just beginning to understand him) but on professionals - the last two generations of composers in fact – even though Ives founded no school and his few disciples have inherited no system from him. The twelve-tone system is after all far more useful to composers than to audiences. But now it is the public's turn. As they come to understand his mixture of outspoken, dissonant expressionism with hazy and reminiscent impressionism, he begins to make the kind of sense to them that he always made to himself. 

Ives is no more an amateur composer, as critics unfamiliar with his scores have claimed, than Hieronymous Bosch or Gesualdo or William Blake or Antonio Gaudi or James Joyce were amateurs. It is just that he, like they, did not fit into a category, a school or a tradition. They are phenomena and it is our own inflexibility and timidity that prevent us from acclaiming or acknowledging these geniuses in their own time. 

Perhaps it is Ives's loneliness and courage that most appeal to us. This loneliness is revealed everywhere in those wistful chordal suspensions which remain after the raucous and brassy exuberance has vanished. The kind of courage it took to go his own way appeals to us increasingly in these days of bureaucratic conformity as does the fact that he did not need to invent a system to justify what he was already writing and needed to hear. 

To say that the four giants of 20th-century music are Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg and Ives may sound contentious, but it may be easier to prove in another decade. 

Explore Charles Ives's life and music...

Gramophone Collection: Charles Ives's Concord Sonata

Charles Ives left his Concord Sonata for solo piano unfinished for a reason. But what that reason was remains unclear – which, says Philip Clark, presents a challenge to pianists who tackle the work on record... Read more

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