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Ives's Ears: Charles Ives Reconsidered | The Nation

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Ives's Ears: Charles Ives Reconsidered

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Halley Erskine/Yale UniversityCharles Ives circa 1948

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David Schiff
David Schiff, a professor of music at Reed College, is the composer of the opera Gimpel the Fool and author of books on...

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Long before his death in 1954, at 80, Charles Ives seemed less like the father of American music than an eccentric uncle whose antic behavior and uncensored opinions at birthdays and funerals conscript his relatives into manufacturing an endless series of apologies and disclaimers. In his songs, symphonies and sonatas, Ives furnished America's musical past with a future. He linked the sounds of the nineteenth century--marches and hymns and ragtime ditties--to the complex new harmonies and rhythms of modern music, and he forced their fusion with visionary zeal. He also referred to musicians he didn't respect, or who didn't respect him, as "sissies" and bewailed the feminization of American musical life. Revolted by the mixing of art and commerce, he refused to pursue a career as a musician or even to copyright his music. Although he published some of his scores, most of his work remained in a state of editorial chaos, overwritten with corrections, pentimenti, comments and instructions. And he often fudged the provenance of his compositions, claiming they were written earlier than was the case in order to appear more innovative. Ives even lied about his own father. He claimed that when he was a student at Yale in the 1890s, his father, who had been an Army bandleader during the Civil War, advised him to ignore the criticisms offered by his music professor, Horatio Parker, a musical conservative who favored the practice of tonal music enshrined in the textbooks of the day. If the anecdote were true, Ives's father would have been counseling his son from the grave.

During the past decade, the picture of Ives has metamorphosed from eccentric uncle into cagey impresario and entrepreneur, a process explained by Gayle Sherwood Magee in her aptly titled Charles Ives Reconsidered. The most striking change in Ives's image concerns the scope of his oeuvre, which was enriched by the publication in 1999 of James Sinclair's A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives. Sinclair unearthed, re-edited and assembled to completion many works long considered lost or fragmentary, such as "Ragtime Dances" and the "Third Orchestral Set." Ives heavily revised much of his music, and Sinclair culled from the revisions worthy variant readings of even familiar, frequently heard compositions. You can now purchase a recording of the Emerson Concerto, an earlier, orchestral version of the first movement of the Concord Sonata. And if you listen to the fine recording of the familiar Three Places in New England by Michael Tilson Thomas (our reigning Ives-meister) and the San Francisco Symphony, you may be surprised to hear a chorus singing in the third movement, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." The choral melody, taken from Ives's song with the same title and already present in the symphony as an instrumental line, lifts Ives's picturesque triptych into the realm of Beethoven's Ninth--or at least into the neighborhood of Ives's Fourth Symphony, which was once considered unplayable but is now widely considered to be the crowning glory of American symphonic composition, the musical counterpart of Moby-Dick or Leaves of Grass. The recent recording of the Concord Sonata by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (who also accompanies Met mezzo Susan Graham in a selection of songs) is a sign that Ives's work has even found a place in the international repertory.

With Ives's oeuvre securely anchored in the musical mainstream, his life looks different. When the music seemed interesting mainly for its crackpot eccentricities and quaint country humor (the "Currier and Ives" Ives), the composer was viewed as an isolated, anachronistic character from the rural American past. In Magee's telling he seems mad like one of the Mad Men, consciously shaping his personal, professional and artistic personas in ways that would guarantee the ultimate triumph of his unique musical legacy. In retrospect, even Ives's famed eccentricity looks like a clever ploy by a master salesman who recognized that, at particular moments, nuttiness would sell. The newly reconsidered Ives made all the right moves.

Magee caps her book with a potent example of Ives's promotional cunning. In 1951, Leonard Bernstein conducted the world premiere of Ives's Second Symphony, composed between 1908 and 1910. (The score had remained unperformed even after Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony in 1947.) This accessible and good-humored work is far removed from Ives's wilder experiments and is clearly indebted to Dvorák and Brahms as well as Stephen Foster, whose melodies echo throughout all four movements. Although he conducted few other Ives compositions, Bernstein performed this symphony often, and I remember well his performance of the last movement on a Young People's Concert broadcast in April 1961. Bernstein told his audience that Charles Ives was a

salty old Yankee who lived, up to his death a few years ago, in Danbury, Connecticut.... He was also one of the first American composers to use folk songs and folk dances in his concert music.... You will also hear real barn dance tunes like "Turkey in the Straw," and real folk songs such as "Long, Long Ago," and a real Stephen Foster tune, "Camptown Races," and a real bugle call, "Reveille," and to top it all off a real quotation from that grand old American tune "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean." It all adds up to a rousing jamboree, like a Fourth of July celebration, finished off at the very end by a wild yelp of laughter made by the orchestra playing a chord of all the notes in the rainbow at once--as if to say WOW!

Like many of Ives's boosters, Bernstein tinkered with the truth to sell the music. Ives lived most of his adult life on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and he rarely quoted folk tunes: much of his music is based on the hymns he learned as a church organist in various denominations in his teens and 20s. More to the point, with the aid of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, Ives produced a new version of the Second Symphony for Bernstein's premiere (Ives was 76 at the time and in frail health), and the WOW! moment punctuating the end of the score was tailored to the tastes of the quintessentially WOW! conductor. Previous versions had ended in a much more predictable fashion, with a tonic triad, just as Brahms and Dvorák would have done. With the showbiz acumen of a George Abbott or a Harold Prince, and with a little help from his friends, Ives packed the ending of the Second Symphony with a jovial musical charge, like the sound of popping balloons and firecrackers, that gave the Young People's Concert the feeling of a birthday party. I was 15 at the time, and I ran out to buy the recording as soon as I could.

Magee challenges received ideas about Ives in three interconnected areas--his medical history, the dating of his compositions and the nature of his involvement with the musical marketplace--and while some of her findings are intriguing, none are explosive. Earlier accounts of Ives's life reported a series of heart attacks and nervous breakdowns that began in 1906 and had by 1920 virtually ended his work as a composer and his career as an insurance executive. Jan Swafford's colorfully written Charles Ives: A Life With Music (1996) describes the elder Ives as a victim of chronic debilitating forms of diabetes and bipolar disorder. Ives's father died of a stroke when he was 49; the fact that Ives lived to be 80 is usually credited to the ministrations of his wife, Harmony, who was a trained nurse. According to psychoanalytic studies, Ives was burdened with neuroses about his father and the question of his musical originality, and was prone to bouts of misogyny and homophobia. By 1921, such a profoundly crippled Ives would have been incapable of composing or carefully managing his reputation.

Magee rejects these diagnoses. She finds no evidence of heart attacks in the medical records and dismisses the psychoanalytic readings of Ives's character as anachronistic. Instead, she takes seriously the diagnosis offered by Ives's doctors: neurasthenia. This condition, which manifested itself in physical exhaustion and heart palpitations, was the national ailment of the Progressive Era, the downside of the "strenuous life" that Teddy Roosevelt embodied and demanded of America's ruling elite. Born into a patrician banking family, a BMOC at Yale, married into an even more distinguished New England line and a successful corporate innovator, Ives was well ensconced in the elite. Today neurasthenia is no longer an accepted medical term, but in taking it seriously Magee reveals much about Ives's privileged background (which he downplayed by crafting a rustic persona) and also the extent to which his double life, composing for four or five hours after putting in a full day at his insurance firm, was bound to take a toll. Still, her reconsideration brings no new medical evidence to the table, and consequently Ives's physical condition over the last third of his life remains a mystery, as Magee admits in the closing sentence of her book: "Understanding Ives and his music from this unvarnished perspective may yet prove the greatest challenge of all."

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