Halley Erskine/Yale University
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.