Ives's Ears: Charles Ives Reconsidered | The Nation


Ives's Ears: Charles Ives Reconsidered

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The issue of the dating of Ives's compositions also remains unresolved in Magee's account. She claims that Ives assigned his compositions the dates of their earliest sketches and speculates that he may have been encouraged in this practice by Henry Cowell, a younger composer with whom Ives became closely associated in the 1920s. According to Magee, Cowell backdated his compositions so that he would appear to be more of a pioneer; Ives, in the 1920s, similarly wanted to appear to be a precursor of European Modernism, not a follower. Magee argues, however, that such works as Three Places in New England, the Holidays Symphony and the Concord Sonata were all composed during and in response to World War I, and that Ives not only continued to compose through the 1920s but, encouraged by Cowell, continued to rewrite his music to give it a more aggressively Modernist sound. For whatever reasons, Ives left much of his music unfinished or open-ended; as shown by the rewriting of the Second Symphony, he was composing, or at least recomposing, almost to the time of his death. Perhaps the prospect of continued recomposition of much of his work kept him going.

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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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Magee does not explore the aesthetic dimensions of updating. If Ives's music was composed a decade or more later than once thought, it could also have been more responsive to European Modernist music than Ives wanted to let on. In the first decade of the twentieth century, when Ives was beginning his business career in New York City, Gustav Mahler was often in town performing works like Debussy's Nocturnes and Iberia, Busoni's Berceuse élégiaque, Strauss's Ein Heldenleben and his own First, Second and Fourth Symphonies. If he attended Mahler's performances, Ives would have been intrigued by any of these pieces. In Fêtes, Debussy's second Nocturne, a lively dance is interrupted by an approaching march that swells in volume and becomes ever more riotous--an effect heard in Ives's "Putnam's Camp" and "Decoration Day." Moreover, while Magee conjures up rich interpretations from Ives's major works by dating many of them to World War I, she fails to address the fact that they all sprang from the so-called experimental pieces that Ives began to write in 1906, beginning with The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark. These still-astounding works really do precede anything comparable in European music--not that there was anything comparable until perhaps after World War II. These miniatures present the textures and rhythms that Ives would later expand into extended musical panoramas: superimposed musical layers moving at different tempos and with different harmonies that evoked a sense of cosmic mystery. They are the core of Ives's achievement, yet Magee is at a loss to explain them. Indeed, she mentions The Unanswered Question only as evidence of Ives's current fame because the title of the piece served as a running gag on an episode of Frasier.

Magee treats Ives's engagement with political issues during World War I as a sign of a greater awareness of public taste than he is usually credited with. His evocations of earlier wars in "The St. Gaudens" and "Putnam's Camp" were intended to rekindle patriotic fervor, while songs like "Tom Sails Away" expressed the widely felt anxiety over military conscription. In his insurance business, Ives was a master of salesmanship and marketing. Why, Magee reasons, should it be any different in his music? At a time when modern composers, like Leo Ornstein and Cowell, promoted their music by performing it themselves, Ives devised an alternative strategy whereby he acted as his own publisher, publicist and even patron. In the 1920s Ives allied himself with the emerging school of American ultra-Modernists, which included Cowell, Varèse and Carl Ruggles. Ives subsidized their concerts and Cowell's magazine, New Music Quarterly; in return, they programmed him on their concerts and the magazine published his music. According to Magee, this alliance encouraged Ives to make his music more dissonant, pushing it toward the unprecedented sonic chaos of the last movement of the Fourth Symphony. At the same time, though, Ives supplied Cowell with memos about his early life, which Cowell and his wife would draw on to fashion the influential image of Ives at the center of the biography they published in 1955, a year after his death. "In Cowell's writings," Magee explains, "Ives underwent a startling transformation from a nervous, hermetically creative New York businessman into a deep-rooted Connecticut Yankee who preserved long-lost regional music in his compositions."

I wonder, though, if Ives's marketing skill is a strength that only a musicologist could value. After all, posthumous recognition is not the usual measure of a successful sales strategy. Ives was a man of considerable means, yet he was incapable of gaining a foothold in the concert world with anything resembling the success of George Gershwin or Aaron Copland, both of whom came from far humbler backgrounds and were writing music that was, in its way, as far removed from the nineteenth-century Germanic classics as Ives's works. For whatever reasons, Ives remained convinced throughout his life that the regular concert world would reject his music. When the Bernstein premiere of the Second Symphony was broadcast, Ives, according to Swafford, listened quietly and then, as the applause began, "spat into the fireplace and walked into the kitchen without a word."

Magee's book is a model of contemporary musicology, sympathetically sober in its judgments and interdisciplinary in its methods. Yet in the end it tells us much more about Ives's milieu than his music. I'm a composer, not a musicologist, and I think it's worth trying to imagine a different way of understanding what's unique about Ives's music. After a Hartford violinist offered Ives a sharp criticism of his First Violin Sonata, the composer famously asked, "Why do I like to work in this way and get all set up over what just upsets other people...? No one else seems to hear it the same way. Are my ears on wrong?" Let's imagine that they were on "wrong," that Ives was differently eared in a particular way. When my father began to lose his hearing, he complained that hearing aides were no help; they amplified all sounds, not the ones he wanted to hear. Imagine Ives as having congenital hearing aids. When most people listen to conversation or music, they are able to focus on the relevant sounds and filter out other noises. Ives may have lacked this ability or, conversely, may have had a special ability to listen inclusively, to register all the sounds his ears picked up. I know musicians who are acutely aware of the tones produced by room fans and electrical fixtures, sounds that most people block out. The late Stuart Feder, author of a compelling psychoanalytic study of Ives, recognized this quality in Ives when he pointed out that he "entered the world with a predisposition toward music that affected the nature of his perception of reality." In his childhood, and perhaps particularly in charged circumstances like holiday celebrations, which provide the subject of many of his compositions, Ives may have experienced every sound he perceived, and every emotion attendant upon those sounds, as music. We can then hear much of Ives's music as Proustian attempts to recapture and re-create these intensely felt experiences from early life.

If we imagine this differently eared, alternatively wired Ives, a lot of what critics have found problematic about his music and career falls away. Like other great composers, he probably possessed an acute and unaccountable impulse to use sounds expressively. As he matured he had to balance the need to acquire skills through musical education against the preservation of this impulse, a conflict he explained later in terms of the colliding advice of his father and Horatio Parker, his Yale music professor. As Magee makes clear, Ives remained faithful to both his father and Parker, particularly if we think of these two figures as emblems of two versions of musical culture, Jacksonian populism and Gilded Age sacralization. Most of Ives's music stems from the repertory of his father's marching bands and the popular hymns he played as a church organist during his boyhood. But Ives did not pursue the career of a march composer like John Philip Sousa, or a hymn composer like Dudley Buck. Instead, he envisioned a music that would exalt marches and hymns to the spiritual heights he encountered in the peak experiences of childhood and, though he did not easily admit it, in particular works of classical music.

When Ives was 20 he attended his first opera at the Met--Götterdämmerung. In few other works of classical music would he have encountered a visionary framework capable of bearing his extended experience of sound. I think the closing minutes of this opera--the immolation scene in which Valhalla is set aflame, the Rhine overflows its banks and human history seems to start all over again--set the expressive mark for Ives's later music. You can hear the descending bass line of the last phrase of Wagner's opera reiterated at the end of Ives's equally apocalyptic Fourth Symphony. When we imagine Ives's artistic project this way, we can forget about the Oedipal convolutions of the psycho-biographers and also, I hope, ignore the tired issues of American and European musical styles, of populism and elitism. And we can permanently retire the term "maverick" as a label for a composer who simply and successfully remained true to his own special ears.

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