Ives’s Ears: Charles Ives Reconsidered

Ives’s Ears: Charles Ives Reconsidered

Ives’s Ears: Charles Ives Reconsidered

In songs, symphonies and sonatas, Charles Ives furnished America’s musical past with a future.


Halley Erskine/Yale UniversityCharles Ives circa 1948

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.”

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.

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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