American composer Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954) was an experimental and boldly original pioneer in musical expression. Recognition of his forceful, often eccentric genius came late in his life and much more fully after his death.
Born in Danbury, Conn., on Oct. 20, 1874, of an old New England family, Charles Ives really lived two lives: an outward, tradition-bound public life as an insurance executive, and an inward, musical, and reflective life full of paradoxical and revolutionary ideas.
As a student, Ives was essentially involved in law and business administration programs. However, he received solid musical training, first under his father, who had been a bandleader in the Civil War and, later, at Yale University, under Horatio Parker (a then respected, now nearly forgotten composer and teacher). Musically daring from the first, Ives shocked Parker with some of his student essays. Yet Parker was impressed by, and generally encouraged, his maverick pupil. Ives graduated from Yale in 1898. A skilled organist during his student days and early years in business, Ives often earned spending money by playing at church services. He also sometimes conducted bands at vaudeville houses, a fact that may explain his later use in serious compositions of the small, odd groups of instruments such as he had encountered in nightly changing vaudeville orchestras.
In 1906 Ives began a career in the insurance business, and his Yankee shrewdness eventually made him a near millionaire. Mainly preoccupied with his business and, later, with health just poor enough to force him to retire, he was a musician much like a "weekend painter." Music remained his avocation. Sometimes this "hobby" was used to make private jokes: his scribbled, sometimes nearly undecipherable manuscripts occasionally contain rude marginal comments about everything from music and philosophy to notes on personal friends. For the most part, however, he was quite serious. Friends reported that he probably did not expect his spare-time musical creations to become accepted eventually as masterpieces; yet he did work at some of his compositions as if they might attain such status someday.
The musical environment in late-19th-century America, when Ives began composing, was conservative, cold, and retrogressive, still attached to the nearly exhausted European romantic tradition. Most of Ives's music was composed between 1896 and 1916, with short bursts of production after that. He worked alone, often in what he felt was a mysterious, unexplored darkness; paradoxically, he wrote knowingly, quietly, but with a determined seriousness. Though working outside the musical activity of his time, he never faltered in his creative spontaneity and passion for finding his own way. He possessed extraordinary musical intuition as well as a kind of visionary power. Though he sometimes wrote traditional pieces, he mostly experimented with new musical procedures, and works completed before he was 20 years old presaged techniques introduced into the mainstream of music by other composers 2 and 3 decades later.
For the most part, Ives's works remained unknown to other musicians for many years after their composition. Nevertheless, the few bits and pieces that reached other composers worked a real, if mostly oblique, effect upon their own creations. American composers who early knew some of Ives's experiments included Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, and John Cage; foreign composers included Carlos Chávez, Benjamin Britten, and Edgard Varèse. Ives was a prophet, however, rather than the founder of a "school." Though his ideas had impact on others, he could not be followed in any traditional sense, since he lived in a musical and philosophical world of his own which could not be imitated. He disdained to explain the whys and wherefores of his increasingly unusual work, quoting Henry Thoreau: "I desire to speak to men in their waking moments … for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay a foundation for true expression."
By the 1920s Ives had experimented with (or, as one critic has said, "invented") practically every important musical innovation that would still be influential 50 years later. Thus, far in advance of contemporary compositional styles, Ives pioneered with techniques such as atonality, polymetric patterns, polyharmonic and polytonal particulars, quarter tones, microtones, tone clusters, and tone-rows. (These were not unlike the techniques that formed the basis of the twelve-tone serialism composer Arnold Schoenberg was working out in the early 1920s.) Ives's early experiments were akin to (and perhaps had some influence on) the mid-20th-century music of the tapesichord and even multidirectional music (written for music-making groups of varying sizes, sometimes calling for several conductors conducting independently but at the same time).
Mixed with Ives's formal innovations were his special "Americana" accents: the bittersweet seasoning of old American hymn tunes, banal parlor songs, and barbershop quartet songs of far-gone yesterdays which he called up in quotation or in sincerely fond remembrance; fragments of songs by Stephen Foster; sounds of minstrel shows; patriotic tunes; reminiscences of scores by Johannes Brahms and other classical composers; and native American ragtime. All of these bits and pieces were snipped and stitched together, sometimes expertly, sometimes crudely, almost always with mesmerizing effect. Sometimes in an Ives piece the listener can hear an old tune (such as "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" or "Bringing in the Sheaves") emerging from what seems a background either of accompaniment or of clashing competition. Occasionally, the elements simply combine with great beauty.
Ives's varied, empirical inventions blended eventually into something that could be called a definite style. This was characterized by a complex texture (often deliberately "muddy") and simple melodic shapes, mixed with zigzagging ultrachromatic twists, free-swinging harmony and counterpoint, and something like a "jargon" of rhythms.
In all, Ives wrote a staggeringly large amount of music: four symphonies (though his Three Orchestral Sets and the Holidays Symphony—the latter consisting of the four separate works Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, The 4th of July, and Thanksgiving, played in that order—bring that number to eight); numerous large and small orchestral and chamber works; two finger-breaking, sprawling piano sonatas (the second interestingly subtitled Concord, Mass., 1840-1860, its first movement entitled "Emerson" its second, "Hawthorne" its third, "The Alcotts" its last, "Thoreau"); four violin sonatas (the last bearing the subtitle Children's Day at the Camp Meeting); nearly 200 songs; many choral pieces; and short solo piano or organ works. It is almost impossible to fix accurate completion dates to most of these compositions; some were worked at on and off over a period of years.
During most of his life Ives was treated simply as a musical eccentric or a sort of "prophet without honor." Fortunately, he lived just long enough to see his work begin to be accepted. His Third Symphony won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. His influence upon younger creative musicians has increased since his death on May 19, 1954, in New York City.
Perhaps the best book on Ives is Henry and Sidney Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music (1955), a warm portrait by two musically knowledgeable friends. The book is not overly technical and offers many anecdotes, as well as penetrating comments on Ives's music. There is considerable material on Ives in such works on contemporary music as Peter Yates, Twentieth Century Music (1967).
Block, Geoffrey Holden, Charles Ives, a bio-bibliography, New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Burkholder, J. Peter (James Peter), Charles Ives, the ideas behind the music, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
Cowell, Henry, Charles Ives and his music, New York: Da Capo Press, 1983.
Feder, Stuart, Charles Ives, "my father's song": a psychoanalytic biography, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Perlis, Vivian, Charles Ives remembered: an oral history, New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
Rossiter, Frank R., Charles Ives and his America, New York: Liveright, 1975.
Sive, Helen R., Music's Connecticut Yankee: an introduction to the life and music of Charles Ives, New York: Atheneum, 1977.
Swafford, Jan, Charles Ives: a life with music, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Wooldridge, David, From the steeples and mountains; a study of Charles Ives, New York, Knopf, 1974.