Classical Notes

Charles Ives, America's Greatest Composer

treble clef graphicHe's been dubbed the greatest American composer by such cultural shapers as Time magazine and Leonard Bernstein. You've never heard of Charles Ives? That's OK - he wouldn't have cared.

But wait - aren't America's contributions to classical music surely eclipsed by its gifts to jazz, blues, country, pop and, of course, good old rock 'n' roll? Could Ives really have been more important than Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, George Gershwin or Chuck Berry?

Well, to each his own. Ives Songs (Nonesuch LP cover) But greatest or not, Ives is surely the quintessential American composer. His music bursts at every seam with the idiom of our culture. Like America itself, Ives brimmed with all our contradictions and complexity, an amalgam of traditional roots and far-reaching vision.

Ives was born and raised in Connecticut. The New England Transcendentalists' belief in nature and self-reliance imbued him with a basic faith both in the common man and in himself. His views were stretched by his father George, the leader of the Danbury village band, who loved to experiment with acoustics (exploring the sound of instruments in various natural settings), counterpoint (playing melody and harmony in different keys), dissonance (constructing a machine to divide octaves into hundreds of microtones) and happenstance (arranging for bands playing different songs to pass each other in parades). This clash of old and new would come to permeate Ives's music, which confidently tosses together everyday elements in bizarre extremes. Superficially, at least, it can seem like haphazard primitive junk.

Ives was a man of deep philosophical conviction, always insisting on doing things his own way or not at all. But upon graduating from Yale, he faced a dilemma - he refused to compromise his principles to compose trendy, attractive music that would earn a living; yet, as he put it, he couldn't let his children starve on his dissonances. His solution was a hard but practical one - he relegated art to the sidelines and devoted himself to the world of business. Beginning as an actuarial clerk, Ives worked his way up with phenomenal success and by middle-age could have retired a multi-millionaire (back when that really meant something). But Ives stayed true to his roots by living humbly and striving to tailor life insurance to the needs of working men. For decades he was known as the innovator of estate planning and sales training and a guiding light of the insurance industry. Associates were often surprised to learn that he also wrote music.

Ives consigned his musical career,Ives Concord Sonata played by John Kirkpatrick (Columbia LP cover) such as it was, to evenings and weekends, during which he compiled a striking portfolio of far-fetched compositions whose atonality, wildly complex rhythms, linear structures and other devices anticipated by decades much of what we have come to consider the leading edge of 20th century music. And then, around 1920, just as he reached his early forties and could have begun to focus attention on attracting an indifferent world's notice to his art, Ives's health faltered. Although his life was barely half over, he became increasingly withdrawn. He ignored the musical establishment, which gladly repaid the favor. He remained one of America's best-kept secrets.

Ives did little to ease his artistic seclusion. He avoided contacts that could have led to recognition, feeling that he would "work better if I kept to my own music and let other people keep to theirs." He believed that good music had to be noncommercial, envisioning the birth of true talent "when the last man who is willing to make a living out of art is gone and gone forever." He rarely sought performances, believing that "the more a composer accepts from his patron, the less he will accept from himself." He refused to copyright his music, insisting that anyone be able to use it, and scared off publishers by demanding that they make free copies available upon request. He issued only two works - his "Concord" Piano Sonata and a collection of songs - entirely at his own expense and gave away the copies.

Ives's music reflects the central paradox that shaped his upbringing. On the one hand, he was an ardent populist. He unabashedly "borrowed" his themes from hymns, marches, the classics and songs and showed his respect for the taste and talent of the common man by replicating untutored singing through "wrong" notes, "faltering" rhythms and clusters of tones. Yet, he disdained conventional music for its repetitious form and the inefficiency of so many musicians playing the same notes. He had no tolerance for pretty, soothing sounds (he especially scorned Mozart for having emasculated music) and derided as "Rollos" and "Ladybirds" those who couldn't take a dissonance like a man. And his music is astoundingly complex and difficult to perform. Indeed, he readily admitted that some of it was unplayable and he took as a compliment criticism that his works were too dense and crammed with overlapping fragments of ideas thrown together in a seemingly chaotic stream-of-consciousness. Perhaps the key to understanding Ives lies in the character of America itself - Ives's music is a reflection of our great melting pot society to which other cultures contribute, but from which the result emerges as something altogether new and exciting.

These thoughts are prompted by the recent release of a CD, Ives Plays Ives (CRI 310). Its significance extends far beyond its unassuming title. Ives Plays Ives, CRI CD # 810 It is, quite simply, the most direct introduction to one of the greatest composers of any age. Be forewarned, though - this is not a disc to enjoy in a conventional sense, especially if you have Rollo or Ladybird tendencies. Rather, it's a wild, untamed glimpse into the Ives workshop, and a rather messy one at that.

Never intended for public consumption, Ives' only recording sessions, held between 1933 and 1943, long after his retirement, were undertaken for a far more poignant reason - he just wanted to hear how his music sounded. Pending critical and public attention (mostly posthumous), performances of his works were few and recordings rarer still, with none at all until 1934. So, with typical Yankee resolve, Ives decided to record some of it himself.

What do we have? Nearly all the cuts are studies and embellishments of the "Emerson" movement of his "Concord" Sonata, with which Ives remained obsessed long after his creative period ended. Ives clearly loved this music and (to the horror of would-be performers) bridled at the notion of a definitive edition, constantly rewriting it with evolving insight, reveling in "the daily pleasure of playing this music and seeing it grow, and feeling that it is not finished and the hope that it will never be." His approach is raw and unvarnished, and therefore as close to the core of his creative mind as we can ever hope to come.

We also get three takes of Ives singing his patriotic song, "They Are There." Did I say singing? Perhaps bellowing or manic ranting is more like it. As his father once told him, "Don't pay too much attention to the sounds or you may miss the music." And sure enough, although Ives's vocals are crude, off-key, and glaringly unmusical (in every conventional sense), the indomitable spirit of his song comes barreling through.

After 73 minutes of such challenging, improvisational stuff, the disc concludes on a breathtaking note - an exquisite performance of the "Alcott" movement of the Concord Sonata that is as gorgeous, straightforward and inviting as the rest had been thorny, bewildering and alienating. The theme is lifted from the famous opening "fate" motif of Beethoven's Fifth but with a wistful tail, firmly tonal but with searching distant harmonies, strong and bold but with tender, honest emotion. Here is Ives for the ages - short and direct, nothing wasted, planting a clichéd German theme into the rich Connecticut soil from which it springs up afresh, transforming a formula of the past into a wholly new music of shimmering vision. It's nothing less than a microcosm of our national history, in which our forefathers crafted their conservative immigrant traditions into a new home-grown revolutionary spirit, cherishing the respected ideals of the past yet aglow with confidence in the promise of a boundless future.

It's a ravishing moment, a distillation of the genius of Charles Ives and so very American.

Recommended Ives recordings? Taking a cue from his own records, it would seem a gross violation of the Ives spirit to apply the usual criteria of technical precision, recording quality or, worst of all, interpretive approach. After all, this was a man who scorned the musical establishment and who took genuine delight in printers' errors. Rather, the only valid consideration would seem to be the enthusiasm and spirit of the performance. For that, I most often turn to the pioneers, from a time not so long ago when advocating Ives was a lonely and unrewarding mission.

Perhaps Ives' most accessible scoreIves Symphony # 2 (Columbia LP cover) is his Symphony # 2, a remarkably fluent blend of borrowings ranging from Brahms and Wagner to "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" and reveille that even Ladybirds should enjoy. Nearly a half-century after its completion, Leonard Bernstein led the world premiere with the New York Philharmonic in 1951. Their radiant 1958 recording remains compelling, especially now coupled with their fine 1965 account of the Symphony # 3 ("The Camp Meeting") on Sony SMK 47568 or SMK 60202.

Within its half-hour, the sprawling Symphony # 4 careens from an evocative hymn through a chaste double fugue to sections so brutally difficult as to require three conductors. Leopold Stokowski and his American Symphony Orchestra gave its even more belated world premiere in 1965. Their recording (Sony MPK 46726) retains much of the awe of that occasion. Another idiomatic reading by Michael Tilson-Thomas and the Chicago Symphony (Sony SK 44939) includes the Symphony # 1, written at Yale, in which Ives playfully tweaks the Tchaikovskian conventions so dear to his conservative teachers.

In between these extremes lies Holidays, a suite of boyhood recollections of Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, seasoning the elders' austerity with moody impresssionism, barn dances, parades and fireworks. Ives Symphony # 4 (Columbia LP cover) Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (Sony SMK 60203) and Donald Johanos and the Dallas Philharmonic (super-budget Vox 5035) capture the full scope of a restless young mind probing for understanding amid baffling social conventions.

Three Places in New England is another suite that mingles fierce Yankee pride with deeply personal reflection. "The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common (Colonel Shaw and his Colored Regiment)" is a stream of evanescent and respectful reflections on a bas-relief commemorating the struggles and pride of the African-American civil war brigade whose exploits were depicted in the movie "Glory." "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut" is a wide-eyed child's jumbled heap of fragmented impressions of noisy celebration amid wartime unease. The finale, "The Housatanic at Stockbridge," is a summer idyll as Ives evokes walking with his wife along the bank of his favorite river after their wedding, distant hymns and memories jostling for attention. The end is pure Ives - after piling up to a massive climax, a few casual quiet notes simply trail off, as wisps of random lingering thought flit away. Howard Hanson and the Eastman Rochester Orchestra (Mercury 32755) are lean and classic, Tilson-Thomas and the Boston Symphony (DG 463 633) are more impulsive, and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Sony SSK 89851) are rich, smooth and deeply atmospheric.

Although a mere filler on several CDs, The Unanswered Question just may be Ives's masterpiece. Although our musical history is full of far more ambitious attempts to analyze the human condition, Ives managed to say it all in this astoundingly prescient gesture with depth and elegance in a mere 5 1/2 minutes.

John Kirkpatrick, Ives's most fervent early advocate, studied the Piano Sonata # 2 ("Concord") intensively with the composer; his first recording, a surprise best-seller in 1948, effectively catapulted the aging recluse into recognition. His stereo remake was last on Columbia LP MS 7198. William Masselos pioneered performances of the Piano Sonata # 1. He, too, made both mono and stereo recordings, the latter last on RCA LP LSC-2941. All have eluded CD transfer so far.

Chamber music includes the two Quartets, in beautiful performances by the Concord Quartet on Nonesuch LP H-71306, and the four Sonatas for Violin and Piano, in a complete set by Paul Zukofsky and Gilbert Kalish on Nonesuch LP set HB-73025. These, too, deserve to be silvered.

Ives songs can be profound,Cowell biography of Ives playful or just plain peculiar. Of many collections, a wide variety is given by Jan DeGaetani and Gilbert Kalish on Elektra/Nonesuch 71325-2. If you've never heard an Ives song, go right to "Ann Street" (all 49 seconds of it); its very idea should make you laugh out loud - the lyrics form a map of the two-block road of the title.

As for reading, the first book about Ives remains the best. Charles Ives and His Music by Sidney and Henry Cowell (Oxford University Press, 1955) is a deeply insightful yet objective appreciation by a fellow composer. Enriched by interviews with acquaintences (there were few colleagues) and completed days before Ives's death, it's short, accessible, lively and gives an unparalleled vibrant portrait of its unique subject.

Also essential are Ives's own quirky writings. Informative scraps are collected in Charles E. Ives: Memos (J. Kirkpatrick, ed., Norton 1991). His only (and originally self-) published work is now available in Essays Before a Sonata and Other Writings by Charles Ives (Norton, 1961). It's full of quotable quotes (including the ones I've cited above). My favorite passage comes at the end of the "Epilogue to 114 Songs," in which Ives defends an unsingable song's right to exist:

If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poet's castle, or a prosodic law, will you stop it? ... If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly, to sing what cannot be sung, to walk in a cave on all fours, or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith and try to scale mountains that are not, who shall stop it? In short, must a song always be a song!

Such was Charles Ives, American.

Peter Gutmann

Copyright © 2000 and 2002 by Peter Gutmann

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