Understanding Charles Ives.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
May 17 2004 7:07 PM

How Ives Jibes

Understanding America's contentious composer.

Fifty years ago as of May 19, Charles Ives died in New York, with his future in uncertain standing. Today, it still is. Certainly by his death Ives had emerged from the obscurity that marked his active career as a composer: Between 1902, when he quit his last church-organist job, and 1922, when most of his work was behind him, there had been not a single public performance of his music. For the last two decades of his life he suffered a train of ailments that hobbled the necessary tasks of promoting his work.

By the time he departed, Ives had to his credit a Pulitzer, performances by major orchestras, and a cadre of champions and admirers. He also had a lingering reputation as an amateur and a weirdo. One of his supposed champions, Leonard Bernstein, dubbed Ives "the Grandma Moses of Music," i.e., a primitive. Even in 1954, though, some people understood Ives was no such thing. A few had gone so far as to suggest that he was the greatest of American composers.

That opinion is less surprising now, his fans more numerous, his music extensively recorded. But suspicions linger. Is Ives really a "great" composer, as most listeners understand the term? Addressing this question is an abiding problem with Ives: He didn't play the game like anybody else, and so he requires explaining in ways that Bach, Mozart, etc. don't.

For those unfamiliar with the Ives Problem, here are two excerpts from his epic Fourth Symphony. Much of the second movement, called " Comedy," is a kind of Pandemonic ragtime, evoking among other things a modern city in a vertiginous rush hour. Most experienced ears would label that wild assault as some variety of "Modern." But what do we call the next movement, a C-major fugue based on a hymn tune? Those schooled in the usual doctrines of music history would say that Ives mounted a revolution in the second movement and bailed out of it in the third.

But it is not that Ives lacks rhymes and reasons, only that his are singular and personal. They have much to do with his upbringing in music.

He was the son of a Danbury, Conn., band director named George Ives. The father gave his prodigy son a traditional education in music; by his teens Charlie was a professional church organist and a budding composer of conventional pieces. George Ives was also a man fascinated by sounds and by the human element in music. He would march two bands around Danbury Common in opposite directions playing different tunes, to see what it sounded like as they passed. He would have Charlie sing a tune in one key while he accompanied in another.

In the 1880s, his father told Charlie that any combination of notes whatever was acceptable, as long as you had a reason for it. Surely that was the first time anybody had said such a thing to a young composer. The result for Ives was a sense of freedom unprecedented in the history of music. And George Ives bequeathed his son something still more important. Once a Union bandmaster in the Civil War, George had an indelible feeling for the power of everyday music in the hands and voices of people: veterans singing "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground," a thousand souls at a camp meeting belting out "The Sweet Bye and Bye." Hearing a stonemason criticized for his fervent but raw hymn-singing, George Ives said: Don't listen to the sounds, listen to the passion behind them; that's the music of the ages. For father and son, the spirit behind any kind of music, if it is earnest and authentic, was sacred. "Music," Charles Ives wrote, "is life."  

By the time Ives arrived to study music at Yale, he was already experimenting with sounds and concepts the rest of the musical world would not discover for decades: polytonality, polyrhythm, free harmony, spatial and chance effects. He also possessed an abiding affection for vernacular music and a splendid sense of humor that complemented his essential seriousness. Four years of drilling in traditional musical technique failed to beat that out of him, though Yale did teach him the craft of shaping large works. To realize his ambitions, Ives would require the old European-Romantic genres. But he would have to remake them.  

It took him years to find ways to get his vision onto the page. After Yale, dubious about taking on the musical profession as a chronic experimenter, he went into the life-insurance business and ended up co-founding the biggest agency in the country. For the duration of his working life, Ives would compose, voluminously, in his time away from the office. In the decade after college he wrote in two streams: smaller experimental pieces and larger works in a relatively traditional mode, the latter including the Second Symphony that begins with echoes of Bach and Brahms and ends with a high-American fiddle tune recalling Stephen Foster.

It was when Ives united his experimental strain with large-scale works that he reached his maturity, realizing what he'd been aiming at all along: unifying the great European tradition with the spirit and the voices of everyday Americans. We hear that in the multilayered, almost Cubistic "Barn Dance" from"Washington's Birthday", part of his Holidays Symphony. (Note the historic introduction of the symphonic jew's-harp.)

Even at its wildest, his music is often a texture of quotes from familiar national tunes, plus echoes of Beethoven and other giants of the past: a universal symphony of myriad voices resembling, if anything else, the universal language of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. When Ives quotes a hymn or a march, he quotes them with feelings and setting added. That can get complicated—as in the Fourth Symphony or this march from " Decoration Day", which is not just a march but a whole parade. Like Joyce, Ives intended his work, however formidable it turned out in practice, to exalt the common man.

Ives hated tidy categories and labels. Much of that came from his Emersonian sense of inner truth that transcends outer doctrine and show. In his Essays Before a Sonata, Ives called the exterior part of music "manner," the inner spirit "substance." "Manner"is mere consistency, polish, style—even sound itself. "Substance"is the feeling behind the notes, the deeper consistency that can unite apparent contradictions. Thus Ives' startling question, "What does sound have to do with music?"

Paradoxical? Sure. For Ives, paradox was a high road to truth—and truth never stops moving. Hence his, or rather our, problem with labels. We think of "great" composers as having a "style." But Ives wrote everything from Victorian parlor tunes to music as ferociously complex as anything ever put on paper, and he meant them all. We expect composers to have a sense of historical place, to be Romantic or Modern, or a Transitional Figure. Ives embraces the past along with the future; moment by moment his harmonies can range from hymn-simple to massive clusters of sound and anything in between, as in this bit from "Hawthorne", part of his Concord Sonata.

Nor does Ives' polystylistic bent make him a prophet of Postmodernism. In its games with styles, Postmodernism involves a certain ironic disengagement. Ives is always engaged, serious, and ultimately religious, even when he's uproarious. The amateur bandsmen in his comic masterpiece "Putnam's Camp" are missing notes and falling all over the beat, but they're still playing their hearts out. "Bandstuff," Ives wrote. "They didn't always play right & together and it was as good either way."

If we judge Ives in terms of what he set out to do, he was a splendid success, a great composer indeed. He wanted to open up our ears and minds. If we let him, he will.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.