Why you should listen to Charles Ives.

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June 1 2009 12:27 PM

This American Composer

Why you should listen to Charles Ives.

This photo from around 1913 shows Ives in his "day job". He was the director of a successful insurance agency.

There's a tendency for classical music aficionados to assume that composers are always and only themselves: Beethoven always Beethoven, Brahms always Brahms, Ives always Ives. The reality is that those composers, like all worthwhile artists, have gone through a more or less extended journey to escape from their models and to find a voice, to discover who they are. Part of the process of discovering who you are is finding why you are: What you want to say, why you're an artist in the first place.

Recently, two American-born conductors of major American orchestras mounted works of the visionary Yankee maverick Charles Ives. His legend started in Danbury, Conn. If you're the keyboard-prodigy son of an imaginative small-town bandmaster father who, in the 1880s, teaches his son to sing in one key while he accompanies in another; who tells the boy he can write any chord as long as he knows the reason for it; who marches two bands around the town green playing different tunes to see what it sounds like when they pass—if you grow up with a father like that while being educated in traditional skills, and if you've got the guts to keep experimenting with the materials of music when everybody, but everybody, tells you you're crazy—then you're in the direction of a Charles Ives.

Except no important composer had a background like Ives', with its mingling of the traditional and radical, small-town and sophisticated. He reached adulthood as one of the finest organists of his generation, endured a relentlessly conservative music curriculum at Yale, wrote a proper European-Romantic Symphony No. 1 and string quartet. Here, for example, is the beginning of that First Symphony, modeled on Dvořák et al., before Ives sounded like Ives.

Through the throes of academe, Ives was also, thanks to his father's inspiration, tinkering with polytonality, polyrhythm, musical collage, chance effects, and spatial music well before any of those terms were invented. But for a long time, he didn't know why.

The why lay in his background, waiting to be discovered. There was one more thing his father taught him. Ives' father, George Ives, had been a Civil War band director in his teens. He heard troops singing the sentimental tunes of the day like "Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground" while they actually were tenting on the campground, waiting for battle. Every year on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), George Ives played "Taps" over the graves of soldiers while old men in uniform stood at attention and wept. George Ives told his son Charlie that any music, from the grandest symphony to a sentimental song sung in a parlor to a barroom piano belting out ragtime, if it is earnest and authentic in the doing, is a manifestation of something deeply human. To a parishioner complaining about the local stonemason bleating out a hymn, George Ives said: "Don't listen to the sounds, look at the exaltation on his face. That's the real thing, the music of the ages." In many works of Charles Ives' maturity, the composer would paint pictures of that kind of exaltation, whether found in church, in a parade, on a train platform, or in a ragtime dive—wherever there was music to touch the heart and soul.

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There were no models of how to get such ideas on the page. He had to find his way alone. Meanwhile, his training had taught him to shape big pieces but not a reason to write them. At Yale, and for years after, there had been a divide in his music between approved tradition and private experiment. On one hand, he wrote conventional works on the European model, including three relatively well-behaved symphonies, the last two involving American material. The beginning of the Symphony No. 2 is lushly Romantic; then there's a bit that sounds Bach-like but happens to be based on a fiddle tune called "Pigtown Fling."

On the other hand, Ives wrote a prophetic series of smaller experimental pieces, including TheUnanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark, the latter a collagelike portrait of the city heard from the stillness of the park.

When Ives resigned from his last church music-director job in 1902 and plunged into experimental work, for a time he abjured the old genres like symphony and sonata. "The nice German recipe," he growled. "To hell with it!" He invented his own kind of large work called a "set," an assemblage of independently written pieces arranged in terms of contrast and programmatic theme. In these pieces, he discovered ways of putting into notes not only the tunes but the feelings he heard people express through everyday music in his childhood. The best-known orchestral sets are Three Places in New England and Holidays, the latter including his uproarious tone portrait The Fourth of July, in which he wrote not just a march but a whole parade and (at the end of this clip) the fireworks above it.

In these pieces, Ives finally found not only his mature voice, his singular integration of tradition and revolution, past and future, but his rhymes and reasons. Music, he said, is an outer representation of a divine spirit inside each of us. He painted concrete pictures of American life whose essence is spiritual: the exaltation of worship and celebration and laughter, the music of the ages found in the most humble things and places and people.

So Ives came into his own when he joined his experimental side with large forms. From that point, in the climactic works the PianoSonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840-60, and Symphony No. 4, he returned to the old European genres, on his own terms, because he needed them to realize his highest ambitions. He was no longer dispensing the nice German recipe but integrating American themes into the great tradition by way of his own voice and vision. The Concord sonatais a portrait of the literary divinities of that town and no less a grand sonata in the Beethoven tradition. At the same time, it's a virtual portrait of American life—from its "Emerson" movement, picturing the philosopher on his heroic quest for the truths we are born with; to the Main Street Fourth of July march in "Hawthorne"; to the image of home and hearth in "The Alcotts"; to, finally, "Thoreau," which gives voice to the sage of the natural world, playing his flute over the stillness of Walden Pond.

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