Artistic legacy: the tricky task of preserving an artist's life and work.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 20 2011 3:09 PM

Cleaning Out Ives' Closet

The tricky task of preserving an artist's life and work.

Portrait Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis, painted in 1820 by Joseph Karl Stieler.
Ludwig van Beethoven

In the 1990s, when I was working on a biography of American composer Charles Ives, I visited what had been his summer house on Umpawaug Road in West Redding, Conn. Our host was his adopted daughter's son, Charles Ives Tyler, who had restored the place to the condition it was in when his grandparents lived there.

When we opened the double doors to Ives' studio the first things I saw were his battered hat on a shelf, beside it his bandmaster father's cornet. His cane leaned in the corner. An ancient dusty sign proclaimed BALL FIELD, a relic from his days as a teenaged pitcher in Danbury. On the back of his upright piano a picture of Brahms hung on a nail. At that moment I had a small biographical insight. A friend had written Ives after a visit, "I remember Brahms dancing on your piano." I thought he meant that Ives was playing Brahms. In fact, it was the picture of Brahms that danced as Ives pounded the keys.

Most of his papers had been taken out and archived, but his library and many keepsakes remained. On the shelves sat biographies of Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Franck, and Scriabin. On the double doors Ives had tacked up a random collage of pictures and clippings that documented his life: a herd of dark-suited insurance executives, performers, concert programs, pictures of Brahms and Franck, a school football team with Ives holding the ball. A huge French concert poster (the program including Three Places in New England) was crumbling off the wall. All the stuff hanging up was yellowed and falling apart, too far gone to save.

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I opened one of the books of Ives' songs sitting on top of his piano and nervously tried one on the keyboard. In my head I could hear Ives shouting, Stop playing like a sissy! The songs had been lying on his piano maybe since 1954, when he died. A lot of the pages had his pencil sketches of revisions and ideas for orchestration. I opened a drawer in his desk and found that not quite all his papers had been removed. There lay one of his trademark memos on a yellow legal sheet. One side had a blistering critique of Hindemith's harmonic theories as laid out in The Craft of Musical Composition. On the other side was a note from his wife, Harmony Ives: Charlie—your lunch is in the pantry under wax paper. Don't forget to feed Kitty. That's when I choked up.

This month, after more than 50 years of devoted preservation by the Tyler family, the Charles Ives house and land in West Redding is up for sale. The asking price is $1.5 million. Charles Tyler is retired and can't support the place anymore. A team of Ivesians has cleaned out the studio; the furniture in the rest of the house, much of it original, is going to the Tyler children.

The unassuming but highly distinctive shingle house sits on 18 acres in an area that used to be farmland and dirt roads. Now the lots on Umpawaug Road are prime real estate filled with McMansions. There's a good chance that any buyer who can afford the Ives property will tear down the house and put up something grander. In his day job Ives was a major insurance executive, co-founder of the largest agency in the country; he was, if not super-rich, quite well off. But he left most of his money to his family and a little to support his music. So for the skimpily funded Charles Ives Society, the current keeper of the flame, there's no way to save the house because there's no money, no money, no money.

This is an increasingly common story with artists' legacies. Even when there's an interest in preserving things, there's not enough money and not enough space to save a steadily accumulating mountain of artists' stuff. A few examples will illustrate.

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