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Biography Charles Ives, 1874-1954

Image: Charles Ives
[Charles Ives], [n.d.].

To hear the music of composer Charles Ives is to hear a unique voice in American music, and indeed, in Western music as a whole. His work is at once iconoclastic and closely tied to his musical heritage; in its conception and form, both staggeringly complex and immediately accessible; and in its musical language, both universal and distinctly American.

Ives's work embodies a distillation of the diverse stylistic features of the music of his time, from the traditions of Romanticism prevalent in European art music of the late nineteenth century to the simplicity of traditional American hymn tunes, often juxtaposed in unexpected and even experimental combinations. While rooted in the musical heritage of the late nineteenth century -- his work bears influences of Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, Richard Wagner, and of 'Romantic' era composers such as Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvorák, and Petr Il'ich Tchaikovsky -- Ives's music exhibits a marked determination towards establishing innovations in rhythm, harmony and form, and a continual striving toward the expression of his highly personal and exceptionally broad concept of the possibilities inherent in music itself. Ives's life-long impulse to break free of European musical models and to develop his personal means of self-expression -- thereby forging new musical paths for a distinctly American music as well -- parallels the pioneering spirit, cultural development and expanding perspective of the growing American nation.

Born in Danbury, Connecticut on 20 October 1874, the son of a prominent and socially progressive family which was active in business and civic life, Charles began his musical studies (of the piano and organ) at a young age. The young Ives's first lessons in harmony, counterpoint and composition were provided by his father George, a trained musician and former Civil War bandmaster, who was reputed to have developed the finest band in the Northern army. As town bandmaster, George Ives had occasionally conducted acoustical "experiments" such as the notorious event which involved two separate bands, playing different pieces in different keys and utilizing different rhythms, marching toward and past each other, with the result that both bands were, as young Charles himself later recalled, "brought together in cacophonous conflict...," evidently to the consternation of the townspeople of Danbury. George Ives's spirit of musical experimentation was, however, to make a profound impression on his son, who from an early age demonstrated a prodigious talent and keen sense of musicianship.

Ives's life is as diverse and colorful as the often mosaic-like character of his music. By the age of thirteen, Charles's composition Holiday Quickstep (now lost), a march for chamber ensemble, was performed publicly to encouraging reviews in the Danbury Evening News ("...certainly a musical genius... we shall expect more from this talented youngster in the future"). By the age of fourteen, Charles had become a salaried organist at his local church. During services, he often performed free improvisations on familiar hymns which apparently often included audacious musical effects such as fugues in multiple keys simultaneously. In addition to his musical talents, Ives was also an accomplished athlete, and was captain of several baseball and football teams.

In the fall of 1894, Ives began his first year at Yale College, and continued his study of composition with Horatio Parker (1863-1919). The American-born, German-trained Parker insisted on Ives's rigorous adherence to traditional forms. While Ives's Symphony no. 1 (1898-1901, revised 1907-8), begun under Parker's tutelage, was heavily indebted to nineteenth century European symphonic models, this early work still demonstrated the composer's affinity for synthesizing accepted art music with music of the "every day" (i.e. hymn tunes, band marches, parlor songs, etc.), presented in innovative ways. Apparently this effort was unacceptable to Parker; Ives reports that "the first subject went through six or eight different keys, so Parker made me write another first movement."

A musical education in this era did not, however, necessarily indicate a desire to pursue a musical career, a profession which was still considered somewhat socially unacceptable. After graduating from Yale in 1898, Ives moved to New York and eventually gained a position in the actuarial department of the Mutual Insurance Company. During these years he was still active as a church organist and choirmaster (first in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and subsequently at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York) and continued to cultivate his musical voice by composing in his free time, a pattern which he was to pursue throughout his life.

While Ives had used American hymn tunes in his Symphony no. 1, he began to experiment with altering their predictable regularity into more asymmetrical shapes which lent themselves more readily to musical development. With his Symphony no. 2 (1899-1902, revised 1907-9), Ives continued to explore his own personal idiom based on the integration of American vernacular music, infusing elements of (if not quoting directly) popular songs (such as those of Stephen Foster), patriotic songs, church hymns, traditional tunes and even ragtime styles into established forms common to European art music of the time.

Perhaps recognizing that he would never become (or want to become) a composer in the mold of Horatio Parker, Ives resigned his post as church organist and pursued a career in insurance by launching his own agency, Ives & Co., in 1907. The following year, Ives married Harmony Twichell, the daughter of the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell, a leading citizen of Hartford, Connecticut and a close friend of Mark Twain. Harmony's boundless confidence in her husband transcended the fact that she never claimed to understand his music and was to provide encouragement for the creation of new works by him. While the couple's close relationship allowed Ives to mature emotionally and spiritually, Harmony's idealism and enthusiasm for literature and social commitment contributed to Ives's maturity as a composer.

Through Harmony, Ives became reacquainted with the philosophies of transcendentalism, a literary, religious and social reform movement which flourished between approximately 1830 to 1860, and which emphasized a unity of the individual soul with nature and with the divine. Arising partly as a reaction against the increasing dehumanization of life in a post-Industrial Revolution society, and encompassing a wide variety of loosely defined doctrines, transcendentalism was fundamentally characterized by a reaffirmation of the power of the individual to effect change in his own life as well as in the larger human community. Such intuitive truths emanated from the soul itself, a manifestation of the divine, and were therefore inherently good. By following the direction of nature itself, and through personal experience and sensitivity, the individual would discover his or her own path to Heaven. It is understandable how the independent-minded Ives would have readily embraced a doctrine based so firmly on self-determinism and reliance on the strength of individual insight.

The writers who embraced these doctrines included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson and Louisa May Alcott (and tangentially, poet Walt Whitman). As several of these writers lived in or near Concord, Massachusetts, then a small town northwest of Boston, Ives's admiration for these writers was reflected in the subtitle of his Sonata no. 2 for piano, "Concord, Mass., 1840-60" (composed 1916-19, revised 1920s-1940s, first published 1947), where the title of each of the work's four movements bears the name of a transcendentalist writer: "Emerson," "Hawthorne," "The Alcotts" and "Thoreau." Sprawling, complex, innovative and posing a formidable challenge for the performer, the work's complexity reflects the broad world view shared by these writers and by the composer, creating a moving homage on both parts to the difficulties and joys of thinking beyond convention.

Despite indifference and even open hostility of audiences, critics and other composers towards his music, Ives's reputation continued to increase slowly and steadily throughout his lifetime. The "Concord" Sonata was performed in its entirety only in 1938; his first two symphonies were given their première performances in 1953 and 1951 respectively, over a half century after each was composed. Ives died of a stroke on 19 May 1954, just as his music was becoming universally acknowledged for its power and originality.

Conforming to his wish to define the totality of experience in his compositions, Ives often employed "layers" of several independent lines or voices, distinct from each other in terms of rhythm and harmony -- not unlike his father's acoustical experiments involving two bands marching towards each other -- a procedure which imparts an almost three-dimensional sense of depth to his work by emphasizing the sonic space in which the music is produced. This procedure gave rise to several compositional methods -- now referred to as polytonality, polyrhythms, atonality, microtones and tone clusters -- which anticipated the radical theories of composers such as Arnold Schoenberg by several years, and in some cases, by several decades. Ives's genius resides in his rejection of received methods and compositional procedures of the time and employing all means available to him to express through his music the breadth of his individual vision of human experience.

Further Reading

Cowell, Henry and Cowell, Sidney. Charles Ives and His Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969, or Da Capo Press, 1983.

Rossiter, Frank R. Charles Ives and His America. New York: Liveright, 1975.

Swafford, Jan. Charles Ives : A Life With Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.