The Ives Case

Charles Ives started life in 1874 at Danbury, Connecticut, an upland rural county seat manufacturing felt hats. He had for a father a bandmaster, a civil war veteran who trained his son’s ear and hand and who exposed him at the same time to all the musical pop art of his day—dance tunes, sentimental songs, darnfool ditties, revival hymns, and patriotic marches. Undergraduate years at Yale, with the expert instruction of Horatio Parker, turned him into a church organist and a well-based general musician. Throughout this time his student works and other youthful pieces passed for wild, and no doubt would today (vide the horseplay of his organ—Variations on “America,” composed at eighteen).

Ives’s music life quite early went underground, for fighting public sentiment was never his pattern. As a high-school boy he had captained the baseball team; at Yale he played varsity football and was elected to a senior society. He was completely successful at being a conventionally successful American boy. He did everything right, made good marks in school and college, offended no one, though being a musician was certainly no help to his acceptance. Wishing no part of a martyr’s life, he worked in a New York insurance firm, later formed his own with a partner named Myrick, married his roommate’s sister, wrote a textbook for insurance salesmen, made money, retired (effectively) at fifty-three.

For a year or so he had played church organs, held in fact an excellent post at New York’s Central Presbyterian. But he seems to have learned quite early that reputable musicians viewed his compositions with such disapproval that fighting for position would have merely wasted his time. So he renounced all visible connection with music and kept his composing a secret occupation known only to his wife and to a few close friends. His open life was that of a businessman, conventional, respected, impregnable to scrutiny. His secret life was that of a romantic artist—wildly experimental, ambitious, unchanneled, undisciplined, and unafraid.

His years of most abundant outpouring were those from thirty to forty, roughly 1905 to 1915, though the full mature production covers five earlier years and three later, effectively ending at forty-four, when his health broke. After 1924, when he was fifty, he wrote no music at all; from 1927 he went rarely to his office and in 1930 he retired completely from business. His medical diagnosis has not been published; the weakened heart and incipient diabetes sometimes referred to seem insufficient to explain a life-change so radical which was maintained, with progressive deterioration of the nervous system, till the age of eighty. But the fact is clear that his mighty energies and towering determination were gone before his life as a grown man was one-third over. After that he reviewed, when able, the editing of his works, subsidized their publication, blessed younger composers with bits of money, and helped also his contemporary Ruggles, whose work he admired.

Ives never actually heard during …

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Ivesiana September 3, 1970