Charles Ives
Charles Ives; drawing by David Levine

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 his composing years any of his major orchestral works or choral projects. The piano sonatas, violin sonatas, works of chamber music, and songs—all of which he could no doubt hum or strum—may be accepted as more or less finished. I say more or less because quite often there are aleatory passages. But the larger orchestral and choral works—the Fourth Symphony, for example, which requires three instrumental bodies and three conductors—are merely plans. And if today they “come off” more than handsomely, that is due to the loving editorial hands of Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell, among others, and to the no less loving conductor’s hands of Lou Harrison, of Leonard Bernstein, and of Leopold Stokowski.

For Ives’s music has attracted the admiration of discerning observers—of Mahler and Webern, of Stravinsky and Schoenberg, of Aaron Copland, John Cage, Elliott Carter, and lately of the English composer-historian Wilfrid Mellers, as well as the devotion of his pianist-editor John Kirkpatrick, who has not only deciphered, performed, and recorded the major piano works, including the massive “Concord” Sonata, but actually catalogued every scrap of the seemingly inexhaustible Ives manuscripts. The printing of this sonata in 1919, followed in 1924 by 114 Songs (both printed at the author’s expense) marked Ives’s official emergence from clandestinity and his retirement from composition. His music writing had never, of course, been entirely secret. He had occasionally shown something to a European virtuoso of the piano or violin, who would declare it hopeless; and in 1910 Gustav Mahler, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, had proposed to play his First Symphony in Germany, a promise cancelled by Mahler’s death in 1913. But for the most part his partisans were to declare their faith far later, since access to his works and a favorable climate for admiring them were not available till well after World War II.


Ives has frequently been cited by analysts for his early (so early indeed that in many cases it would seem the very first) consistent use of free dissonant counterpoint, of multiple rhythms and metrics, of polychordal and polytonal harmonic textures, of percussively conceived tone-clusters and chord-clusters, and of stereophonic orchestral effects requiring several conductors. Practically all these devices, as he employed them, are describable as free, since whatever formal patterning is involved (and very often there is none) has been chosen for each expressive occasion. Ives never explored harmonic, tonal, or rhythmic simultaneities for their intrinsic complexity, as the European composers did who were to follow his example so closely in time (all unaware of him). His temporal precedence has remained therefore a historical curiosity without relation to such systematic investigations of polyharmony, polytonality, and polyrhythm as occurred in the work of Richard Strauss and Debussy, subsequently in that of Igor Stravinsky and Darius Milhaud, of Arnold Schoenberg’s pupils, and of Edgard Varèse.

The popularity of Ives’s music and its present wide distribution by performance and recording in America, even somewhat in Europe, are actually a response to the direct expressiveness of certain works. The Housatonic at Stockbridge, for instance, is an impressionistic evocation, an orchestral landscape piece about a river, that even Europeans can enjoy. Longer works such as the Second (or “Concord”) Piano Sonata and the Fourth Symphony, though actually structured for holding attention, are seemingly improvisational (even aleatory) in a way that today’s youth finds irresistible for effects of grandeur, anarchy, and chaos. And the jamborees of patriotic marches and evangelical hymns that climax Putnam’s Camp, the Second Symphony, and many another calling-forth of early memories are so deeply nostalgic for Americans that the California critic Peter Yates could sum them up as the only American music that makes him cry.

The present writer too has wept over these. He is less impressed, however, by the “Concord” Sonata, with its constant piling of Pelion on Ossa. It has been his experience that Ives’s work in general, though thoroughly interesting to inspect, frequently sounds less well than it looks on the page. Some of this disappointment comes from musical materials which, although intrinsically interesting for appearing to be both spontaneous and highly complex, seem to be only casually felt. Their extensive repetition in sequences and other structural layouts would tend to reinforce this suspicion, since real spontaneity does not repeat itself. The opening of the “Concord” Sonata is a case in point. Here is improvisational and, though busy enough, quite easygoing material that simply will not develop; it only “riffs,” makes sequences. And if it gets transformed as it goes along, its successive states are as casually conceived as the first; none sticks in memory as an evolving thought.

Another sort of material, Ives’s simplest, can be found in certain of the songs. These seem so aptly related to the words both by sentiment and by naturalistic declamation (for which he had a gift) that one expects almost any of them, embellished as they so often are by an inventive accompaniment, to be a jewel. And yet they do not, will not, as we say, come off. Again there has been dilution, a casual filling-in of measures that would have needed for full intensity an unrelenting tinycraft, thought through and handmade, such as one finds in Schubert, who was surely his model for song-writing just as Beethoven admittedly was for the larger instrumental forms. Ives’s weakness is seldom in the vocal line, which is musically sensitive even when the poetry is poor, but quite regularly in the piano part, which fails to interweave, harmonically or rhythmically, with the voice. As a result it seems to be following the melody rather than providing a structure for it.

Among the rewarding songs is “Two Little Flowers,” composed in 1921 to a poem by his wife, a simple piece in the lieder style of Brahms, say, or Robert Franz. But even here the harmony can seem casual unless carried in performance by a rhythmic thrust.

“Paracelsus,” also for voice and piano, composed in 1921 to excerpts from Browning, begins with an instrumental page of the highest rhythmic and tonal complexity. According to the analysis of this work in Charles Ives and His Music by Henry and Sydney Cowell,1 it is in theme and motive integrated to ideas expressed in the poem. Nevertheless, the music loses impetus when the poetry begins. Though the voice declaims eloquently, the piano seems to wait for it. The free rhythms in both parts support no clear trajectory, but leave to the singer all responsibility for carrying the music forward.

This unequal and ultimately ineffectual division of labor shows up most clearly in two songs of folksy appeal—“Charlie Rutledge,” of 1914-15 (on a cowboy ballad), and “General William Booth Enters Heaven,” 1914 (out of Vachel Lindsay). The words in both have a tendency to announce the music’s illustrative effects rather than to comment on them, a vaudeville routine not suited to serious music. To invent examples: “I hear a bird,” followed by a piano trill, or “His big bass drum” (boom boom) are comic effects. Only the reverse procedure can evoke. “Charlie Rutledge,” moreover, is overdramatized in the voice. A deadpan cowboy lilt against a dramatized piano part might have turned the trick. Also, Vachel Lindsay’s not entirely ingenuous apotheosis of a Salvation Army leader could have benefited by bits of musical irony. With the bass-drumlike boom-booms and the triumphal hymn so frankly overt, the piece can become an embarrassing game of let’s-play-revival-meeting.


Ives in his writings about music made a point of preferring “substance” to “manner.” And indeed throughout his work, in spite of references to gospel hymns and village bands, of huge tone-clusters and rhythmic asymmetries, virtually no method of writing is employed consistently enough to justify a charge of “mannerism.” He moves from method to method eclectically, as great composers have always done, to bring out meaning; and his imitations of choiring voices and bands and bugle calls are as literal as he can make them. His ingenuities toward exemplifying ethical principles and transcendental concepts through thematic invention I find less rewarding from the simple fact that they seem self-conscious, lacking in spontaneity. Moreover, they are sometimes not quite first-class; the effect desired is easier to recall than the music itself.

In this sense, though there is no doctrinaire romanticism of “form determined by content,” neither is there any arriving at emotional or other fulfillment through strictly musical means, as in the classical and romantic masters. By “substance” Ives means, I think, simply sincerity. He cannot mean the identity of a musical theme with what he hopes to express by means of it, for if he did the music would be stronger-knit around these ideas, whereas actually it tends to exist beside them like a gloss or commentary. When time shall have dissolved away his nostalgias and ethical aspirations, as they have largely done for Beethoven and for Bach and even for the descriptive leitmotifs of Wagner, what musical reality will remain in Ives’s larger works? Where will be the “substance” he wrote so eloquently about and desired so urgently? For all their breadth of concept and their gusto, I have no faith in them.

In remaining somewhat unimpressed by the Ives output in general—though there are certainly delicious moments and even perfect whole pieces, usually small, like the brief orchestral Housatonic at Stockbridge and The Unanswered Question, possibly also the third of the “Harvest Home” Chorales—the present writer has no wish to underesteem the aspiration, the constancy, and the sacrifice that Ives’s musical life bears witness to. Nor to undervalue a creative achievement that posterity may continue to prize. Actually, the man presents in music, as he did in life, two faces, on one side a brave and original genius, on the other a Yankee tinkerer. For both are there; of that one can be sure. How they got to be there need not worry us, for every artist begins in a dichotomy. But how this could remain unresolved to the very end of his creative life might be of interest to speculate about.

Every artist’s worklife has its strategy; without that there is no career. And we know from his own words that Ives, in renouncing music as a breadwinner, did not walk out on music. When he shortly came to renounce it as even a contributory source (through church jobs) he made that sacrifice in order to save his leisure. We also know that busy as he was in business hours, and soundly successful, he still produced between the ages of twenty-four and forty-four a repertory of works larger by catalogue than that of most other masters. Sometimes these were corrected completely; sometimes he threw scarcely decipherable pages over his shoulder and never looked into the piles of them. It is certain that parts of works are lost, probable that whole ones also are, and possible that others may have been destroyed by intent.

But for all his haste, he was not really careless. He labored with a fury unrelenting; he also held strongly by certain of his works and cherished prejudices violently sectarian about many composers past and present, which he stated with wit and profanity. He valued his “Concord” Sonata so highly that after it was finished he wrote a book about it. This book, called Essays Before a Sonata2 though it was actually written after, is less an explanation of the music than a hymn of praise to those who were the inspiration of its four movements—Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and for comic relief the Alcotts. The greatest of these, for him, was Emerson; and there his confidence was so unquestioning that clearly for Ives the Unitarian preacher-essayist had replaced revealed religion. Would that we all could thus say, “I believe!” But the fact that Ives did have this source of faith—along with insurance, of which he also wrote a book in praise—helps us to picture the years of his complete devotion to music and to business, a devotion shared only with the domestic affections—with a wife named Harmonie and an adopted daughter, neither of whom caused him any trouble or took much time.

His aspiration to be a great composer would be clear from the Essays if it were not equally revealed on every page of his music. And a need for working abundantly to accomplish this is proved by both the voluminousness of his production and the state of his manuscripts. This need must also have led him to a plan. For a man of his ability and known powers of organization to go all self-indulgent and careless during his twenty best years, and regarding music, which was very nearly his whole private life, is not believable. It must be that he simply decided to pour forth his inspiration at all times, finishing off in clean score only such works as demanded that and leaving the rest to be copied out in his retirement years.

Retirement from composition came earlier than he had expected, and the First World War would seem to have hastened his breakdown. His Emersonian confidence in democracy through the “over-soul,” and his business-based optimism derived from an idealistic view of insurance, were shaken by Europe’s suddenly revealed corruption and her suicidal holocaust, which America had joined. So that when his bodily strength, after years of overstrain, collapsed in 1918, something also happened in his brain. He may have seemed to be just physically ill, but his creative life was arrested.

It is possible to imagine this arrestment as an acceptable, though unplanned, consequence of the total strategy. For Ives began immediately to behave with regard to his works as if his retirement from music had been foreseen. He initiated their publication, subsidized their performance, aided young men whose devotion to them and pity for him caused them to spend untold hours on their cataloguing, editing, and promotion. Since it was clear to all, including himself, that he would not write again, his oeuvre came to be treated like that of the immortal dead. So confidently so, in fact, that by the time of his actual death in 1954 the congress of devoted younger men which was to take care of itemization, description, biography, analysis, and praise had so far done its work that the subject of it might well have been satisfied to wind up his campaign. He had composed voluminously and without fear; later he had witnessed the well-timed issuance of his works, their performance, publication, and recording. Not the present high state of their fame, of course, but enough to show that an apotheosis had begun.

There is no reproach to such a strategy, nor much probability that the sequence of events was accidental. An artist’s life is never accidental, least of all its tragic aspects. And the tragic aspect of Ives is neither his long and happy domestic existence nor his short, abundant, and successful-within his-own-time creative life. It is the fatal scars left on virtually all his music by a divided allegiance. Business may be a less exacting mistress than the Muse, what with staffs and partners to correct your haste. But Ives’s music does show the marks of haste, and also of limited reflection. Dividing himself as he did, he had to run that risk. I doubt that he knew, either young or later, how great a risk it was. For if he had, would he have dared to make the ploy for both God and Mammon?

I prefer to think he did not, that the transcendental optimist and all-American success boy was simply trying to have everything, and at no cost save the strenuous life. Then the darker aspects of the world, which he had avoided ever and of which his music, all health and exuberance, shows no trace, certainly dark forces surfaced with the First World War; and they put the fear of God into him. He stopped composing, became an invalid, retired from business, abandoned all his earnings beyond what seemed to him a competence. One view of the bottomless pit, plus a decent income justifiably retained for his family, plus care taken for his music’s survival, all add up to a New England story complete with personal devil, an angry God, and a maimed production. Less maimed perhaps than that of his pedagogical contemporaries (though among those MacDowell may well survive him), but maimed nevertheless. For it is not teaching that cripples; no master has ever feared that. It is gentility, not giving one’s all to art.

This Issue

May 21, 1970