Charles Ives, the crazy and brilliant patriarch of American music, loved a good cacophony. In the public imagination (to the extent that he inhabits it) he is associated with collisions of marching bands in different keys and other sorts of acoustical suffering. At the outset of his excellent new biography, Stephen Budiansky summons up this confrontational Ives and his “characteristic pose”: “‘a fighting stance, his right hand raised and a finger of scorn’ thrust at some imaginary antagonist.” It’s a vivid but misleading way to begin. Ives had many enemies, including himself, but his real impulse was affection: a desperate affection for the past, and for the joys and possibilities of music-making.
Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1874, and grew up in a world of music that has now become not just historical but quaint—marches, hymns, sentimental ballads, ragtime. This unlikely and motley collection of genres and styles became his source material; he was destined to be its modernist archivist. His father, a bandmaster and cornettist who comfortably moved between “classical” music and the lightest popular fare, was an outsized influence, encouraging wild experiment. But he died in 1894, while his son was just beginning at Yale—a defining loss.
After graduating, Ives tried to establish himself as a musician, like his father, but the premiere of his pious and stodgy cantata The Celestial Country provoked a decision: he could not, or would not, make a living composing the music he wanted to write. An extraordinary turn of events ensued. Ives devoted himself to the insurance business, rose in the ranks, cofounded a company, and amassed a fortune, shunting his avant-garde composition to nights and weekends. By day he crafted sales pitches for an army of insurance men; by night he scrawled unsalable musical visions.
Roughly fifteen years of worldly achievement and private creativity were followed by the collapse of his health (diabetes): he found himself independently wealthy but unable to compose. He retreated into his house in Redding, Connecticut, with piles of illegible manuscripts, and endured a couple of decades of neglect and decline, peppered with a few devoted performances. In 1939, when it was getting too late for him to enjoy it, the New York premiere and rapturous review of his “Concord” Sonata changed everything. He became a famous American composer.
The facts are amazing—there aren’t that many insurance tycoons doubling as undiscovered modernist geniuses—and the difficulty of writing Ives’s biography is to prevent the life from sliding into myth. Budiansky tells the story movingly but plainly. He portrays the divisions of Danbury, the gap between the “rising industrial city whose grim mill buildings were clustered along the winding arc of the tiny Still River” and the city “filled with music and innocence that Ives always remembered,” to offer a persuasive explanation of Ives’s life work: the preservation of a world that was eroding even as he was formed…
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