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 in it.

In an opening overview, Budiansky cleverly maneuvers facts into expressive proximity. He explains that Ives was “delighted” when he harangued a writer for The New Yorker into giving up an intended profile of him, and that Ives had a pathological fear of photographs, wanting no hard evidence of his bodily appearance. Then comes the contradiction—the composer’s “collection of huge scrapbooks…in which he meticulously preserved every review, every concert program, every piece of insurance ad copy and even every business form letter”—which perfectly captures Ives’s combination of vulnerability and self-concealment.

The most important service that Budiansky renders is antimythical in the extreme: his account of Ives’s disease. Diabetes in 1918 was not just a death sentence, but a source of shame; it had polite ways of being euphemistically concealed—heart attack, pancreas problem—and it shattered Ives’s “self-image as a vigorous, athletic man.” Budiansky documents a near-starvation diet that Ives underwent in the hope of prolonging his life: “doctors were reminded of these pre-insulin diabetics when they saw the pictures of the survivors of Belsen and Buchenwald.” During the onset of this “brutal regimen,” Ives made an enormous effort to preserve himself, readying the works he valued most highly—the “Concord” Sonata, the 114 Songs—for publication.

It is upsetting to read about the wave of mockery and misunderstanding that washed back on the composer at this dark hour. Budiansky, citing these insults, makes you despise America’s conservative musical establishment of the time almost as much as Ives did. There’s Percy Goetschius, head of music theory at what would become Juilliard, responding to the “Concord” Sonata: “I hesitate to call it ‘music,’ for I believe in accurate definition.” And the journal Music & Letters: “Mr. Ives’ style is sadly familiar here…at any rate in households where the baby or the cat has access to the piano.”


It would be easy enough to dismiss all this as early splutter, but ill-informed derision from the musical establishment persists. Budiansky calls our attention to a 1987 New York Times article in which Ives is nominated as “the most overrated” composer by three prominent American musicians. The last of these, the flutist Ransom Wilson, called Ives “an incomplete composer, his temperament marred by an unrelenting machismo, [who] refused to allow any tenderness into his music.” Discerning no tenderness in Ives is like finding no elegance in Mozart; either Wilson doesn’t know Ives’s music or doesn’t know what tenderness is. But this kind of willful ignorance is hardly unusual. It is a central part of the Ives phenomenon, a symptom of embarrassment: Ives is a forebear who can’t be acknowledged or, often, even properly seen.

The core of the embarrassment, Ives’s original sin, is amateurism. Wilson refers to Ives as a “basement tinkerer,” and that slur masquerading as a critical judgment figures in many Ives assessments, including that of Virgil Thomson, who wrote the most recent essay on Ives in these pages, forty-four years ago. Thomson faults Ives for “gentility,” for “not giving all for one’s art”—that is, for being a businessman, and not a professional musician. This professional bias seems to affect profoundly some of the very composers who should most have admired his transformations of popular music, his harmonic subtleties, his contrapuntal complexities. But many American composers were and are eager to make it clear—Ives is not one of them.

If Ives’s music remains a source of doubt, doubt is also one of its great themes. The essential Ivesian gesture is an answer followed by a question. At a key juncture in the slow movement of the “Concord” Sonata, for instance, Ives builds to a climax on the famous four-note figure from the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In the wake of a thunderous C minor arrival, nearly inaudible wrong notes appear out of nowhere, “ruining” the achieved moment. They instill a double doubt, of understanding and perception; they represent harmonic uncertainty, but you also aren’t entirely sure that you heard them. The gesture feels almost comical at first, then acquires meaning: a delayed awareness of ambiguous overtones hiding in the clearest chords.

Many of Ives’s most important pieces are about blurred or doubtful perception. The beloved song “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” depicts a morning walk in haze and mist, while hearing a hymn from a church across the river. The loss of information, the disintegration of the tune, is essential to the beauty, like the crackle and hiss of old recordings: a failure that connotes authenticity. Toward the end, the river heads to the sea (a gigantic mass of notes) but this climax is followed by a wonderfully quiet afterimage, a remnant of the hymn—an ending that disputes the very idea of ending. Most of Ives’s works end with beautiful but undermining echoes, instead of audience-pleasing affirmation.

Ives turned doubt to artistic insight, but the doubt turned back against him. He was an unusually insecure pioneer. When he published the “Concord” Sonata, an act of supreme confidence, he also released a companion book (Essays Before a Sonata) as a preemptive defense. It’s hard to imagine Beethoven supplying a program note to his late quartets. Ives also had serious doubts about notation—unfortunate, since that is more or less the foundation of Western music: “After you get an idea written down it’s no good. Why when I see the notes I write down on the page and think of what I wanted it to sound like—why—it’s dead!” Budiansky describes the difficult process when, in the flush of fame, it came time to make a revised edition of the “Concord”:

An eight-year saga…. Ives’s deteriorating eyesight and his endless agonizing…drove the editors at Arrow Press to distraction…. Harrison Kerr at the press told [the pianist John Kirkpatrick, who gave the first full performance] in despair in 1940 that “Mr. Ives had been putting in sharps and flats and taking them out again all summer.”

It is just there—where the classical composer is supposed to “land” his move, to crystallize the work into a masterpiece—that Ives seems most uncertain, most ambivalent. As a result, many of his works deserve asterisks; they retreat away from the final, single form toward a set of possibilities.

Another of the essential Ives problems, an important manifestation of his doubt, is his simultaneous affection for music of unashamed consonance—like hymns or Stephen Foster ballads, which are almost too easy to understand—and music of bewildering dissonance. (His dirty secret was that he loved to write beautiful things.) He did not hide this divided loyalty, which would be disqualifying for most composers in search of a voice. In the 114 Songs, self-published as testament, these extremes are side by side: his gorgeous student setting of “Feldeinsamkeit” in normative D-flat major nestles against pages of tone clusters, savage piles of unresolved notes.


Usually people speak of this aspect of Ives as a stylistic problem—eclecticism. But it’s also a serious compositional problem: uniting materials of completely different nature and behavior, like weaving a garment from silk and steel wool. Ives wrote miniatures that were fully tonal or atonal, but the most important pieces address the gap, without exactly bridging it. The “Concord” Sonata begins with two quite long and abrasive movements (“Emerson” and “Hawthorne”), then springs a surprise: the third movement begins with a series of prim, perfectly voiced triads, as if drawn from the pages of an imaginary hymnal. Much of the previous music seemed as if Ives were trying to hit every note on the piano at once, but now we are modestly confined like a child to the middle of the keyboard.

This pure consonance reframes everything. All the preceding music—the thunderbolts, the abstruse fugues, the supernatural fantasies—gets arranged around an intimately tonal hearth. There is an agenda here—bringing the loftiest thoughts down to size—and Ives develops it paradoxically, allowing commonness to bloom into a peroration, a triumphant C major: the most heroic moment of the piece is not Emerson philosophizing, but children playing at hymns on the spinet.

In the final movement, “Thoreau,” Ives returns us to the dissonant language of the first two, but Thoreau’s atonality is gentler. Both work and language have been transformed by the nostalgic, tonal experience of “The Alcotts.” If consonance is so consoling, why do we need all the dissonance? If the dissonant language is self-sufficient, why does it need to refer back to tonality? Ives’s music asks these questions, giving voice to the anxieties and shortcomings of modern music. No other modern composer so convincingly navigates these harmonic extremes, or makes their incompatibility mean so much.

There are basically two kinds of Ives pieces: serious pieces and satires. Sometimes they are difficult to distinguish. Budiansky has a perceptive section on Ives’s satirical vein. He draws our attention to “In the Alley,” a caricature of a sentimental tune, with “sighing love-struck pauses and tenutos, schmaltzy ‘swiped’ chords,” and “The Side Show,” which puns on the resemblances between the then-popular comic song “Is That Mr. Reilly?” and Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique.” Budiansky sees Ives’s humor as essentially collegiate, frozen in sophomoric memory—and thus, like much of his work, stuck in a happier time. The Scherzo of the Trio—TSIAJ, “This Scherzo is a Joke”—a joyful and deranged account of a fraternity party, serves as a compendium of the Ivesian guffaw: the drunken cellist singing “My Old Kentucky Home” staggeringly against a limping beat, the discombobulating Sailor’s Hornpipe in the wrong tempo, fight songs crashing in over crowd noise, a dramatic sunrise cadenza, as if turning serious, and a last naughty tag informing you that you’ve been had.

Humor has a complicated place in the value system of classical music, and for many Ives’s broad wit is a failing. But his slapstick pastiches and his most affecting testaments share a common urge: to recreate the messiness of human experience. It’s true enough to say that Ives wrote music about music, but truer to say that Ives wrote about music-making—social events, church services, parties—any kind of event in which music is a conduit for communal epiphany, release, or outpouring. One famous example is the last movement of the Second Orchestral Set, where Ives remembers an accidental catharsis: shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, crowds on a train platform joining along with a hurdy-gurdy to sing “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” The moment when everyone arrives together singing the tune is thrilling, but even more moving is the aftermath, the trailing-off, the hurdy-gurdy continuing to play, winding down slowly but surely—Ives devotes a great deal of love to the unclean finish.

In “The Revival,” the last movement of the Second Violin Sonata, Ives begins in a dreamy mode, with a hymn tune hauntingly played in two keys. Gradually the intensity grows: the hymn moves step by inexorable step from quiet piety to foot-stomping fervor. There are all kinds of problems when the tune reaches its climax—the bass drum is a half-beat off, the middle voices are full of sour notes—but these are not jokes; we understand these “mistakes” to be joyful dissonances, symptoms of untrammeled zeal.

Audiences have trouble, sometimes, hearing dissonance as joyful. They tend to dislike Ives’s dissonances for one set of reasons; composers and musicians for another. For most European modern composers, new freedoms entailed new rigor and responsibility, and they sought new systems and collections of notes to replace the hierarchical Western scale: Debussy’s whole-tone scales and ancient modes; Stravinsky’s octatonic scales; Schoenberg’s method of twelve tones.

But Ives’s notes are less responsible. His dissonances crave system even less than resolution, and have a dizzying array of functions. He draws inspiration from the ruder, more willful happenings in Beethoven: the famous “wrong entrance” of the horn just before the recapitulation of the “Eroica” Symphony, is a perfect, proto-Ivesian event. Ives’s dissonances can be jokes or revelations, or both at once; they often signify dream, premonition, memory, or distance; at times they simply behave like barnacles attached to harmonies, cloaking the fundamental notes; and at times, most damningly for the sensitive musician, they’re just there because Ives liked the sound of them.

This disdain for justifying every note, casting accident in a leading role, links up with the charge of “amateurism.” It made Ives suspect to the next meticulous crop of American composers, many of whom traveled to Europe for the guidance of the important French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and her famed training in counterpoint. Of this generation, Aaron Copland was perhaps the most sympathetic; according to Ransom Wilson, Copland phoned Samuel Barber to convince him that Ives was a great composer, but Barber would have none of it. Elliott Carter was repeatedly skeptical about Ives over his long lifetime, and offered this famous dismissal: “The esthetic is naive, often too naive to express serious thoughts, frequently depending on quotation of well-known American tunes with little comment, possibly charming but certainly trivial.”

No one will ever claim that Ives is a perfect composer, but Carter’s “trivial” remark is uncharacteristically unjust. One among many possible rebuttals is the slow movement of the First Violin Sonata—a depiction of reminiscing over Civil War days. Ives takes as his subject a sentimental tune, “The Old Oaken Bucket,” a ditty that cycles predictably through fundamental chords, delivering a distilled dose of nostalgia (“how dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood”). He transforms this hackneyed material into a powerful and strange listening experience. Ives anchors us with the song’s familiar first chord changes, but when it comes time for the second phrase, he dissolves delicately into a new harmonic world. We float through increasingly complex, dreamlike sonorities, aware at once that we are in “The Old Oaken Bucket” and not. Admirable in purely musical terms, this passage is also rich in meaning: you feel the familiar tune drifting away from you, even nostalgia becoming memory.

Harmonic ingenuity is paired with a startling rhythmic conceit. Early on, the pianist begins to pursue a duple rhythm, while the violinist remains in the tune’s waltzing triple. This romantic device (three against two, a favorite of Brahms) evolves into a modernist divorce. The piano’s rhythm becomes a violent march, drowning out the violin, which quietly constructs elaborate, chromatic variations on the opening phrase. A long, unique, and harrowing passage follows: the violin’s Wagnerian frenzy half-present, imploring in its own tempo, while the marching pianist rises heedlessly. At last, the two instruments meet for a momentary fanfare; but the window of clarity is brief. A second Civil War tune (“Tramp Tramp Tramp”) appears, clotted with sour notes, half-remembered, blurred as if through tears.

It’s all there: the boys marching to war and the family at home lamenting their loss; the blur and submersion of memory; tender nostalgia juxtaposed against violent separation. Each technical device (layering, metric modulation, elision) is matched precisely to an expressive end. It’s as great a piece as Ives ever wrote—arguably one of the greatest pieces of the twentieth century—but in performance and recording it has trouble coming to life. Its weakness is not triviality, as Carter would have it, but ambition, complexity, and subtlety. The piano’s lengthy domination over the violin is unsettling; the Civil War tunes have passed into history, so some of the original meaning has been lost, requiring footnotes; the writing is dense, the voicing tricky; it is hard for classically trained musicians to hover between popular and learned styles, as the piece requires.

This is a common tragedy, afflicting the Ives oeuvre: pieces that look brilliant on the page but (mostly) tend to fail in concert. Much of the fault is Ives’s, of course; some of it has to do with performers and performances. Orchestras don’t typically have enough rehearsal time to deal with his complex scores; many musicians are not that enthusiastic about playing Ives to begin with; audiences may have preconceived notions, based on previous traumas.

However you apportion the blame, there is a communication problem, and there always has been. Budiansky cites an affecting passage from Ives’s diary, written in 1914 when he was at the peak of his creative powers:

If I could arrange my thoughts through my mouth as well as those that don’t reach the mouth—it would be much more comfortable for me—my mind & tongue find it hard to work in junction. I said something today to a man which gave him entirely the wrong impression. I knew when I was saying it, that it was almost opposite to what I had in my mind—yet I couldn’t say it any differently.

Even as he defied the world, he lamented his failure to speak to it; it is heartbreaking to read this and to contemplate Ives, alone in his studio, writing piece after piece about the joys of community.

If Ives’s music often falls flat in performance, does that make the music less great? For most people the answer is unequivocally yes. But it’s worth contemplating the example of three piano sonatas, all written within fifteen years of the premiere of Ives’s “Concord,” by three of the most important American composers: Carter, Barber, Copland. Each of these pieces attempts an epic statement, fusing popular music with the complexities of modernism. Each is more expertly composed than the “Concord”—better crafted, more transparent, more pianistic—and eminently practical in concert. But Ives’s sonata towers over them all, despite or because of its doubts, sweeping past the fine points of constructing a musical work to address the nature and purpose of music itself. And that is the injustice of art; sometimes all the craft in the world is trumped by someone with something more important to say.