Charles Ives’ music makes the top of my head want to explode. It’s like nothing else that anyone has ever created, and when I stop to think about the music that other composers were writing during the same time period, my disbelief makes my brain circuits overload and gray matter starts leaking out of my ears.
Ives’ father, George, was a maverick in his own right. In Danbury, Connecticut, he was a musician in a family of businessmen. After the Civil War, (in which General Grant once recognized to President Lincoln that George Ives’ band was the best in the army,) George’s experimentation with new kinds of sounds affected his son, Charles, incalculably.
For example, George Ives had two bands start at opposite ends of the town march toward each other playing different pieces in different keys, just so that he could hear what they sounded like when they came together. He constructed pianos that used pitches in-between the normal black and white notes. He made Charles sing a tune in a different key than the accompaniment. All of these reflected (often literally) in Charles’ music.
In one instance, George Ives pointed out the poor performance of a Stonemason singing a hymn, and said:
"Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds--for if you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds."
The idea of beauty was an important one for Charles Ives, because he believed that music could be a transcendental experience, a way to touch the immortal. He also believed that beauty is a personal event; just because everyone believed that something was beautiful did not make it so. Because of this philosophy, Ives’ sense of aesthetic is unique.
Charles Ives was a prodigy both composing and playing the organ. He worked professionally as a church organist and composed a lot of very cool pieces still in his teens. Ives studied music and other subjects at Yale, where he was an athlete, a performer, and all-around party animal. His conventionally styled music teacher eschewed Ives’ innovation, so most of his compositions written for school are relatively traditional, including his First Symphony.
After graduating Yale, Ives considered pursuing music professionally, but felt too restricted in the status quo music landscape of the late 19th century. His own creative expression was too renegade for the time, and he knew that he would never be popular. He made one of the most profound and critical personal decisions in American musical history. Instead of changing to fit the times, Ives became a composer by night, and an investment banker by day. He is the only great composer of any time to balance a full workload in a totally unrelated profession with the composition of unbelievable (and unrecognized) work.
“If a composer has a nice wife and some children, how can he let them starve on dissonances?”
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, Ives withdrew himself from the American musical world. This well-chosen seclusion allowed him to compose music that was exceptional, in the true meaning. Some of his experimental work was thirty to fifty years ahead of its time. He foreshadowed the “Americana” style of Aaron Copland by twenty years, the Avant Garde by forty years, and beat John Cage to the idea of “Musiccirucs” by fifty years. From the years 1908-1917, he composed some of his best works.
Part of Ives’ singularity was that his music was able to fuse the “high-brow” European influence with the “low-brow” quality of much American music. His disparate influences included the organ virtuoso Guilmant, John Philip Sousa, ragtime, Opera at The Met, and of course, his father’s experimentation. The resultant music is so completely American and amazing that it could not have been written by anyone else.
In the 1920’s, Ives suffered two debilitating heart attacks, forcing him to retire from his now industry-leading insurance firm (where he invented the idea of "estate planning,") and allowed him the time to edit and publish his work. He rejoined the musical world and saw much of his music performed for the first time. In the thirties and forties, he his music was championed by young composers, and in 1947, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He died in 1957, but it wasn’t until a decade later that his music was finally considered worthy by the mainstream, and recognized for its quality and originality.
The Influence of George Ives on His Son Charles by J. Ryan Garber
The Many Faces of Ives by David Schiff
Charles Edward Ives by Jan Swafford