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Lives of the Great Composers - Installment 4
Charles Ives  (1874-1954)

(originally published in the literary magazine "Big Fish," January, 1991)

     "There is a great man living in this country -- a composer.
He has solved the problem of how to preserve one's self and to learn.
He responds to negligence by contempt.
He is not forced to accept praise or blame.
His name is Ives."

     The revolutionary composer Arnold Schoenberg, inventor of the much-hated but influential twelve-tone music, spoke these words after a visit to the U.S. Indeed, now, some seventy years after Ives stopped composing, many revere this crusty yet humane Yankee as the greatest composer America has ever produced.

     Some aspects of his music are difficult, complex, and experimental; other passages are perversely simple, borrowing from hymn tunes, popular and patriotic songs, ragtime, or the brass band music of his home town of Danbury, Connecticut. Ives' music is more than an ingenious and eccentric soup of these multitudinous images. Somehow, he developed a music completely original that, as Linda Radtke says, speaks to us as "familiar voices from our collective past."

     His goal was to create transcendent music that would parallel the literary achievements of Emerson and Thoreau. At the same time, he's probably the funniest classical composer we've ever had, satirizing in his music not just famous composers (both those he liked and disliked) but critics, politicians, even the common person whom he championed in his populist political writings.

     For all his musical sophistication, it's interesting to note that -- perhaps unique among the "great composers" -- Ives was not a professional musician. By day, he was head of Ives & Myrick, the largest insurance firm in New York City. So he only wrote music on the weekends, on vacations, and most charmingly, on the daily train rides commuting in and out of the City from Connecticut.

     Ives felt it was impossible for him to be a professional musician without compromising his art, without selling out in some way or another. With Ives, you'll always get a rough Yankee honesty. Ives avoided the commonplace and constantly challenged custom. He despised music competitions, saying that they probably "did the donors more good than the donatees" and that he suspected three weeks in a Kansas cornfield would do a budding composer more good than three weeks at a prestigious academy in Rome. He gave away the money from his 1947 Pulitzer Prize award, saying, "Prizes are for little boys -- I'm grown up now."

     He liked being a small-town New England Yankee, living a simple life despite his accumulated wealth from the insurance business, saying, "only sissies go to Florida." He owned no radio, preferring to read newspapers, and he cunningly knocked big-city matrons when he said, "Thoreau was a great musician, not because he played the flute, but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear 'the Symphony.'"

     He was a populist and spoke out frequently against political hypocrisy. He was also fervently anti-war. WW I touched him deeply, and he wrote his powerful and bitter "Three Songs of the War" during those tragic years, the first of which, In Flanders Fields, was premiered, believe it or not, at a life insurance sales convention, where it was a total failure.

     In fact, Ives' music was almost completely unperformed during his lifetime. He collected 114 of his songs for voice and piano in 1922 and published them at his own expense, distributing the books for free at the New York Public Library. Despite general puzzelment concerning his music, he kept on believing in it, writing, "Why do I like these things? Are my ears on wrong?"

Related link: information on my special presentation of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata with literary readings from Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, and Thoreau

Your thoughts on the above are most welcome. E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)