Charles Ives: Still Waiting To Be Discovered


Charles Edward Ives 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ives is still not welcomed in the concert hall. One of the most significant American composers of last century is without a place among listeners and performers of serious music. His symphonies, string quartets and piano musicĀ are performed rarely, and recordings tend to be sporadic. Labels such as difficult, uncompromising and incomprehensible are often attached to his music. Even during his lifetime, Ives’ passionate followers and supporters were outnumbered by those who claimed his music was either mad, juvenile or, if more kindly disposed, just plain weird. Musicians often said his music was impossible to play.

He has not been helped by attempts to make his music more ‘normal,’ smoothing out the dissonance and anarchic qualities, his juxtaposition of high and low, of combining the most rarefied of classical traditions with American folk and popular music of the time. Or by attempts to make his music a precursor to the modernism of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The reality is that many of the ‘modernist’ elements of Ives’ music were attempts to capture the political and social events of his time. David Wooldridge’s neglected and now sadly-out-of-print study, From The Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, makes the explicit argument that Ives was a man deeply influenced, even when in opposition, to the American political and social landscape, to its literature and most profoundly to the ideals set forth by the American Transcendentalists:

“Ives had a comprehension of America’s seers and poets . . . Among these: enormous respect for Emerson, enormous admiration for Hawthorne, enormous affection for Alcott, total identification with Thoreau — these were his favorites . . . Yet more than any other it is Melville who foreshadows Ives in the use of an extended rhetoric to American man. The progressions of Ives’s music, like Melville’s prose, are born on a living speech rhythm, not on someone else’s verse. But with Ives, a Yankee speech rhythm. A collage of musical vernacular transfigured.” Wooldridge, pg. 5.

When Ives writes in his Alcott piece in Essays Before A Sonata, quoting Emerson’s son, E.W. Emerson, on how Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to the United States Court House in Boston to rescue a fugitive slave, Ives is clearly evoking that incident in the Alcott movement of his masterpiece Concord Sonata. Ives says of the incident that “helps confirm the theory — not a popular one — that men accustomed to wander around in the visionary unknown are the quickest and strongest when occasion requires ready action of the lower virtues . . .” Wooldridge, pg. 278.

To fully understand Ives and to grasp his achievements, one has come to an understanding of his engagement with his times and the works that formed the core of his being. It goes some way to explaining his neglect in concert hall repertoires today. Ives is a man clearly trying in his music to grasp and understand what is happening in his country and to evoke other paths set out by the Transcendentalist who provoke his deep admiration and influence his own sense of self and purpose. I would argue that to fully grasp Ives one needs to fully grasp Emerson Divinity School Address or later wrote “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.” or Thoreau who writes “American liberty has become a fiction of the past — as it is to some extent a fiction of the present . . .” What may make Ives’s music difficult for some is this ceaseless questioning of the ‘myth’ of liberty. The too easy invocation of liberty today would likely have offended Ives deeply, seeing it as an empty term thrown about by all sorts of political and social elites. In a 1923 letter to Gilbert Seldes of the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, Ives writes he is not disappointed in America, but that America “is a vast unreal intermediate thing intervening between the real thing which was Europe, and the next real thing, which will probably be America, but which isn’t yet, at all.” Wooldridge, pg. 310.

Because today we can hardly grasp this sentiment, where Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne are hardly read (does anyone read Emerson today?) Ives’s music continues to remain outside of the concert hall today.

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