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Learning to Love a Cranky Composer
An unprecedented award highlights the celebration of a Yale man who did much to revolutionize music while maintaining a “day job” running an insurance company.

To musicians and scholars, Charles Edward Ives, who graduated from Yale College a century ago this spring, has long been considered one of this country’s major cultural figures. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947, and was called America’s “first really great composer” by no less an authority than Leonard Bernstein. But even Ives knew his work was hard going for the average listener, and he sometimes seemed to enjoy inflicting the pain. “A man takes unpleasant chances when he puts my music in front of an audience,” he once said.

In recent years, however, the audience for Ives’s work has been growing steadily. A dozen major books about him have been published since 1969, and in January the American Academy of Arts and Letters, using money generated by royalties from performances of Ives’s music, announced the creation of the largest cash prize ever designated specifically for an American composer, the so-called Ives Living. The award provides $225,000 in three annual installments so that the recipient can concentrate full-time on composing, something Ives himself was not able to do. Happily for Yale, the first Ives Living went to Martin Bresnick, 51, a professor of composition at the School of Music. More is yet to come, however. Adding to the Academy’s recognition of this highly unorthodox composer, Ives loyalists are preparing a major celebration of his legacy on the occasion of his Yale centennial. “People get very passionate about Ives—the complicated personality, the sense of mystery that surrounds him, the music that goes in so many directions,” says Vivian Perlis, founder of the Oral History Project at the Yale School of Music. “There’s so much to learn and experience, you never feel there’s an ending.”

Ives’s total musical output—nine major orchestral works, two string quartets, four violin sonatas, three piano sonatas, and about 185 songs—is not overwhelming on the great scale, but it represents an extraordinary range of musical expression as well as experimentation. He incorporated multiple rhythms and dissonance well before Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg did. He used fragments from American folk tunes, marches, hymns, jazz, and ragtime in his works before Aaron Copland and George Gershwin turned to such sources. As a result, he influenced or inspired not only Schoenberg and Copland, but Bernstein, Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, and hundreds of other classical, jazz, rock, and even “new age” composers, among them Bruce Hornsby, Bobby McFerrin, and Paul Winter. These remarkable achievements loom even larger when set against the fact that Ives was primarily a weekend composer, spending his weekdays as the founding executive of what became in the 1920s the nation’s most successful life insurance agency.

The Yale celebration of the Ives legacy began under the late music professor and pianist John Kirkpatrick, and has been carried forward by James Sinclair, currently a visiting professor at the School of Music. Sinclair, a conductor who has recorded 22 Ives works (more than anyone else) and who recently finished a 1,000-page catalog of Ives’s music, is organizing the spring event, which will take place April 3 to 5 in New Haven. It will include lectures, panel discussions, and performances of Ives’s music. The selections will include works written during Ives’s Yale years and performed by students from the Yale School of Music and the undergraduate music department, as well as by Sinclair’s professional Orchestra New England.

The music that has been chosen for the celebration will be markedly sedate, featuring some of Ives’s more accessible, Romantic-style compositions. This is in marked contrast to Ives’s public image for most of this century, which has been that of a cranky old man who wrote music that was considered to be sloppily scored, difficult for even the best musicians to play, and horribly dissonant to most listeners' ears. Maryann Root, executive director of the Danbury Scott-Fanton Museum and Historical Society, which maintains the home where Ives was born, in 1874, said that in Ives' hometown, “people concede that he was a very important figure, but if you ask them to listen to his music, that’s another story.”

Ives’s music was rejected far more than it was appreciated during the composer’s lifetime, a fact that frustrated and embittered him. While dissonant or confusing to many people, Ives considered his music a pure depiction of the vicissitudes of the community gatherings of his youth, an expression of the beauty of nature, and a statement of a lofty ideal about the unity of humankind through art. He was terminally frustrated that people didn’t “get it.”

In his later years Ives would call people who couldn’t tolerate his music “soft-eared sissies,” yet he also sympathized with their situation. He once quit a prestigious job as a church organist in New York, later explaining, “To a body of people who come together to worship—how far has a man a right to do what he wants, if he knows that by doing so he is interfering with the state of mind of the listeners… A congregation has some rights.”

According to Sinclair, one of the most important reasons for Ives’s failure to catch on with a wider audience during his lifetime (he died in 1954), may be the way his music greeted the public—his later and more dissonant pieces were performed first, his earlier, more traditional Romantic-style works last. “No other composer in current history has been exposed backwards in his output,” Sinclair says. But Ives didn’t make things any easier for his listeners. When publishing a collection of 114 songs in 1922, he put one of his most brutally atonal pieces first. He later said he did this because he felt “mean enough to want to give all the ‘old girls’ [by which he meant anyone of either gender “emasculated” enough to not appreciate his music] another ride… it would keep them from turning any more pages.” In the footnotes to the same collection, Ives says several songs have “little or no musical value… It is asked… that they be not sung, at least in public, or given to students except as examples of what not to sing.”

An abrasive image of Ives survived for decades until the early 1970s, when critical editions of his music were published by the Charles Ives Society. The transformation was aided by books by John Kirkpatrick and Perlis, as well as a celebration of the centennial of Ives’s birth. Taken together, they made Ives’s music better known to performers and exposed a deeper, more human side of the man. “That’s when people stopped living the Ives legend and saw him as an educated, philosophical composer of real craft,” Sinclair says.

Ives was born on October 20, 1874, one of two sons of George Ives, a member of a wealthy family that had made its fortune in banking and railroads in and around Danbury. George had been a bandleader in the Union army, and while after the Civil War he made perfunctory gestures at a career in the family business, he was really driven by a love of music. He played the cornet, composed a little and toured the country with minstrel shows. But he was best known as a local impresario—leading at least two orchestras and several bands in a city that in the late 1800s was teeming with musical activity.

A bit odd and often ridiculed for his eccentricity, George had a strong influence on his son. The elder Ives was a musical experimenter who tried to mimic on his piano the sound of out-of-tune bells ringing in a nearby church. He once marched two brass bands past one another on a town green—each playing a different tune in a different rhythm and a different key.

Ives lore has it that one of George’s choir members, a stonemason named John Bell, disturbed fellow singers and audience members with his off-key voice. Counseled George: “Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds—for if you do, you may miss the music.” The father’s use of off-key singing, parodies of drunken horn players falling off the beat, offstage performers enlarging a sense of space, and the presence of several songs chaotically under way at the same time later became hallmarks of Charles’s compositions.

Painfully shy from an early age, Charles was at first ashamed of his interest in music, which was then considered a strictly feminine pasttime. Nonetheless, he became an accomplished pianist, composing his first songs at the age of 11 and playing the organ in Danbury-area churches at 14. By the time he entered Yale as a 19-year-old freshman, in 1894, Ives had written many songs, including “Psalm 67,” one of his earliest experiments in polytonal music.

Ives graduated from Yale with the equivalent of a D+ average. He fared well in music classes, but clashed with his teacher, Horatio Parker, whom Ives never forgave for his musical conservatism. During his Yale years Ives wrote his First Symphony, a string quartet, dozens of songs and choral works, studies that became the nucleus of later symphonies, and a number of musical experiments.

One of the more intriguing of those experiments was “Yale-Princeton Football Game,” a two-minute piece written in 1897. The composition is embellished with wedge-shaped note patterns that purportedly represent the formation that started Yale’s winning drive. It also carries a zig-zag trumpet line symbolizing a 55-yard touchdown run; piccolo trills mimicking the referee’s whistle; and trombone flourishes meant to portray the sound of the crowd. (In Sinclair’s 1991 recording of this piece, one of the 50 kazoo players called for by the composer was then-Yale football coach Carm Cozza.)

Musical stunts like this endeared Ives to his Yale classmates, and he became one of the more popular students on campus. He was tapped for Wolf’s Head and was elected chairman of the Ivy Committee.

After graduation, Ives moved to New York and took a job as an assistant in the actuarial department of the Mutual Life Insurance Company, maintaining his interest in music by composing in his spare time and working as a church organist. His health began to deteriorate in 1905, and in 1906, at the age of 32, he had the first of three heart attacks.

Undeterred, Ives in 1907 opened his own life insurance company with a partner, Julian Myrick. After one false start, it rapidly grew to become the largest insurance agency in the country, boasting more than $48 million in premiums in 1929. According to Jan Swafford, author of a biography of Ives (Charles Ives: A Life with Music, Norton), Ives made some $20.5 million (in 1991 dollars) during the first half of his insurance career, giving him the freedom to compose music his way. (Ives’s independence was apparently an inspiration to Schoenberg, who left a note on his dresser when he died, reading, “There is a great man in this country who solved the problem of how to be true to oneself. His name is Charles Ives.”)

Fortunate in business, Ives was also lucky in love, marrying (in 1908) Harmony Twichell, the daughter of Rev. Joseph Twichell, a close friend of Samuel Clemens and a 30-year member of the Yale Corporation. Harmony Ives was a poet and registered nurse who inspired, encouraged, and cared for Ives. She also wrote poems, several of which the composer set to music. Said her husband: “One thing I am certain of is that, if I have done anything good in music, it was, first, because of my father, and second, because of my wife.” Many critics agree, noting that some of Ives’s most personal, passionate, and powerful pieces—including his Third Symphony, much of the Fourth, the Holidays Symphony and an orchestral set called Three Places in New England—were composed during the early years of his marriage.

The Holidays Symphony includes a barn dance that typifies Ives’s attempts to capture in his music the sounds, feelings, and even the sights of common events from his childhood. The dance is built on multiple rhythms and quotations from reels, jigs, and waltzes, some played simultaneously. “In some parts of the hall a group would be dancing a polka, while in another a waltz, with perhaps a quadrille or lancers going on in the middle,” said Ives, recalling the kind of experience that inspired the barn dance. “Some of the players in the band would, in an impromptu way, pick up with the polka, and some with the waltz or march… Sometimes the change in tempo and mixed rhythms would be caused by a fiddler who… was getting a little sleepy.”

Juggling his business, his music, and a growing interest in national affairs and politics (he successfully lobbied for the creation of $50 “baby bonds” when the U.S. entered the Great War, and campaigned for an amendment to the Constitution calling for a referendum-based democracy), Ives saw his health continue to deteriorate, and in 1918 he had a second heart attack.

But his energy was hardly affected. After a mixture of successes and failures, in 1920 and 1921 Ives sent hundreds of copies of his Second Piano Sonata, Concord, Mass., 1840–60, and an accompanying book, Essays Before a Sonata, to musicians, critics, and libraries around the country. While much of the reaction was negative, the material fell into the sympathetic and interested hands of a number of musicians in the emerging avant-garde movements in this country and in Europe.

The successes grew throughout the 1920s. A South Carolina pianist toured a lecture-recital of the Concord Sonata; two songs and the Second Violin Sonata premiered in New York; and two movements of the Fourth Symphony were performed to outstanding reviews.

In 1926, however, Ives abruptly gave up composing. Financially secure, he quit the insurance business three years later, and spent the last 28 years of his life overseeing performances of his work, dictating biographical notes to a secretary, reworking old compositions, and battling illness. He suffered another heart attack in 1938.

While audiences still often fled concerts of Ives’s music, critics had begun to take him seriously in the 1920s, and the interest grew in the 1930s. His reputation was bolstered by the premiere of Three Places in New England in 1931; by Copland’s performance of seven songs in 1932; and by Kirkpatrick’s New York premiere of the Concord Sonata in 1939. Of the Concord, one of the nation’s most influential critics wrote: “This sonata is exceptionally great music—it is, indeed, the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in impulse and implication.”

Ives’s Third Symphony had its premiere in New York in 1946, drawing—in what was becoming a familiar pattern—mixed public response, but raves from the critics; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music a year later. In 1951, Leonard Bernstein conducted the premier of Ives’s Second Symphony, and in 1953 premiered the First. Ives died of a stroke the following year, leaving his most ambitious orchestral work, the Universe Symphony, unfinished.

According to his notes on a sketch of the Universe Symphony, Ives was “striving to… paint the creation, the mysterious beginnings of all things known through God and man, to trace with tonal imprints the vastness, the evolution of all life, in nature, of humanity from the great roots of life to the spiritual eternities, from the great inknown to the great unknown.” Ives envisioned the work being performed by multiple orchestras located in valleys, on hillsides and mountains, with the music mimicking “the eternal pulse… the planetary motion of the earth… the soaring lines of mountains and cliffs… deep ravines, sharp jagged edges of rock.” While Ives probably knew the Universe Symphony could never be performed, his efforts to compose it shed light on the magnificent yet naïve idealism that drove him. In fact, as Ives reached the end of his life, he wrote,”The future of music may not lie entirely with music itself,” and he looked forward to the day “when it will develop possibilities inconceivable now—a language so transcendent that its heights and depths will be common to all mankind.”  the end


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