The Many Faces of Ives

This year's Charles Ives is another illustration of how protean our most American composer remains.


COMPOSING serious music still seems to be an un-American activity. Our composers are caught between rock -- or jazz or Broadway -- and the hardened repertory of the concert hall. If they aim low, the critics accuse them of writing bad imitations of good popular music. If they aim high, their music is dismissed as "European" -- a code word implying that the music is derivative, abstruse, and snooty. If they aim for the bland accessibility audiences are willing to tolerate, their music will be played once or twice and then justifiably forgotten.

What would it take to make American music unequivocally American? Assuming for the moment that this is desirable, it would take a composer whose work both addressed a broad public and was serious in its emotional or ethical concerns. The music would both induce a feeling of national nostalgia, the way Elgar's does for the English, and envision our brash future. In short, it would take -- or should have taken -- a Charles Ives. Ives has been hailed as the founding father of American music ever since his Concord Sonata was first performed, in 1939. Yet the man, the music, and most of all the contradictory myths surrounding Ives only heighten the suspicion with which Americans view their native concert music.

Since the 1930s every generation of American composers has reimagined Ives in its own image. In his fine new biography, , Jan Swafford lists some of Ives's manifestations: the "Ultra-modernist, the Nationalist, the amateur, the primitive, the atavist, the neurotic, the sly fabricator of his own myth." Ives has been used to authenticate everything from cowboy tunes to conceptualism. In one decade Ives seemed like Whitman; in the next he was compared, by Leonard Bernstein, to Grandma Moses. A man who had lived most of his life in New York City was clothed in homespun and pictured on record albums in front of a comfortable Connecticut summer home made to look like a log cabin. And today he is a proto-postmodernist.

In art, as in life, it takes two to tango. Different movements in American music have needed different founding fathers, but Ives's works are a bottomless grab bag of contradictory achievements and promises. You can find a piece somewhere to support every mutation of the Ives myth. The early Second Symphony, Bernstein's favorite, reveals Ives as a nostalgic nationalist and a lovable bad boy -- and also as a composer in full command of the European symphonic idiom of Brahms and Dvorák. The Unanswered Question and Central Park in the Dark, with their divided orchestras moving at different speeds, show us Ives the vanguardist, who not long ago was typically praised as the forerunner of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Today Ives's powerful use of hymns in the Fourth Symphony makes him the predecessor of the "new spirituality" heard in Górecki's Third Symphony, and his use of popular materials makes him the progenitor of crossover. Domestic one day, cosmic the next, delightfully "bad," transcendentally "good" -- the mythological Ives is a trickster god.

LAST August the Bard Music Festival, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, presented a rediscovery of Ives, an intensive encounter with his music, the music of his contemporaries, and the current state of Ives scholarship. The model of the Ives myth that emerged from the festival's panels might be called Ives the normal. The academic pendulum is, predictably, swinging back from the model of Ives the weird, which prevailed for thirty years, starting in the 1960s, when the professional isolation in which Ives worked (he split his life between music and the insurance business, where he was a great innovator and earned a large fortune) made him an honorary grandfather of the counterculture and every freakout to come. Ives's "abnormality" also had several dark sides -- Ives the prevaricator, Ives the homophobe, Ives the misogynist. Extrapolating from certain comments by Elliott Carter, who knew Ives in the twenties and remembered his "adding dissonances" to works he had written earlier, the musicologist Maynard Solomon in 1987 described Ives as a borderline personality who chronically lied about his music in order to appear more innovative than he really was -- a serious charge against the George Washington of music.

The most telling symptom according to subscribers to the weird model was Ives's apparent obsession with manliness. He dismissed any men he did not like as sissies or lilies or just girls. To the ears of today's scholars these were the homophobic ravings of a closet case; the charge was further substantiated when it was learned that Ives broke with his close friend Henry Cowell when Cowell was arrested for what was then called the corruption of minors. Even if Ives was not pathological, his letters and other writings showed that for him good music was a "guy thing" -- a stance that would not endear him to feminists. Rather than the father of American music, Ives now looked like some embarrassingly eccentric uncle, the black sheep of the musical family.

J. Peter Burkholder, a professor of musicology at Indiana University and America's leading Ivesian, was an important member of the Bard program committee and set out to rehabilitate Ives. Although the issues of homophobia and misogyny disrupted a few of the panel discussions, the thrust of most presentations was to place Ives in the musical and psychological mainstream. To counter Solomon's fatal charge of mendacity, Gayle Sherwood, a musicologist at the University of Michigan, presented her findings about the birth dates of Ives's works. Using the dating of manuscript paper and other forensic techniques, she largely confirmed the composer's own accounts -- though she admitted that he made some small revisions. Jan Swafford wept as he read the letter in which Ives reminded his wife of the love they had expressed for each other as they walked beside the Housatonic River at Stockbridge -- a scene Ives glowingly re-created in Three Places in New England. Rather than working in isolation, Ives was shown to be actively involved in getting his music performed and in aiding other composers, such as Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell. Ives, we heard, was a loving husband, a doting uncle, an astute businessman. This year's founding father knew best.

Presented by

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In