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.

Yet the Ives oeuvre is not quite what meets the eye. I was jolted when Jan Swafford told me that he did not consider one of my favorite works, the First Piano Sonata, to be completely the work of Ives. Ives sketched it, Swafford said, and then, dissatisfied, abandoned it; later, editors such as John Kirkpatrick and Lou Harrison reassembled some portions and published it as Ives's work. Swafford was particularly dubious about claims made for the Universe Symphony, a long-standing project that Ives notated only in a few fragments, yet one that has recently appeared on a recording and been hailed by some critics as Ives's masterpiece. Whatever the composer's intentions toward this project may have been, the claims for it as music for all of humankind to perform from the mountaintops complement current political and environmental fantasies. Why not enlist Ives as the founder of cultural diversity, New Age spirituality, and the green movement? In the huge pile of his sketches there seems to be a scrap to serve every purpose.

Making Ives's music "normal" is a trickier task. In his several books on Ives, Burkholder ties the composer's pieces to European and American traditions. He has tried to demonstrate that Ives's use of hymns, popular songs, and classical themes, rather than being eccentric, was a deliberate and successful aesthetic strategy -- a way of expressing the diversity of American society. Departing even further from the previous view of the isolated Ives, Burkholder claims that Ives calculated his music carefully for its intended audience, and that it expressed the values and experiences of the community in which he was raised. This is where I begin to roll my eyes. Except for his wife and a few enthusiasts, most of Ives's contemporaries, in particular local musicians, assumed that his music was either a bad joke or the work of a crank; Ives was surprised and disturbed by their incomprehension. One of many oddities about Ives's music is that for listeners today it vividly re-creates a vanished rural, patriotic America -- an America that in Ives's own time had no use for his music. It's not easy being a nostalgic futurist -- but that's what Ives was.

Perhaps I am just an unreconstructed member of the weird camp. Though the scholars at the Bard festival closed ranks behind the normal Ives, the concerts demonstrated over and over again just how marvelously and disturbingly abnormal Ives's music was in its time and is today. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and one of the directors of the festival, has developed thematic programming into a form of performance scholarship. Every concert placed Ives's music in a different context: I could hear the composers who taught Ives and those who were influenced by him, and I could hear music that seemed to parallel his in a number of suggestive ways. Ives's music refused, though, to converse with the polite, adept imitations of Schumann and Brahms by his American contemporaries, or with the angular, well-etched masterpieces of the modernists, or with the reductive and oriental devices of the avant-garde. Messy, sprawling, juvenile, jokey, but also highly evocative and inventive and quietly tragic -- Ives's music emerged from all the concert contexts just as sui generis, or weird, as it has always been.

WHY are we still rediscovering Ives? Half Thomas Jefferson and half Huck Finn, Ives is the progenitor of our national ambivalence toward art music itself. He seemed to believe that music had to be either sublime or ridiculous. It could lead either to the spiritual redemption of mankind or to a good laugh -- but it could not be merely an object of aesthetic contemplation, with no further purpose. His music resists the context of the classical concert altogether. More than thirty years ago Leonard Bernstein devoted himself to raising the reputations of two composers -- Gustav Mahler and Ives. Since that time Mahler's music has taken its place at the heart of the orchestral repertory, but Ives still seems an alien presence in the concert hall. Out of his more than 110 songs maybe five or six have entered the recital repertory; the string quartets and piano sonatas remain occasional novelties; half the orchestral works are barely played, because they seem either immature, like the First Symphony, or bizarrely misconceived, like the cacophonous Robert Browning Overture. I don't think the special status accorded even Ives's finest works can any longer be explained by their technical difficulty; I believe instead that the ethical and spiritual images within the music set it against a concert world with which Ives could never make peace, even though he was a loyal follower of the Boston Symphony.

Ives's music conjures up idealized alternatives to the concert hall. It portrays imaginary town meetings, revival services, parades, football games. Ives was envisioning a civic space in which the music would define a community -- a community that might contain many musicians and artisans but no "artists." His music is most effective when it sounds as if it were being played by amateurs, not by conservatory-trained professionals, and when it sounds like an improvisation, not a thought-out composition. The illusion is a most artful one. Ives's compositions, at least the ones he brought to a state of polished completion, are difficult, fully composed works that demand to be played by the finest musicians. Yet they seem as embarrassed by their own artistry as by the artistry of the players who can actually master them. The members of the audience, too, are meant to feel not like aesthetic onlookers but like participants. Ironically, the hymns and popular songs that fill his music and turn listeners into a civic congregation are ever further removed from our experience: Ives invites us to a communion we are no longer prepared to attend. And so the immediacy of the music is blurred by our own soft-focus nostalgia for a lost world.

Where, then, does Ives's music belong? The work of two American composers who were not played at Bard might have resonated powerfully with Ives's music: Frank Zappa and Charles Mingus. Put The Unanswered Question next to Peaches en Regalia, or General William Booth Enters Into Heaven alongside Fables of Faubus, and you would really give an audience a new framework for Ives. Zappa's songs (more than his "serious" works) would be the perfect mirror for Ives's adolescent humor, his irrepressible assault on decorum and good taste.

Charles Mingus's music, which may someday seem even greater than that of Ives, would match the political and religious impulses of Ives's compositions. Mingus -- who, like Ives, left a huge amount of unfinished music and various unrealized visionary projects -- similarly composed music out of a passionate idealism and a powerful sense of history. Like Ives, Mingus often re-created the music of the past (in his case, pastiches of Jelly Roll Morton or Duke Ellington) and often placed his music within an imagined church service. Again like Ives, Mingus found ways of composing music so that it sounded improvised and often pushed his music to the edge of chaos -- even over the edge, as if to register a protest against the boundaries of genre and expression. Much of Ives's music is jazz before the fact -- not in its style or its cultural roots but in its provisional yet incantatory essence. Just picture Ives at the piano, trading fours with Mingus on bass -- the White Saint and the Black Saint. The trickster gods can have many faces.

Illustration by Laura Tarrish

The Atlantic Monthly; January, 1997; The Many Faces of Ives; Volume 279, No. 1; pages 84-87.