Saturday, 11 April 2015

"The Unanswered Question" is - how did a conservative businessman like Charles Ives come to produce such revolutionary music?

Two nights' ago, at about 11.30, I suddenly felt that strange, familiar, guilt-inducing itch which assails me at least twice a year. I snuck up to my tiny study at the top of the house, shut the door, sat at the computer, put on some headphones, fired up iTunes - and typed "Charles Ives" into the search box. I selected, as always with this ritual, the raucous, cheerful, deranged, patriotic 1917 knees-up, "They are There!", which reminds me of nothing so much as a 1950s Ealing Comedy soundtrack for a scene in which an official celebratory ceremony in some provincial town rapidly descends into chaos. If you've never paid much attention to America's greatest composer, imagining him to be elitist, snooty and inaccessible, please listen to this - you'll either be puzzled, amused or appalled:


With that out of the way, I move on to something completely, diametrically different - the programmatic 1906 work, "Central Park in the Dark", which Ives described in the following terms:
The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness - interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond- of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days- of some ‘night owls’ from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March - the “occasional elevated,” a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance - of newsboys crying “uxtries” - of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall,” a street car and a street band join in the chorus- a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out,” the wayfarers shoutv- again the darkness is heard - an echo over the pond - and we walk home.

I then turn to "The Unanswered Question", a work which is often performed as a companion piece to "Central Park in the Dark". Three instrumental groupings discuss the meaning of life for six mesmerising minutes:

It's this sort of Ives that I prefer to listen to in the early hours of the morning, when the city is asleep (or, at least, one's neighbours are). That's even more true of the next work, Three Places in New England (mainly composed between 1911 and 1914) - especially the opening movement, "The 'St. Gaudens' in Boston Common". Martial cheerfulness characterises "Puttnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut". The third section, "From the Housatonic at Stockbridge" is mysterious, haunting and gorgeous.


If I'm not too tired, I usually finish with the splendidly diverse A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904-1913). But in the early hours of Friday, I decided to listen to some of Ives's work that I hadn't previously heard. As a result, I discovered the enormously impressive Symphony No. 4 (1912-18), a work so complex and multi-layered, it apparently usually requires two conductors for a live performance:

It's not music that will appeal to most people, I suspect - much of Ives's work doesn't appeal to me - and until the decade before his death (he was born in 1874 and died in 1954), nobody paid much attention, mainly because his music was rarely, if ever, performed, and then only when he paid for the performance. But he wasn't without supporters - including Aaron Copland, Bernard Hermann and Leonard Bernstein - and won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his Symphony No. 3 in 1946. (When Bernstein conducted the first performance of Symphony No. 2 in 1951, Ives and his wife listened to it in the kitchen on their cook's radio, and were astonished by the audience's enthusiastic reaction.)

When the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg died, among his effects was discovered the following note: There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self-esteem and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives. 

One reason Ives wasn't "forced to accept praise or blame" was that he was a highly successful businessman, one of the shapers of the modern insurance industry (in particular, estate planning), and the co-founder and co-owner of the Ives & Myrick Insurance Company. He composed in his spare time, and many of his insurance colleagues were astonished to learn that this scion of their industry was any sort of composer (God alone knows what they made of his revolutionary music). It would be nice think that this double life took no toll, but a series of "heart attacks" preceding his most creative writing period (from 1907 onwards) may very well have been psychological in origin. It's interesting to note that after failing health - including diabetes - forced him to retire at 55, he wrote no more new music, despite living for another 25 years. 

To recap: the New England son of a US Army band leader, born less than a decade after the end of the American Civil War, brought up with patrotic songs, hymns and military marches ringing in his ears, goes on to attend and make a mark at Yale, an Ivy League college steeped in tradition, regularly plays organ in church, becomes a major figure in the deeply conservative insurance industry, and then, in his spare time, practically in secret, produces some of the most revolutionary, experimental, dissonant Modernist music of the 20th Century in a country which barely has a classical music tradition at the time - well, that strikes me as one of the most fascinating stories in the history of music. I'm rather ashamed to admit I'd barely heard of Ives the first time I actually listened to his music some ten years' ago - and only became aware of his life story after I'd been smitten by his compositions.

I'll leave you with Ives's exuberant 1943 performance of "They are There!" - revised during World War II. He sounds like fun:



  1. A great sketch of a wonderful American pioneer, SG. My favorite quote from the old boy, you will enjoy - 'In thinking-up music I usually have some kind of brass band with wings on it in back of my mind'
    And his beloved wife's name? Harmony!

  2. Thanks very much, mahlerman. Lovely quote - but, judging by Ives's style, maybe his wife should have been called Disharmony!