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Charles Edward Ives

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Charles Edward Ives

For the New Zealand international football (soccer) player, see Charles Ives (footballer).
Charles Ives
This photo from around 1913 shows Ives in his "day job". He was the director of a successful insurance agency.
Background information
Birth name Charles Edward Ives
Born (1874-10-20)October 20, 1874
Origin Danbury, Connecticut
Died May 19, 1954(1954-05-19) (aged 79)
New York, New York
Occupations composer, insurance agent

Charles Edward Ives (/vz/; October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954) was an American modernist[1] composer. He is one of the first American composers of international renown,[2] though Ives' music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. Over time, Ives came to be regarded as an "American original".[3] Ives combined the American popular and church-music traditions of his youth with European art music, and was among the first composers to engage in a systematic program of experimental music, with musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatoric elements, and quarter tones,[4] foreshadowing many musical innovations of the 20th century.

Sources of Ives' tonal imagery are hymn tunes and traditional songs, the town band at holiday parade, the fiddlers at Saturday night dances, patriotic songs, sentimental parlor ballads, and the melodies of Stephen Foster.


Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874,[5] the son of George Ives, a U.S. Army bandleader in the American Civil War, and his wife Mary Parmelee. A strong influence of Charles's may have been sitting in the Danbury town square, listening to his father's marching band and other bands on other sides of the square simultaneously. George Ives' unique music lessons were also a strong influence on Charles; George Ives took an open-minded approach to musical theory, encouraging his son to experiment in bitonal and polytonal harmonizations. It was from his father that Charles Ives also learned the music of Stephen Foster.[6] Ives became a church organist at the age of 14[7] and wrote various hymns and songs for church services, including his Variations on 'America' , which Ives wrote for a Fourth of July concert in Brewster, New York. The work is considered challenging even by modern concert organists, but Ives famously spoke of it as being "as much fun as playing baseball", a commentary on his own organ technique at that age.[8]

Ives moved to New Haven in 1893, enrolling in the Hopkins School, where he captained the baseball team. In September 1894, Ives entered Yale University, studying under Horatio Parker. Here he composed in a choral style similar to his mentor, writing church music and even an 1896 campaign song for William McKinley.[9] On November 4, 1894, Charles's father died, a crushing blow to the young composer, but to a large degree Ives continued the musical experimentation he had begun with George Ives.

At Yale, Ives was a prominent figure; he was a member of HeBoule, Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi chapter) and Wolf's Head Society, and sat as chairman of the Ivy Committee.[9] He enjoyed sports at Yale and played on the varsity football team. Michael C. Murphy, his coach, once remarked that it was a "crying shame" that Charles Ives spent so much time at music as otherwise he could have been a champion sprinter.[10] His works Calcium Light Night and Yale-Princeton Football Game show the influence of college and sports on Ives' composition. He wrote his Symphony No. 1 as his senior thesis under Parker's supervision.[9]

He continued his work as a church organist until May 1902. Soon after Ives graduated from Yale, he started work in the actuarial department of the Mutual Life Insurance company of New York.[11] In 1899, he moved to employment with the insurance agency Charles H. Raymond & Co., where he stayed until 1906. In 1907, upon the failure of Raymond & Co., he and his friend Julian Myrick formed their own insurance agency Ives & Co., which later became Ives & Myrick, where he remained until he retired.[12] During his career as an insurance executive and actuary, Ives devised creative ways to structure life-insurance packages for people of means, which laid the foundation of the modern practice of estate planning.[13] His Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax, published in 1918, was well received. As a result of this he achieved considerable fame in the insurance industry of his time, with many of his business peers surprised to learn that he was also a composer. In his spare time he composed music and, until his marriage, worked as an organist in Danbury and New Haven as well as Bloomfield, New Jersey and New York City.[9]

In 1907, Ives suffered the first of several "heart attacks" (as he and his family called them) that he had throughout his lifetime. These attacks may have been psychological in origin rather than physical. Following his recovery from the 1907 attack, Ives entered into one of the most creative periods of his life as a composer.

After marrying Harmony Twitchell in 1908,[12] they moved into their own apartment in New York. He had a remarkably successful career in insurance, and continued to be a prolific composer until he suffered another of several heart attacks in 1918, after which he composed very little, writing his very last piece, the song "Sunrise", in August 1926.[12] In 1922, Ives published his 114 Songs, which represents the breadth of his work as a composer—it includes art songs, songs he wrote as a teenager and young man, and highly dissonant songs such as "The Majority."[12]

According to his wife, one day in early 1927 he came downstairs with tears in his eyes. He could compose no more, he said, "nothing sounds right."[14] There have been numerous theories advanced to explain the silence of his late years, which seems as mysterious as the last several decades of the life of Jean Sibelius, who also stopped composing at almost the same time. While Ives had stopped composing, and was increasingly plagued by health problems, he did continue to revise and refine his earlier work, as well as oversee premieres of his music.[12] After continuing health problems, including diabetes, in 1930 he retired from his insurance business, which gave him more time to devote to his musical work, but he was unable to write any new music. During the 1940s he revised his Concord Sonata, publishing it in 1947 (an earlier version of the sonata and the accompanying prose volume, Essays Before a Sonata were privately printed in 1920).[15]

Ives died of a stroke in 1954 in New York City. His widow bequeathed the royalties from his music to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the Charles Ives Prize.[16]


Early period (prior to 1900)

As a youth, Charles was musically trained by his father George Ives, the bandmaster in Danbury, Connecticut. Charles played drums in his father's band at an early age, then learned to play piano and organ as his "main" instrument. He was a sought-after organist in some of the local churches as a teenager and once received a favorable newspaper review. George Ives engaged his son with challenging musical exercises such as alternative tunings and bitonal singing exercises. The elder Ives experimented with having two marching bands start at opposite ends of town playing two different pieces in different keys while marching towards each other. Charles later credited his father as the seminal musical influence in his life.

Ives was formally trained in music at Yale. His First Symphony shows a grasp of the academic skills needed to write in the traditional sonata form of the late 19th century, as well as a tendency to display an individual and iconoclastic harmonic style. His father was a band leader, and like Hector Berlioz, Ives was fascinated with both outdoor music and instrumentation. His attempts to fuse these interests coupled with his devotion to Beethoven set the direction for the remainder of his musical life.

Ives published a large collection of his songs, many of which had piano parts that paralleled modern movements in Europe, including bitonality and pantonality. He was an accomplished pianist who could improvise in a variety of styles, including those then quite new. Though he is now best known for his orchestral music, he composed two string quartets and other works of chamber music. His work as an organist led him to write Variations on "America" in 1891, which he premiered at a recital celebrating the Fourth of July. The piece takes the tune (which is the same one as is used for the national anthem of the United Kingdom) through a series of fairly standard but witty variations; it was not published until 1949. The variations differ sharply: a running line, a set of close harmonies, a march, and a polonaise; the interludes are among the first uses of bitonality;[17] William Schuman created an arrangement for orchestra in 1964 which was subsequently transcribed for symphonic band by William E. Rhoads in 1968.

Middle period (1900–1910)

Around the turn of twentieth century Ives composed his Symphony No. 2, signifying a departure from the conservative approach of his composition teacher at Yale, Horatio Parker. His first symphony is a more conventional piece since Parker had insisted that he stick to the older European style. However, the second symphony, composed after he had graduated, adopted new techniques that included musical quotations, especially of American folk themes in the final movement, unusual phrasing and orchestration, and even a blatantly dissonant 11-note chord ending the work. The second symphony foreshadows his later compositional style even though the piece is relatively conservative by Ives' standards. Indeed, late in life, Ives referred to it as one of his "soft" pieces.

In 1906, Ives composed what some have argued was the first radical musical work of the twentieth century, Central Park in the Dark.[18] The piece evokes an evening comparing sounds from nearby nightclubs in Manhattan (playing the popular music of the day, ragtime, quoting "Hello! Ma Baby" and even Sousa's "Washington Post March") with the mysterious dark and misty qualities of the Central Park woods (played by the strings). The string harmony uses shifting chord structures that are not solely based on thirds but a combination of thirds, fourths, and fifths. Near the end of the piece the remainder of the orchestra builds up to a grand chaos ending on a dissonant chord, leaving the string section to end the piece save for a brief violin duo superimposed over the unusual chord structures.

Ives had composed two symphonies, but it is with The Unanswered Question (1906), written for the highly unusual combination of trumpet, four flutes, and string orchestra, that he established the mature sonic world that became his signature style. The strings (located offstage) play very slow, chorale-like music throughout the piece while on several occasions the trumpet (positioned behind the audience) plays a short motif that Ives described as "the perennial question of existence". Each time the trumpet is answered with increasingly shrill outbursts from the flutes (onstage)—apart from the last: the unanswered question. The piece is typical Ives—it juxtaposes various disparate elements, it appears to be driven by a narrative never fully revealed to the audience, and it is tremendously mysterious. It has become one of his more popular works.[19] Leonard Bernstein borrowed its title for his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1973, noting that he always thought of the piece as a musical question, not a metaphysical one.

Mature period (1910–1923)

Starting around 1910 Ives began composing his most accomplished works including the Holiday Symphony and arguably his best-known piece, Three Places in New England.

Pieces such as The Unanswered Question were almost certainly influenced by the New England transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.[12] These were important influences to Ives, as he acknowledged in his Piano Sonata No. 2: "Concord, Mass., 1840–60" (1909–15), which he described as an "...impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago... undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne."[20]

The sonata is possibly Ives' best-known piece for solo piano (although it should be noted that there is an optional part for flute). (A part for viola in the "Emerson" movement is not intended for a viola player—it is simply the "viola part" from the original "Emerson" Concerto sketch, which was also to be played by bassoon and tubular bells.) Rhythmically and harmonically, it is typically adventurous, and it demonstrates Ives' fondness for quotation—on several occasions the opening motto from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is quoted. It also contains one of the most striking examples of Ives' experimentalism: in the second movement, he instructs the pianist to use a 14 34 in (37 cm) piece of wood to produce a dense but generally very soft cluster chord. All these effects are combined to create one of the towering masterworks of 20th century piano literature—an unprecedented masterpiece of American music.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives completed was his Fourth Symphony (1910–16). The list of forces required to perform the work alone is extraordinary. The work closely mirrors The Unanswered Question. There is no shortage of novel effects. (A tremolando is heard throughout the second movement. A fight between discordance and traditional tonal music is heard in the final movement. The piece ends quietly with just the percussion playing at a distance.) In it, Ives finally resolves all of his compositional issues and the full force of his considerable genius is heard. The final movement can be seen as an apotheosis of his work and a culmination of his musical achievement. A complete performance was not given until 1965, almost half a century after the symphony was completed, and more than a decade after Ives' death.

Ives left behind material for an unfinished Universe Symphony, which he was unable to assemble in his lifetime despite two decades of work. This was due to his health problems as well as his shifting conception of the work. There have been several attempts at completion or performing version. However, none has found its way into general performance.[14] The symphony takes the ideas in the Symphony No. 4 to an even higher level, with complex cross-rhythms and difficult layered dissonance along with unusual instrumental combinations.

Ives' chamber works include the String Quartet No. 2, where the parts are often written at extremes of counterpoint, ranging from spiky dissonance in the movement labeled "Arguments" to transcendentally slow. This range of extremes is frequent in Ives' music—crushing blare and dissonance contrasted with lyrical quiet—and carried out by the relationship of the parts slipping in and out of phase with each other. Ives' idiom, like Mahler's, employed highly independent melodic lines. It is regarded as difficult to play because many of the typical signposts for performers are not present. This work had a clear influence on Elliott Carter's Second String Quartet, which is similarly a four-way theatrical conversation.


Ives' music was largely ignored during his lifetime, particularly during the years in which he actively composed. Many of his published works went unperformed even many years after his death in 1954. But his reputation in more recent years has greatly increased. Juilliard commemorated the 50th anniversary of Ives' death by performing his music over six days in 2004. His musical experiments, including his increasing use of dissonance, were not well received by his contemporaries. Furthermore, the difficulties in performing the rhythmic complexities in his major orchestral works made them daunting challenges even decades after they were composed.

Early supporters of his music included Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland. Cowell's periodical New Music published a substantial number of Ives' scores (with the composer's approval), but for almost 40 years Ives had few performances that he did not arrange or back, generally with Nicolas Slonimsky as the conductor.[15] After seeing a copy of Ives' self-published 114 Songs during the 1930s, Copland published a newspaper article praising the collection.

Ives began to acquire some public recognition during the 1930s, with performances of a chamber orchestra version of his Three Places in New England both in the U.S. and on tour in Europe by conductor Nicolas Slonimsky and the New York Town Hall premiere of his Concord Sonata by pianist John Kirkpatrick in 1939, which led to favorable commentary in the major New York newspapers. Later, around the time of the composer's death in 1954, Kirkpatrick teamed with soprano Helen Boatwright for the first extended recorded recital of Ives' songs for the obscure Overtone label (Overtone Records catalog number 7). Boatwright and Kirkpatrick recorded a new selection of songs for the Ives Centennial Collection that Columbia Records published in 1974.

His obscurity lifted a bit in the 1940s, when he met Lou Harrison, a fan of his music who began to edit and promote it. Most notably, Harrison conducted the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting (1904) in 1946.[21] The next year, this piece won Ives the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Ives gave the prize money away (half of it to Harrison), saying "prizes are for boys, and I'm all grown up".[22] Ives himself was a great financial supporter of twentieth century music, often supporting works that were written by other composers. This he did in secret, telling his beneficiaries it was really his wife who wanted him to do so.[23] Nicolas Slonimsky said in 1971, "He financed my entire career."[24]

At this time, Ives was also promoted by Bernard Herrmann, who worked as a conductor at CBS and in 1940 became principal conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra. While there, he championed Ives's music. When the two met, Hermann confessed that he had tried his hand at performing the Concord Sonata. Remarkably, Ives, who actually avoided the radio and the phonograph, agreed to make a series of piano recordings from 1933 to 1943 that were later issued by Columbia Records on a special LP set issued for Ives' centenary in 1974. New World Records issued 42 tracks of Ives' recordings on CD on April 1, 2006.[25] One of the more unusual recordings, made in New York City in 1943, features Ives playing the piano and singing the words to his popular World War I song They Are There!, which he composed in 1917, then revised in 1942–43 for World War II.

Also in Canada, the expatriate English pianist Lloyd Powell played a series of concerts including all of Ives's piano works, at the University of British Columbia in the 1950s.[26]

Recognition of Ives's music steadily improved. He received praise from Arnold Schoenberg, who regarded him as a monument to artistic integrity, and from the New York School of William Schuman. Shortly after Schoenberg's death (three years before Ives himself died), his widow found a note written by her husband. The note had originally been written in 1944 when Schoenberg was living in Los Angeles and teaching at UCLA. It stated:

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 [sic]. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.[27]

There is a report that Ives also won the admiration of Gustav Mahler, who said that Ives was a true musical revolutionary. Reportedly, Mahler talked of premiering Ives' Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, but the famous composer soon died (in 1911) thus preventing the premiere. However, the source of this story is Ives; since Mahler died, there was no way to verify whether Mahler had seen the score of the symphony or decided to perform it in 1911–12 season of the New York Philharmonic.[28] Nonetheless, it is known that Ives regularly attended New York Philharmonic concerts and probably heard Mahler conduct the Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

In 1951, Leonard Bernstein conducted the world premiere of Ives' Second Symphony in a broadcast concert by the New York Philharmonic. The Iveses heard the performance on their cook's radio and were amazed at the audience's warm reception to the music. Bernstein continued to conduct Ives' music and made a number of recordings with the Philharmonic for Columbia Records. He even honored Ives on one of his televised youth concerts and in a special disc included with the reissue of the 1960 recording of the second symphony and the Fourth of July movement from Ives' Holiday Symphony.

Another pioneering Ives recording, undertaken during the 1950s, was the first complete set of the four violin sonatas, performed by Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster Rafael Druian and John Simms. Leopold Stokowski took on Symphony No. 4 in 1965, regarding the work as "the heart of the Ives problem". The Carnegie Hall world premiere by the American Symphony Orchestra led to the first recording of the music. Another promoter of Ives was choral conductor Gregg Smith, who made a series of recordings of the composer's shorter works during the 1960s, including first stereo recordings of the psalm settings and arrangements of many short pieces for theater orchestra. The Juilliard String Quartet recorded the two string quartets during the 1960s.

Today, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is an enthusiastic exponent of Ives' symphonies as is composer and biographer Jan Swafford. Ives' work is regularly programmed in Europe. Ives has also inspired pictorial artists, most notably Eduardo Paolozzi, who entitled one of his 1970s sets of prints Calcium Light Night, each print being named for an Ives' piece (including Central Park in the Dark). In 1991, Connecticut's legislature designated Ives as that state's official composer.[29]

The Scottish baritone Henry Herford began a survey of Ives' songs in 1990, but this remains incomplete because the record company involved (Unicorn-Kanchana) collapsed. Pianist-composer and Wesleyan University professor Neely Bruce has made a life's study of Ives. To date, he has staged seven parts of a concert series devoted to the complete songs of Ives. Musicologist David Gray Porter reconstructed a piano concerto, the "Emerson" Concerto, from Ives' sketches. A recording of the work was released by Naxos Records.


Note: Because Ives often made several different versions of the same piece, and because his work was generally ignored during his lifetime, it is often difficult to put exact dates on his compositions. The dates given here are sometimes best guesses. There have also been controversial speculations that Ives purposely misdated his own pieces earlier or later than actually written.

  • Variations on America for organ (1892)
  • The Circus Band (a march describing the Circus coming to town)
  • Psalm settings (14, 42, 54, 67, 90, 135, 150) (1890s)[30]
  • String Quartet No. 1, From the Salvation Army (1897–1900)
  • Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1898–1901)
  • Symphony No. 2 (Ives gave dates of 1899-1902; analysis of handwriting and manuscript paper suggests 1907-1909)[31]
  • Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting (1908–10)
  • Central Park in the Dark for chamber orchestra (1906, 1909)
  • The Unanswered Question for chamber group (1906; rev. 1934)
  • Piano Sonata No. 1 (1909–16)
  • Piano Trio (c1909–10, rev. c1914–15)
  • Violin Sonata No. 1 (1910–14; rev. ca. 1924)
  • Violin Sonata No. 4, Children's Day at the Camp Meeting (1911–16)
  • A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904–1913)
  • "Robert Browning" Overture (1911–14)
  • Symphony No. 4 (1912–18; rev. 1924–26)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1913–15)
  • Pieces for chamber ensemble grouped as "Sets," some called Cartoons or Take-Offs or Songs Without Voices (1906–18); includes Calcium Light Night
  • Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No. 1) (1910–14; rev. 1929)
  • Violin Sonata No. 2 (1914–17)
  • Violin Sonata No. 3 (1914–17)
  • Orchestral Set No. 2 (1915–19)
  • Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840–60 (1916–19) (revised many times by Ives)
  • Universe symphony (incomplete, 1915–28, worked on symphony until his death in 1954)
  • 114 Songs (composed various years 1887–1921, published 1922.)
  • Three Quarter Tone Piano Pieces (1923–24)
  • Orchestral Set No. 3 (incomplete, 1919–26, notes added after 1934)


Ives proposed in 1920 that there be a 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would authorize citizens to submit legislative proposals to Congress. Members of Congress would then cull the proposals, selecting 10 each year as referendums for popular vote by the nation's electorate. He even had printed at his own expense several thousand copies of a pamphlet on behalf of his proposed amendment. The pamphlet proclaimed the need to curtail "THE EFFECTS OF TOO MUCH POLITICS IN OUR representative DEMOCRACY." His proposal joined his music in being ignored during his lifetime.[32]

See also

  • Biography portal



Further reading

  • Cooper, Jack (1999). Three sketches for jazz orchestra inspired by Charles Ives songs (Thesis). University of Texas at Austin: UMI Publishing. OCLC 44537553.

External links

  • Project Gutenberg
  • The Charles Ives Society
  • Songs of Charles Ives at Music of the United States of America (MUSA)
  • Charles Ives at Peermusic Classical Composer's Publisher and Bio
  • Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra Tippett rehearses Putnam's Camp (short video from 1969).
  • A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives, online edition
  • The Charles Ives Center for the Arts. Inc
  • Art of the States: Charles Ives Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos (1924)
  • WorldCat catalog)
  • Multitasking, an episode of The Infinite Mind public radio program (Cambridge, MA, Lichtenstein Creative Media, 2005), a report on Charles Ives and his integration of multitasking into his compositions.
  • Ives Vocal Marathon—performances and programs of Ives' vocal work.
  • Charles Ives at Pytheas Center for Contemporary Music
  • Free scores by Charles Ives at the International Music Score Library Project
  • The online music review Ives' Concord Sonata
  • The Charles Ives Papers at Yale University Music Library

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