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Charles Ives

Charles Edward Ives (October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954) was an American composer of classical music. He is regarded as possibly the first American classical composer of international significance.

Charles Ives
Charles Ives (1874 – 1954).

Charles Edward Ives (October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954) was an American composer of classical music. He is regarded as likely the first American classical composer of international significance.


Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut, the son of a US Army bandmaster. He was given music lessons by his father at an early age, and later studied under Horatio Parker at Yale University. After graduating, he decided to pursue a non-musical career, believing that he would be forced to compromise his musical ideals in a musical career. He pursued a career in insurance and was quite successful. In his spare time, he composed music and worked as an organist in Danbury, New Haven, Connecticut, Bloomfield, New Jersey and New York, New York.

After marrying Harmony Twitchell in 1908, Ives moved to New York, and remained there for the rest of his life, making a living directing his own insurance firm, Ives & Myrick. He continued to be a prolific composer until he suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1918, after which he composed very little, writing his very last piece, A Farewell to Land, a song with words by Lord Byron, in 1925.

Charles Ives died in 1954 in New York, New York. Since then his critical stock has risen, and he is now regarded as an important figure.

Ives’ Music

Ives’ music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. His tendency to experimentation and his uncompromising use of dissonance won him few fans. One of the most damning words one could use to describe music in Ives’ view was “nice,” so his unpopularity cannot have been any surprise to him. This unpopularity began to change a little in the 1940s, when he met Lou Harrison, a fan of his music who began to promote it. Most notably he conducted the premiere of the Symphony No. 3 (1904) in 1946. The next year, this piece won Ives the Pulitzer Prize for Music, though Ives gave the prize money away (half of it to Harrison), saying “prizes are for boys and I’m all grown up.”

Although Ives wrote many songs with often strikingly original piano accompaniments, he is now best known for his instrumental music. His work as an organist led him to write Variations on “America” in 1891, which he himself 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 Great Britain) through a series of fairly standard, but witty variations. One of the variations is in the style of a flamenco, while another (added some years after the piece had originally been composed) is probably Ives’ first use of bitonality. A version for orchestra was made by William Schuman and premiered in 1964, demonstrating how highly regarded Ives was following his death.

One of the first, and one of the most striking, examples of Ives’ experimentation is The Unanswered Question (1908), written for the highly unusual combination of trumpet, four flutes, and string quartet (he later made an orchestral version). The strings play very slow, chorale-like music throughout the piece, while on several occasions the trumpet plays a short motif (a “question”) that Ives described as “the eternal question of existence”. Each time the trumpet is answered with a shrill outburst from the flutes – 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 that we are never made fully aware of, and it is tremendously mysterious.

Pieces such as The Unanswered Question were almost certainly influenced by the New England transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. 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.” The piece is possibly Ives’ best-known piece for solo piano (although it should be noted that there are optional parts for viola and flute). Rhythmically and harmonically it is typically adventurous, and it also 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 3/4″ piece of wood to create a massive cluster chord.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives ever completed was his Symphony No. 4 (1910-16). The list of forces required to perform the work alone is extraordinary; as well as a large symphony orchestra, the piece requires a massive percussion section, two pianos (one tuned a quarter tone apart from the other), an organ, an extra group of distant strings, a full chorus and (optionally) three saxophones and a theremin. The program of the work echoes that of The Unanswered Question – Ives said the piece was “a searching question of ‘What’ and ‘Why’ which the spirit of man asks of life.” Use of quotation is again rife, especially in the first movement, and there is no shortage of novel effects. In the second movement, for example, a tremolando is heard througout the entire orchestra. In the final movement, there is a sort of musical fight between discordant sounds and more traditional tonal music. Eventually a wordless chorus enters, the mood becomes calmer, and the piece ends quietly with just the percussion playing. The symphony did not have a complete performance until 1965, almost fifty years after the completion of the work, and eleven years after the composer’s death.

List of selected works

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.

Further reading

[This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article: Charles Ives.]

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