Born in Danbury, Connecticut on October 20, 1874, Charles Ives pursued what is perhaps one of the most extraordinary and paradoxical careers in American music history. A businessman by day and composer by night, Ives’s vast output has gradually brought him recognition as the most original and significant American composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by transcendentalist philosophy, Ives sought a highly personalized musical expression through the most innovative and radical technical means possible.
A fascination with bi-tonal forms, polyrhythms, and quotation was nurtured by his father who Ives would later acknowledge as the primary creative influence on his musical style. Ironically, much of Ives’s work would not be heard until his virtual retirement from music and business in 1930 due to severe health problems. The conductor Nicolas Slonimsky, music critic Henry Bellamann, pianist John Kirkpatrick, and the composer Lou Harrison (who conducted the premiere of Symphony No. 3) played a key role in introducing Ives’s music to a wider audience. Henry Cowell was perhaps the most significant figure in fostering public and critical attention for Ives’s music, publishing several of the composer’s works in his New Music Quarterly.
The American composer Charles Ives learned a great deal from his bandmaster father, George Ives, and a love of the music of Bach. At the same time, he was exposed to a variety of very American musical influences, later reflected in his own idiosyncratic compositions. Ives was educated at Yale and made a career in insurance, reserving his activities as a composer for his leisure hours. Ironically, by the time his music had begun to arouse interest, his own inspiration, and energy as a composer had waned, so that for the last thirty years of his life he wrote little, while his reputation grew.
The symphonies of Ives include music essentially American in inspiration and adventurous in structure and texture, collages of America, expressed in a musical idiom that makes use of complex polytonality (the use of more than one key or tonality at the same time), and rhythm. Symphony No. 3, reflects much of Ives’s own background, carrying the explanatory title Camp Meeting and movement titles Old Folks Gatherin’, Children’s Day, and Communion. Symphony No.
4 includes a number of hymns and Gospel songs, and his so-called First Orchestral Set, otherwise known as New England Symphony, depicts three places in New England. Much of the earlier organ music written by Ives from the time of his student years, when he served as organist in a number of churches, found its way into later compositions. The second of his two piano sonatas, Concord, Mass. 1840 – 60, has the characteristic movement titles Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau, a very American literary celebration.
The first of the two string quartets of Ives has the characteristic title From the Salvation Army and is based on earlier organ compositions, while the fourth of his four violin sonatas depicts Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting. Ives wrote a number of psalm settings, part-songs, and verse settings for unison voices and orchestra. In his many solo songs, he set verses ranging from Shakespeare, Goethe, and Heine to Whitman and Kipling, with a number of texts of his own creation.
Relatively well-known songs by Ives include Shall We Gather at the River, The Cage, and The Side-Show. In 1947, Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3, according to his much-deserved international renown. Soon after, his works were taken up and championed by such leading conductors as Leonard Bernstein.
At his death in 1954, he had witnessed a rise from obscurity to a position of unsurpassed eminence among the world’s leading performers and musical institutions. BibliographySwaffork, Jan. The Vintage Guide to Classical Music. Charles Ives New York: Random House Inc. 1992.