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Charles Ives: Charles Ives (b. Danbury, Conn., 20 Oct 1874; d. New York, 19 May 1954).
Charles Ives is a unique figure, not only in American music but in the whole musical history of the last hundred years. American music, indeed, owes its existence as a separate phenomenon to his work. But just as Charles Ives had no real predecessors, he has had no successful imitators either. His influence has been less wide than has sometimes been supposed; and where an influence can be traced - for instance, in Cage or Carter or Copland - it is either partial or misunderstood. Charles Ives's true importance lies in having given American music self respect; this is clear from the frequency with which present-day American composers of every hue quote his music as the source of their own. As for Charles Ives's modernisms, these were not influential since his music was mostly not known until long after the devices with which he happened to experiment had become common currency for other reasons. In any case, such techniques were for Charles Ives a symptom of his peculiar place in history: he was a primitive working from a powerful conviction as to the ethical force of art, in a primitive environment. Without these basic circumstances, repetition of his techniques has seemed little more than mannerism.
Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut, on the 20th October 1874. Throughout his life he cleaved to New England: its countryside colours his music, and its characteristic philosophy (that of Emerson and Thoreau) seems to have influenced his technique. His father was quite a well-known bandmaster, first in the civil war, later as founder and conductor of the Danbury Town Band, in which Charles played the cornet and which in 1888 gave the first documented performance of one of his works (a Holiday Quick Step). George Ives, the father, exerted an important musical influence on his son. Naturally experimental himself, he constantly encouraged Charles to tinker with unfamiliar sounds, to investigate, as it were, what music could do rather than what it merely had done. Charles Ives later maintained that many of the more startling effects in his music were aural memories from his childhood: memories of hymn-tunes wrongly harmonised, or of accidental coincidences of sound in a small-town environment. The main point is that Charles Ives's earliest musical training was almost entirely unconventional. When he went to Yale in 1 894 he tried hard to absorb an academic training, but failed. His First Symphony, a student work, is a curious hotchpotch of European influences with little personal impulse. His Second Symphony, completed in 1901, mixes these same European influences (notably Beethoven and Dvorak) with indigenous American material. But the effect is still that of a snapshot album, recording people and things in the photographer's life but leaving out the photographer.
On leaving Yale in 1898 Charles Ives started selling insurance in New York. In 1906 he was cofounder of an insurance firm which became successful and gave Charles Ives a comfortable income for the rest of his life. From the first he believed that an artist should never be dependent on art for his living. Knowing that his music had no hope of commercial success, or even of performance, he never courted publication and, when performances began to take place, tended to regard them with indifference. Thus, while working daily in an insurance office in downtown New York, Charles Ives was composing some of the most extraordinary music ever written though his office colleagues were largely ignorant of his connection with anything more aesthetic than actuarial statistics. From this period (1901-28) date the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the Concord Sonata for piano, Three Places in New England, the Holidays Symphony, the four violin sonatas, the Tone Roads for small orchestra, and various smaller orchestral works. In 1928 Charles Ives was forced by illness to give up composition, and in 1930 he retired from insurance and thereafter spent all his time at his farm in Connecticut. He became diabetic and suffered from heart disease. Nevertheless he lived until 1954, dying on the 19th May of that year, aged seventy-nine.
Even after Charles Ives's retirement his music made its way very slowly. The earliest publications were at his own expense: of the Concord Sonata in 1919 and of the 114 Songs in 1922, copies being distributed free to the composer's friends. Later in the 1920s and 1930s a few scattered performances were put on. But the major works remained practically unknown until the 1950s. The Third Symphony won a Pulitzer Prize in 1947, but the Fourth Symphony was not played at all until 1965, the Second Symphony not until 1951.
Charles Ives has since been something of a vogue figure. But his achievement is indeed quite uneven. His best works imaginatively are the miniatures, including some of the songs, tiny instrumental 'poems' like 'In the Cage', or visionary impressions like 'The Housatonic at Stockbridge', in the Three Places. His longer works suffer from the usual faults of a primitive style. The development and contrapuntal texture are apt to sound amateurish and to extend the structure without in any way supporting it. Also one finds grotesque inconsistencies of style, as in the Fourth Symphony, where the massive second movement collage of musical Americana- perhaps the most brilliant extravaganza in music before 1920 - is followed by a na'fve sentimental fugue on a hymn-tune subject, in an entirely diatonic idiom. Such things are justified philosophically by their basic 'truth to experience'. Charles Ives's nature was open, receptive and completely unaffected and without pretension. However, the lack of assimilation marks this art as an early and, though often exciting, largely unformed growth.
The modernisms in Charles Ives's style are impressive precisely because they arise from philosophy rather than aesthetic theory. Where the bitonality of the post-war French school is an in-joke at the expense of an earlier tonality and therefore seems artificial and without expressive point, Charles Ives's polytonality and polyrhythms have a genuine and infectious exuberance which springs from a real contact with life. The fact that they are also much earlier in date is interesting but not of great significance. The same is true of Charles Ives's borrowings from sentimental music, hymntunes, popular American songs, patriotic songs, and even of his drawing-room parodies, where the attack is as much social as aesthetic. Charles Ives was a musical pioneer who felt a moral obligation to explore and who consequently despised the agreeable music-making of the 19th-century salon. In this he represents young America as against old Europe to whom the United States were still a cultural province. And this has been the source of his strength and powers of renewal since his death.
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