Charles Ives

1874 1954

Charles Ives



Charles Ives is without a doubt among the most representative of American composers. His music is known for its combination of both American and European musical traditions and its innovative harmonic and rhythmic structures. Ives is also renowned for his ability to portray the emotions and sounds of American life through his music. Ives is regarded as one of the most unique and ambitious figures in the history of Western music.

Ives was born in Danbury to George E. Ives and Mary Elizabeth Parmalee in 1874. His father was a musician, bandmaster and teacher who was also greatly interested in composition and orchestration. As a result of his father’s enthusiasm towards music, Charles received a lot of musical exposure and education from a very young age. He began his musical education with the study of piano and organ and by his teens he had become an accomplished performer. He was particularly proficient in the performance of American vernacular music, Protestant church music and European classical music. During his early teens, he also played drums with his father’s band. His involvement with his father’s career during his youth influenced many of his later works.

By the age of fourteen, Ives was appointed organist at the Danbury Baptist Church. He was the youngest paid organist there and he kept this position until 1902. During his time as organist, he composed many anthems, hymns and other types of sacred music. Among these is his virtuoso,Variations on “America”, composed in 1891. His skills as an organist were exceptional and he studied and performed a wide repertoire of music including works byBach, Handel, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Other pieces he composed for organ includedFugue in E flat major, Fugue in C minor and Adeste Fideles in an Organ Prelude.

In 1894, Ives entered Yale University to study organ with Dudley Buck and composition with Horatio Parker. During his time at Yale, he composed more works, including his first symphony. He also performed at public recitals and he exhibited many of his compositions at concerts through the university’s orchestras and ensembles.

In 1898, he graduated from Yale University and moved to New York, where he worked in insurance for several years. By 1907, he and a friend formed their own insurance company which became quite successful. While pursuing a career in insurance, Ives also continued his musical career and he held positions as an organist in Bloomsfield, New Jersey and at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York. He also continued to write music, and he composed his second symphony between 1900 and 1902 and his third symphony between 1904 and 1911. He focused his attention on church music, art music and experimentation. During the 1910s, Ives was at his most prolific stage, composing many works. By 1918, he fell ill as a result of his extreme working hours. He developed serious cardiac damage and was forced to significantly reduce his workload. After 1917, he did not compose many new works and by 1930 he had retired. He spent the remainder of his career revising and publishing old compositions.

Ives’ compositional style was highly complex. A lot of his work was influenced by Danbury bands and this can be heard in both his early and late compositions. His childhood memory of hearing two bands playing in two different keys and tempi simultaneously is often revisited in his works. His music is filled with experimentation and typical features of his music include polytonality, polyrhythms, jazz influences and whole tone scales. He often borrowed ideas from other sources and such ideas can be heard in several of his songs and hymns. This can be strongly perceived in his strikingly beautifulThe Unanswered Questionand in Central Park in the Dark.

After 1919, Ives decided to publish a lot of his music without copyright or performance rights. His well-knownConcord Sonata and 114 of his songs were published in that way. After almost a decade of publishing his works, he began to attract the attention of other composers, performers and conductors including Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger, Carl Ruggles and Bernard Hermann. Ives’ first orchestral performance in New York was in 1927, bringing to the public forum his second movement of his Fourth Symphony, which was a failure. However, Ives did receive reasonable success with several other performances of his work, includingThree Places in New England, which was performed in New York, Boston and Los Angeles between 1930 and 1932.Concord Sonata was also performed in New York and other areas of the U.S. during 1939 and was received quite well. It was performed by accomplished pianist, John Kirkpatrick, who had devoted years of his life mastering the sonata. The circulation of Ives’ works was also aided by composer and conductor, Nicolas Slonimsky, who conducted many of Ives’ works around Europe and made Ives’ first recording in 1934. Ives won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his third Symphony, which had been performed in New York that year.

One of Ives’ most renowned works is undoubtedly his Piano Sonata No. 2 or more commonly known asConcord Sonata. Because the work was revised many times, it is difficult to know for sure when it was actually written. However, it is clear that substantial work was done in 1911 and the piece was completed by about 1915. The sonata was first published in 1919 and a revised edition was later published in 1977.

The sonata consists of four movements, ‘Emerson’, ‘Hawthorne’, ‘The Alcotts’ and ‘Thoreau’. Each movement represents a figure associated with transcendentalism. The work is experimental and includes advanced harmonies and rhythmic ideas. It is mostly written without bar lines and features cluster chords by playing the piano keys with a 14¾ inch-long piece of wood. There is an optional part for viola towards the end of the first movement as well as an optional flute part in the final movement.

Ives died on May 19 1954 in New York. Although he had gained a considerable reputation among other composers and musicians during his lifetime, it was not until after his death that the public began to admire his music to a significant extent. Combining American popular music and church music ideas with European art music traditions, his music foreshadowed many future musical innovations of the 1900s, and revisited many ideas that had arisen before his time. Today, Ives’ music is well-known and loved around the world and he is known as one of America’s greatest composers.