Charles Ives: Short Biography

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c1946 outside his summer home in West Redding, CT
photo: Halley Erskine
courtesy Yale Music Library
download a bundle of four five-minute excerpts
from the Universe Symphony (18Mb): mp3 | m4a

Only 1% of all Americans would recognize the name Charles Ives (1874-1954).  And out of that one percent, half will recognize him only as a great life-insurance businessman.  Ives was a self-made millionaire thanks to his introduction of door-to-door life insurance sales.  The remaining half percent know of the musical accomplishments of this extraordinary genius.

Ives’ dad, George, reputedly the youngest band leader serving in the Civil War came back home to Danbury, Connecticut with an itch to experiment with different tunings.  Gifted with perfect pitch, George would perform outlandish pitch experiments into the night.  Sometimes he would fill bottles with liquids at different heights, at other times he would employ unusual contraptions involving weights and automatic pulleys to explore new musical intervals.  On the rare occasions when George composed, unusual timbres would be expected, such as different lengths of pipes, and an assortment of diverse sizes of bricks for striking.

The Ives brothers recognized early that their father’s livelihood was precarious and sought to progress from this understanding.  Moss became a lawyer straight away.  Charles, who was a freshman at Yale when he heard the news of his father’s death, may have already determined that music as a profession was too dangerous if a family was desired.  Ironically, Charles Ives was unable to father his own children and had to adopt.  His wife, aptly named Harmony, had been a professional nurse, and it turned out quite a providential choice.  Charles Ives would be in dire need of her care for the entire second half of his life.

Charles would first become a professional organist, working for different churches.  Some of his Church experiences remind of the young Johann Sebastian Bach; both composer/organists would add extra dissonances and melisma to standard organ responses.  As a result of his shyness, Ives would eventually wean himself from keyboard performing.  He resolved to enter the business world and make enough money so that he could keep evenings and weekends free for composing. 

Ives was so successful writing mounds of distinctive music in his spare time that he later was able to become America’s first great music philanthropist.  In addition to helping conductors launch concerts and publishers to distribute their editions, Ives aided numerous composers anonymously, including John Cage.  In an attempt to share most fairly with his fellow Americans, Ives purposely asked that his music not be copyrighted, although the request has not been honored.

It was rare for the composer to get the chance to experience a live performance of his music, so Ives’ music just piled up.  Most of it was first heard many years after being written.  Ives might prefer an occasional radio broadcast over a performance. It is most likely that Ives heard his music in his mind so vividly that he was able to withstand the anxiousness of not hearing his works performed aloud by others.  By 1916 he had to call it quits as his health faltered though he lived on as a cheerleader for countless others.

Ives self-released a book of songs he composed and mailed it to anyone he thought might be remotely interested.  Naturally, there were piano sonatas.  More originally, there is the Three Pieces for two pianos in quartertones.  There were violin sonatas and two string quartets.  Always attracted to uncommon personalities, he would characterize singular individuals in his music, as with Thoreau, Emerson, and Browning.   Sometimes, he fashioned music only about a place, as with Central Park in the Dark.  He moved from the Celestial Country to the Universe Symphony.

While the scientist looks over his shoulder and sees Albert Einstein, and the violinist sees Jascha Heifetz, the American composer sees Charles Ives.  Works like The Unanswered Question, Variations on America, and the Fourth Symphony forever emboss the name of Charles Ives into that .5% of Americans, and much more of the musical world at large.

- Johnny Reinhard, April 2005

Ives Primer 1: His Life
Ives Primer 2: His Significance
Ives Primer 3: His Universe Symphony
Ives: Short Biography
Ives Downloads and Resources

Symphonic Tradition And The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Of Pitch And Time: Delivering The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Interview (2005) with Johnny Reinhard about the Universe Symphony

Performers of the Universe Symphony
Recording the Universe Symphony: the producer's note
Recording the Universe Symphony: the sound engineer's note

Thumbnail links to selected Ives site illustrations

Premiere Previews and Reviews:
New York Times June 2 1996
(Richard Taruskin)
New York Times June 8 1996
(Alex Ross)
Village Voice April 5 1995 (Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 4 1996
(Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 25 1996
(Kyle Gann)

To Johnny Reinhard's home at the Stereo Society