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Ives: His Life, His Significance And His Universe

Ives Primer 1: His Life
Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954)
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. And out of that 1 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.

Influenced by his father, the youngest band leader serving in the Civil War, 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’ business was so lucrative 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.

Charles Ives c1945. Photo: Eugene Smith courtesy Yale Music Library

Charles Ives c1945. Photo: Eugene Smith courtesy Yale Music Library

It was rare for the composer to get the chance to experience a live performance of his music, so Ives’ music piled up. It is 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. Sometimes, he fashioned music only about a place, as with Central Park in the Dark. His went 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.

Ives Primer 2: His Significance

Great people transcend their time. Better, for those of us following, they define it. Charles Ives’ accomplishments are tangible in the substantial body of work composed until his health failed him in his mid-fifties, around 1927. Even more importantly, he has become recognized as the true father of American music, breaking ground for confident innovators of a generation later such as Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and John Cage. Thanks to his insurance business fortune, he would also provide economic encouragement along with the inspirational.

Ives’ daring musical experiments firmly established a national musical identity free of the dead hand of historical Europe, whose musical hegemony he was among the first to challenge. He set the example that has informed progressive music since: new is good. Ives became American music’s defining grand old man.

His progressive student inclinations might have cost him his Yale degree. However, he bowed to his conservative teacher and concluded his first, student thesis symphony in the key in which it started, instead of moving elsewhere, an innovation he had preferred. It’s a bland, easy-going piece. But by his last numbered symphony, the fourth, he incorporates raucous, all-American vernacular gestures, culminating in his most well-known effect, that of a marching band passing by an open window completely out of time with the progress of the symphony.

Charles Ives c1948. Photo: Clara Sipprell courtesy Yale Music Library

c1948 photo: Clara Sipprell courtesy Yale Music Library

It was rare for the composer to get the chance to experience a live performance of his music, so Ives’ music piled up. It is 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. Sometimes, he fashioned music only about a place, as with Central Park in the Dark. His went 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.

Ives Primer 3: His Universe

Charles Ives’ Universe Symphony has become the stuff of legend. Composed in parallel with the fourth, the last of his numbered symphonies, it languished in the composer’s original fragments (aside from one version created after his death) until the premiere of Johnny Reinhard’s remarkable new realization in 1996. For the last decades of his life, health badly compromised through overwork, Ives begged others to finish the symphony from his comprehensive sketches. None would.
The Universe Symphony can now be seen clearly as Ives’ largest and grandest conception. As the last work of this inveterate musical iconoclast, it is only fitting that its instrumentation be strikingly different and more ambitious than any other. Characteristically far-reaching, the composer described the symphony enigmatically, more in terms of the ‘painting of Creation’ and ‘not music as such.’ During his lifetime, its completion would remain out of his grasp, to his intense frustration.

New findings and research by Johnny Reinhard enabled him to construct a fresh performing version lasting 64 minutes and requiring 74 musicians including, extraordinarily, nine flutes, five bassoons and fourteen percussionists. He conducted its premiere, at Lincoln Center, New York, on June 6 1996 with the full approval of the Charles Ives Society. For the last five years, the Stereo Society has been carefully preparing a commercial recording directed by Reinhard of this new version which benefits from many of New York’s top musicians. Unsurprisingly, this recording also needed to utilize some novel techniques.

Charles Ives c1947, photo: Frank Gerratana courtesy Yale Music Library

c1947, photo: Frank Gerratana
courtesy Yale Music Library

The names of its movements are evocative: Earth Alone, Pulse Of The Cosmos, Birth Of The Oceans, Earth Is Of The Heavens and more. Dramatically, most of the first half hour is scored for percussion alone, building from a solitary low bell to a unique sonic mix with all players sounding different patterns, until winding down again. This remarkable pattern cycles through and underpins the whole work, and when solo anticipates later all-percussion pieces such as Varèse’s Ionisation and Cage’s Constructions In Metal. The second half layers the huge, unique orchestra over the ceaseless percussion, until concluding the tenth cycle with the solitary bookend, the low bell.

The symphony’s realization differs from convention in almost every imaginable way, yet Reinhard remarks that he did not add any notes to the composer’s original manuscripts. He sees his role not as a creator, but rather a curator, and has argued his editorial decisions coherently and decisively in a book of nearly 200 pages. The new, authoritative recording documents, finally, the crowning achievement of America’s musical father figure. At last, Mr Ives might have been satisfied.