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Book Review

Charles Ives Reconsidered

Charles Ives Reconsidered
Gayle Sherwood Magee
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, IL: University of Illinois Press. 2010. 231 pages.
ISBN-10: 0252077768
ISBN-13: 978-0252077760
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Ives and not-Ives.

During his long life, Charles Ives created not only musical myths for the U.S., but myths about his life and work. Consequently, many have this image of a grizzled, rural Yankee putting together home-made TARDISes in his shed on the weekends, a neglected prophet of Modernism. According to these stories, if only Schoenberg could have heard Ives in 1910, he would have saved himself ten years of hard work. It's an attractive notion, but simplistic.

Ives so obscured his musical origins that we tend to forget he came from somewhere. He didn't start out writing Three Places in New England, after all. Ives constructed the following self-history. He began by taking lessons from his father, George Ives, a small-town bandmaster who had taught himself theory basics. George Ives was undoubtedly a visionary musician, who fooled around with quartal harmonies and asynchronous ensembles, more as one-offs for the satisfaction of his personal curiosity than anything else. Charles then learned the organ and played professionally for about fourteen years. After his father died, a wealthy relative sent him off to Yale, where he worked with the American Wagnerian Horatio Parker. Ives, in his own telling, rejected Parker as a genteel musical stick-in-the-mud, too delicate for the bold music Ives wanted to write. Out in the world, Ives briefly tried to make splash in musical circles, but got nowhere. He became an insurance agent, eventually building up the largest agency in the United States. He composed on the weekends, works so unlike anything else at the time, that he essentially put them away. Eventually, however, young radical composers like Henry Cowell heard of him, obtained scores, and Ives was on his way to at least some recognition, long after he had stopped composing. His Symphony #3, for example, more or less complete by 1911, won a Pulitzer in 1947.

I could kick myself that I accepted all this at face value for many years, despite the obvious holes in the story and the fact that I knew things that contradicted it but had never connected the dots. Magee not only spots the holes, but backs up her charges with primary documentary evidence. She actually looks at Ives's harmony exercises for his father and concludes that, contrary to Ives's assertion, that he did not know how to "write correctly" at the time and, considering the inadequate textbook his father used to learn and teach from, neither did George Ives. The Iveses inhabited a pretty low-rent corner of American musical life: tent and camp meetings, village bands, Sankey hymns, and so on. Charles's studies at the organ introduced him to a smattering of classics as well as church-organist music, a large step up in terms of sophistication from what he had known before. Ives may have sneered at his Yale teacher, Parker, but in fact he acquired through the older man a thoroughly professional technique. In fact, he lucked out when Parker, a naturally kind man, allowed him to study composition at all. Furthermore, far from shunning the professional musical world, Ives put in ten hard years trying to join it, exploiting (ironically enough) his connections to Parker. Still, as far as the music Ives wrote was concerned, Parker had minimal influence. Even Ives's early cantata, The Celestial Country, looks not to Parker's Hora novissima, but to the organist-composer Dudley S. Buck's somewhat easier and more practical church cantatas for its model. Part of Ives's considerable achievement lies in his ability to draw on this primary material, popular and middle-brow, and transform it to high art. In so doing, he gives his music a cultural richness missing in American composers of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.

Furthermore, if Ives had shunned the professional music world after a certain date, how did anybody know to seek it out? Magee answers that Ives sought out professionals, sometimes for private performances, sometimes as a financial supporter of new music, sometimes as a self-publisher. The two major works that Ives issued, 114 Songs and the "Concord" Sonata, complementary copies of which he handed out, primed the pump and brought him such proselytisers as composer Henry Cowell and pianist John Kirkpatrick.

Then, of course, there's the thorny matter of Ives's "precedence": how far ahead, exactly, of the European Modernists was he? Maynard Solomon set off a mini-bomb when he accused Ives of fudging dates of composition on his manuscripts to make them appear earlier. Elliott Carter witnessed Ives's revising of earlier manuscripts to "jack up the dissonance" decades after Ives had left them in a "completed," though not final, state. Henry Cowell, known to do this for his own works, may have persuaded Ives to engage in this practice. Magee goes into this fairly thoroughly. At this point, however, it concerns only historians. Frankly, the Modernist emphasis on novelty and originality is wrong-headed. In art, it matters less who does it first than who does it best or even well. Roslavets is not a greater composer than Schoenberg, nor Mozart less than Haydn. Ives's music justifies itself. People who don't normally listen to classical music, listen to Ives. When it can appear (as it has) in a TV sitcom episode, it's a fairly safe bet that his music has hooked an audience.

Magee's work is less an integrated book and more a collection of essays around related topics, but that's not really a strike against it. Furthermore, she addresses the general reader. There's very little musical type in the book, although it does include discussions of major Ives works, like "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" and the Second Symphony. The author's command of the material, her sensible categorizing of the many strains in Ives, and her ability to lay out clear lines of discussion make this must reading, I think, for people interested in this composer.

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Schwartz.