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Ives in No Danger From This Writer

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The main problem for everyone who confronts Charles Ives’s music is balancing the extraordinary quality of his art with how far it falls short of perfection. To the extent that we can appraise this aesthetic gulf, we can assess Ives as a tragic composer. But a great man he certainly was — the greatest American composer, the most essential of musical natives, and the most original in thought and studied imagination; much of his achievement will endure permanently. Arnold Schoenberg, his exact contemporary, left a much-quoted note about Ives in his files, including a pregnant sentence: “He has solved the problem of how to preserve one’s self-esteem and to learn.” Ives never stopped learning, despite his Yale education; whether he solved the problem of how to be himself is what needs to be debated. His training under Horatio Parker — who did stop learning — enabled him to write a radiant, drastic Second Symphony.

I was scolded in these pages for referring to Ives as a “Sunday composer,” but I’ll stick with that irreverent term nevertheless. (So was Mahler, as was correctly pointed out.) The implication is that he was an amateur, but without any recognition of how serious he was about his own music, and it goes without saying that he was a hard worker, even for many days each week. He didn’t regard his own music as beyond criticism, though perhaps beyond self-criticism. Ives constantly criticized his own music by writing parts of it over and over again in different ways and forms — think of the circus-band style that surges and resurges, often literally, in the “Concord” Sonata, in “Putnam’s Camp” in Three Places in New England, in the Fourth Symphony, and in some songs.

He exhibited the different results only rarely and then only to a select few, a small audience of friends and the casual curious. He might have got useful reactions and feedback from fellow musicians. Even those easily bewildered by the complexity of his scores could have been heartened by Ives’s fundamentalist grasp of folksong and hymnody. The tragedy is that in his own time there existed no American musical public, nor even a professional cohort, that was ready to confront, let alone comprehend, the visionary scope of his expanding style in larger forms. Ives knew this and accepted it. A few friends, like Henry Cowell, John Kirkpatrick, and Lou Harrison, did their loyal best for him; so did a young student named Elliott Carter, who was nevertheless nettled by the proportion of “undifferentiated confusion” he often found, as well as unfinished segments freely improvised and re-improvised and set aside. There are traces of that undifferentiation in the Ragtime Dances of 1902, expanded into the Set for Theatre Orchestra (1906), and reaching fullest and most successful realization in the second (“In the Inn”) and fourth movements of the First Piano Sonata (1917); there is still some confusion, but now well differentiated, and this work is a milestone in pianistic history that could have made Debussy, Ravel, and even Schoenberg turn their heads. (There’s an excellent recent recording [Bridge 9295] by our own Andrew Rangell that matches the historic recorded premiere by William Masselos from the 1950s.) The compositional technique is constantly insufficient; the imagination is enormous, way out in front, and brilliant.

So it was that the second Piano Sonata, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860,” was compiled as much as it was composed, and published in two different versions, before it could be performed 20 years later; even today, when it is performed everywhere, its incoherence is hard to separate from its inscrutability. (Especially “Emerson,” as esoteric as were Emerson’s own writings; from there on, progressively, “Concord” becomes oneirically clearer and more refined, all the way through the beautiful final page of “Thoreau,” the author’s flute singing out over the mists of Walden Pond.) So it was, too, that Ives composed his Third Symphony “The Camp Meeting” with professional care and exactitude as well as uncanny vision. Though he completed it in 1910, the work waited 36 years before Ives reluctantly yielded the score up for performance. (He didn’t attend the concert, but listened on the radio; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.) The much-discussed Fourth Symphony never came out right, but those parts that come close (the first movement, and about half of the second) continue to amaze; the reach far exceeds the grasp.

Ives’s smaller works are mixed, experimental, and often surprisingly successful: Over the Pavements, Hallowe’en, and of course The Unanswered Question, work beautifully, but Chromatimelodtune is a flop — in fact, it probably wasn’t even finished. The chamber music is mostly in a conservative vein but still strikingly modern — the Third Violin Sonata, which Cowell published, has moments of Brahms, Debussy, and Scott Joplin, with an unforgettable ragtime on “There’ll be no dark valley.” I remember a performance of the Piano Trio at an AMS national meeting in the 1970s; the second movement, titled “TSIAJ,” meaning “This Scherzo Is a Joke,” seemed merely ho-hum, but at the end of the long, lovely slow movement, when the cello quietly sings out with Thomas Hastings’s “Rock of Ages, cleft for me,” my colleagues laughed out loud, and I was ashamed.

I think about Ives when I read what the mathematician Godfrey Hardy wrote about the work of his friend, the Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan: “It would be greater if it were less strange.” 

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Mark you mention many flaws in Charles Ives’s work, but you still say that he was “the greatest American composer.” I am not a musicologist,but I have attended many, many concerts and heard a lot of music, including that of Ives. If he was indeed the greatest American composer, then American composition is in a sad state. Ives had many interesting ideas,but the works that ensued rarely impress me. His works to me frequently seem to be mere pastiches. He seems more of an arranger than a composer. One might even be able to say that much of his music in general was “a joke.” I feel that Ives is one of the most overrated composers in musical history.

    Comment by Bennett — July 24, 2021 at 4:21 pm

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