CHARLES IVES: A Life with Music.

Read Time:
3m 32sec

CHARLES IVES: A Life with Music.

By Jan Swafford. W. W. Norton. 450 pp. $27.50

Why, after being discovered, rediscovered, revived, and celebrated for threequarters of a century, is Charles Ives’s music still new and challenging? Perhaps because of its contradictions. Of all expressions by an American in any field of the arts, it is at once the most backward looking and the most forward looking, the most concrete and the most abstract, the most rooted and the most soaring. Even more than Walt Whitman or Winslow Homer, Ives is the quintessential American artist, as elusive in character as the country itself.

Until now, that is. Benefiting from a generation of first-rate Ives scholarship, both historical and musicological, composer and writer Jan Swafford has produced a striking biography that meets the toughest challenge facing any biographer of an artist: elucidating the links between the life and the work without trivializing either.

Here is a vivid depiction of the commercial and musical world of Danbury, Connecticut, where Ives (1874–1954) was raised. His eccentric father, George, director of the municipal band, appears playing his echo cornet and experimenting with half-tone scales—a radical experiment for the time, inspired both by his boundless imagination and, it turns out, by his reading of the work of the German acoustician Hermann von Helmholtz. Here also is an affecting portrait of Harmony Ives, one of history’s most devoted artistic spouses. And, of course, Ives himself: a jock at Yale, a superb church organist, an innovator in the field of estate planning (which won him a fortune in the insurance business), a campaigner on behalf of the League of Nations and other lost causes, and, finally, an irascible old man spending a small part of that fortune promoting his music.

During Ives’s early career, Americans were too swept up in the automobile, the radio, and the other accouterments of progress to focus on the music of this radical who dwelt on the past. One exception was Gustav Mahler, who chanced upon a score of Ives’s Third Symphony in 1911. Mahler, then winding up an unhappy stint at the New York Philharmonic, recognized a kindred spirit in the Yankee composer and took the score back with him to Europe. It might have been Ives’s big break, but it was not to be. Within months, Mahler was dead, and 35 more years were to pass before the Third Symphony was first performed in public. Ives received a Pulitzer Prize for it in 1947.

Swafford does an admirable job of discussing Ives’s work, especially the programmatically rich Concord Sonata (his first success) and the Fourth Symphony, which drew upon his entire life’s work. Free of technical jargon, Swafford’s text demands nothing from the reader but curiosity and willing ears.

Like his would-be champion Mahler, Ives used music to express a complex vision of loss and transcendence. Both composers used commonplace sounds to create extraordinary new landscapes of sound. But there the similarity ends. With Ives, the "found sounds" of daily life were unscrubbed and raw, at times wildly dissonant. And the musical quotations included such drastic departures from approved European models as camp meeting spirituals, brass band marches, turn-of-the-century croon songs, and ragtime.

Here is the essence of Ives’s Americanism. His taste was omnivorous, and he possessed a keen ear for the authentic and passionate in all types of music. Yet he refused to arrange his musical source material in neat hierarchies. Instead, he treated all music that expressed genuine human emotions as equal, applying the principles of Progressive-era democracy to sound in a way that harks back to Louis Moreau Gottschalk and looks forward to Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Gunther Schuller.

Like the American horizon, Ives’s oeuvre remains open, unfinished, though not unexplored. Thanks to Swafford’s skillful retelling, we can better understand why Ives’s music remains so fresh. Its jagged juxtapositions, shifting moods, and eclectic references may have baffled Ives’s contemporaries. But they speak to an adventurous, inclusive conception of art that is widely felt, and much disputed, a century after his greatest works were composed.

—S. Frederick Starr


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