Personalities | Charles Ives | Modern Era | Classical

American composer

Ives was drawn to music largely by the example of his father George, who had been a bandsman in the American Civil War and who encouraged his son in such experiments as playing a tune in one key and its accompaniment in another.

Ives studied with the conservative composer Horatio Parker (1863–1919), but soon turned to his own unique style of writing, most notably with his Unanswered Question (1906). He realized, however, that he would not be able to support a family with the sort of music that he wanted to write and therefore moved (very successfully) into insurance, composing prolifically in his spare time. A heart condition eventually caused his retirement, and he wrote almost nothing after the age of 50.

Ives made little attempt to get his music performed, convinced that if it had quality people would discover it eventually. At his own expense he published the ‘Concord’ Sonata for piano (1918) and a collection of his songs, but his music remained largely unknown until the 1930s, and many major works were not heard until after his death.

‘Country Band’ March

Encouraged by his remarkable father, Ives soon began to question the established ‘rules’ of harmony, counterpoint and form which, he felt, merely imprisoned the imagination within outworn conventions. The most withering term of contempt in his vocabulary, for music that obeyed all the rules but had not a spark of life, was ‘nice’. He loved the anything-but-nice music of the country bands that he heard as a child, whose players would throw in fragments of favourite tunes jovially without worrying whether they were in the right key or not, who would sometimes misread their parts or get out of step with each other. In the ‘Country Band’ March of 1903, the main tune is a sort of amalgam of well-known marches of the period; Ives used it in many of his works. He lovingly portrays all the foibles of the town-band musicians that he knew, including their way of getting ahead of the conductor’s beat, the total confusion near the end where no one is quite sure where they are, and the unfortunate saxophonist who goes on playing when everyone else has stopped.

The ‘Country Band’ March is what Ives called a ‘stunt’, but in its enjoyment of dissonance and its very precise noting-down of unsynchronized musical strands it is characteristic of many of his major works. He reused parts of it in the ‘Putnam’s Camp’ section of Three Places in New England, in the ‘Hawthorne’ movement of his ‘Concord’ Sonata for piano and in the extraordinary scherzo (‘not a scherzo but a comedy,’ Ives insisted) of his Fourth Symphony.

Three Places in New England

Ives’ ‘Orchestral Set No. 1’ (he preferred the English ‘set’ to the French ‘suite’), evokes its three places with different types of music heard simultaneously. ‘The St Gaudens on Boston Common’ describes a monument to a regiment of black soldiers largely wiped out during the American Civil...

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