Charles Ives Biography by Walter Brassert

Charles Ives—biographical notes by Walter Brassert, first published for the Chorus pro Musica concert of May 19, 1974. Ives was born on October 20, 1874 and died May 19, 1954.

Charles Ives came from a Yankee background where people “got up and said what they thought regardless of the consequences.” Ives was born and raised in Danbury, Connecticut. His father, George, was a teacher and bandmaster and a man of remarkable musical imagination. “Pa taught me what I know,” Ives was to say. Part of his father’s instruction was orthodox. He insisted that Charles learn the rules before breaking them. But the better part of George Ives’ instruction was unheard of in his day. He had a completely open mind about tonal relationships. “Nothing but fools and taxes are absolute,” he said. When Charles was ten years old, his father would make him sing “Swanee River”” in the key of E flat and accompany him in C Major. At Yale, Ives studied music with Horatio Parker, then one of America’s most eminent composers. Even Ives’ more mild work disturbed the academician. Parker would look at the manuscript, smile wryly and say something about “hogging all the keys at one meal.”

Between his father and Parker, Ives had a solid, traditional background, and could have written “pretty” fugues, symphonies and sonatas with the best of them. But after getting out of Yale, he went into business. With his partner, Julian Myrick, Ives founded and ran one of the most successful insurance agencies In America (forty-eight million dollars worth of new business in 1929, the year he retired.) The wolf thus kept from the door, he composed in his spare time a great quantity of music that no one wanted to hear; musicians of the day were appalled and even frightened when exposed to this kind of writing. Sometimes even Ives wondered if he was crazy. “Are my ears on wrong?” But he could not compose safe, easy music; he was not that way. Ives was anything but doctrinaire. He had no “system” as Schoenberg was to have. “Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good, I can’t see. It depends, it seems to me, a good deal … as clothes depend on the thermometer … on what one is trying to do.” What Ives was trying to do was to achieve the ultimate of truth in sound: an expression of what life really is about.

He expressed his truth in a music that at first may sound chaotic, but which has its own logic. The salient characteristic of this music, transcending its avant-garde technique, is its evocation of an America long past. Everything Ives heard as a child seems to have left an impression on him. The bells in Psalm 90, for example, convey the sound of the four sets of church bells he heard playing simultaneously of a Sunday morning in Danbury. He often attended revival meetings where the singers yowled lustily out of tune. This to Ives was life; people sounded like this, so why shouldn’t his music? Many of his songs are based on the hymns he heard at those revival meetings or in church. His treatment of them reflects the sound of the congregation. Ives’ tolerance of human imperfection extended to the performance of his music as well. He did not particularly care if musicians bobbled the notes as long as they understood the general effect he was trying to achieve. At one of his infrequent performances, in 1931, the orchestra, struggling with his adventurous way of writing, ended up in chaos. “Just like a town meeting…every man for himself. Wonderful how it came out!” he admiringly said.

During his creative period (from the late l890’s at about 1920), Ives heard only a tiny handful of the scores he had written. When he did begin to receive performances, he was an old man with a bad heart and sight diminished by cataracts, and he was unable to leave his house to attend concerts. To the public he was an unknown figure. Ives died on May 19, 1954, only three years after Bernstein had given the first performance of his Second Symphony, and over a decade before Stokowski’s premiere of his Fourth.