Charles Ives

Composer Charles Ives

Innovative composer who mixed popular and church music from his youth with far-reaching experiments in musical techniques. He is one of the most renowned and influential American composers.

Vital Statistics
October 20, 1874, Danbury, Conn.
May 19, 1954, New York City
Romantic/20th century
Performed As:
Organist and pianist
During Lifetime:
Symphony orchestras are formed in all major American cities; Carnegie Hall (1891), Boston’s Symphony Hall (1900), and Chicago’s Orchestra Hall (1904) are opened; the Metropolitan Opera is founded; many college music departments are inaugurated; and a number of American conservatories are founded (Juilliard, 1905; Mannes School, 1916; Manhattan School and San Francisco Conservatory, 1917; Curtis School, Philadelphia, 1924).
Biographical Outline
  • Early starter, 1874-94: Son of a prominent Danbury musician, Charles studies piano and organ from his early years, playing mostly Congregationalist church and popular music. He becomes a salaried church organist at age 14. His father, George, gives him traditional theory lessons, but also encourages experiments in unconventional sounds. Six weeks after Charles matriculates at Yale (1894), George dies of a stroke.
  • Yalie and pro musician, 1894-1902: Ives studies art music theory and composition with Horatio Parker, becoming facile in the styles of European Romanticism. After college, he moves to New York and takes a job in an insurance company. He also continues as a professional organist and writes The Celestial Country, a large cantata, which is favorably reviewed at its April 1902 premiere. Soon afterward, Ives quits his organist job and never holds another professional music position.
  • Weekend composer, 1902-08: In 1905, the insurance company Ives works for is dissolved as a result of an industry scandal, so he founds his own agency with a friend, Julian Myrick. He renews his acquaintance with Harmony Twichell, the sister of a college friend, and in 1908 they marry. Meanwhile, on weekends, he expands his composing to include experiments in polytonality and pieces with independent layers, such as From the Steeples and the Mountains and The Unanswered Question. In 1906, after years of living at a manic pace, he suffers a serious physical breakdown (probably a heart attack), with related depression.
  • The businessman: Ives achieves professional success as one of the pioneers of estate planning. His innovative use of a network of trained sales agents makes his agency one of the more profitable firms in the country.
  • Creative peak, 1908-17: Ives begins to use his memories of his father’s band, and of other nostalgic images, in his music — for example, the orchestral pieces Putnam’s Camp and The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting and the song The Things Our Fathers Loved. He occasionally tries to interest musicians in his compositions and arranges private readings of some of his scores, which are met with incomprehension and hostility. In 1912, he and Harmony build a house on farmland in West Redding, Conn.
  • Closing the shop, 1917-27: With America’s entry into World War I, Ives works for the Red Cross and becomes involved in Liberty Bond drives. In Oct. 1918 he suffers another heart attack. While recuperating, he finishes revisions to the Concord (Second) Piano Sonata and writes Essay Before a Sonata, his most important statement on aesthetics. He also collects his songs and publishes them privately (114 Songs, 1922); assembles and edits his New England Holidays symphony and the Symphony No. 4; and supports new-music organizations. In Aug. 1927, complaining to his wife that “nothing sounds right,” he stops composing.
  • Discovery, 1927-54: As a result of a diabetes diagnosis, Ives retires in 1930. New-music advocates begin to discover him. Henry Cowell’s New Music Society, Aaron Copland, the conductor Nicholas Slonimsky, and the pianist John Kirkpatrick give premieres during the 1930s. Ives continues to edit his music, as he gradually becomes well-known, a process that continues after his death.
Fun Facts
  • Sportsman: Ives played for Yale’s varsity football team and pitched for his prep school’s baseball team. His Yale coach remarked that, if not for his music studies, Ives could have been a champion sprinter. Two of his compositions, Calcium Light Nights and Yale-Princeton Football Game, memorialize those interests.
  • Ives-y League Attitude: In Ives’ time, a Yale education was a stepping stone for young men entering business. Ives’ social success at Yale, and his intuitive understanding that the conservative music world of the era would constrict and stifle his creativity, may have influenced his decision to choose a business career over a musical one. He also saw the classical music world as “emasculated”; its musicians, he felt, were “pansies” controlled by women.
  • Vision of the future: Ives’ training manual in estate planning, The Amount to Carry, is a classic, and was still in use in business schools in the 1980s.
  • Likes kids: Unable to have children after Harmony’s miscarriage (1909), Ives and his wife hosted children at their farmhouse through the Fresh Air Fund. They eventually adopted a girl (Edith Osborne Ives) by arrangement with a visiting family. Ives paid the family a large sum for the privilege.
  • Philanthropist: Ives used part of his fortune to support younger musicians, including composers Lou Harrison and John Cage. Conductor/writer Nicholas Slonimsky said, “He financed my entire career.”
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Explore the Music
Ives’ music is exuberant music, sometimes to the point of controlled cacophony. His point was to push boundaries, to get listeners to appreciate the hidden, spiritual unity behind music and nature. The music is, partly, an embodiment of Ives’ embrace of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was a speculative philosophical movement of 19th-century America, spearheaded by the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of Ives’ heroes.
  • Ives the populist: Although trained in European art music and influenced by Romantic composers, especially Beethoven, he disdained the hierarchy of his time, which put classical music at the top of the pyramid (with traditional and popular musics below that). He wanted to create a style that reflected the songs people made in their daily lives, a music that honored the spirit of amateur music-making. So he often arranged “layers” of music in his pieces, incorporating entire quotations of hymn tunes, as well as ragtime and older popular tunes.
  • Ives on his “layering” technique: “As the eye, in looking at a view, may focus on the sky, clouds or distant outlines, yet sense the color and form of the foreground, and then, by bringing the eye to the foreground, sense the distant outlines and color, so, in some similar way, the listener can choose to arrange in his mind the relation of the rhythmic, harmonic, and other material. In other words, in music the ear may play a role similar to the eye in the above instance.”
  • Progenitor: Ives is the earliest American art-music composer with a worldwide reputation, and he was a tremendous influence on Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Leonard Bernstein, and a host of other composers of later generations.
  • Yankee ingenuity: Ives’ technical innovations are the most-discussed part of his legacy. He anticipated many important aspects of 20th-century composition, including the use of quarter-tones (pitch differences smaller than the smallest interval of traditional Western music theory); “atonal” composition (though most of his works are tonal); cluster chords (played with the fists on the piano); quotations from popular music; polytonality (use of different keys and scales at once); and simultaneous layers of separate, contrasting strands of music.
  • The Everything Symphony: Ives’ most ambitious work, mostly sketched in 1915, but left incomplete at his death, is his Universe Symphony. It is nothing less than a sweeping look at all creation, ending with a section called “Heaven” — “the rise of all to the spiritual [plane].” Two finished editions, both recorded, exist of this work, which features a percussion orchestra, along with two further orchestras divided into high and low instruments, and which amalgamates dozens of scales and kinds of tunings.
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