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Here's a brief biographical sketch of Ives' remarkable life. You can skip directly to a particular section by clicking on one the links below. (Or you can simply read from top to bottom!)

For complete biographies about Ives, check out the "Biographies and Oral History" section on this site's Books link.

Childhood & Youth

Charles Edward Ives was born on October 20, 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut. Ives inherited a gift for music from his father George Ives, who at the age of seventeen had served as the youngest bandmaster in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war and throughout Charles Ives' childhood, George Ives served as bandmaster and cornet player in several musical organizations in Danbury. By the time Charles Ives was eight years old, he was already playing bass drum in one of his father's bands. In 1888, when Ives was fourteen years old, his father performed one of his son's earliest compositions Holiday Quickstep for theatre orchestra at Taylor's Opera House in Danbury. During that same year, Ives also began performing as a church organist in a church near his home. In 1889, he became the youngest salaried organist in the state of Connecticut when he became the regular organist at the Second Congregational Church in Danbury. Ives musical talents were bolstered by frequent practice (four hours per day at age 14!), but Ives also had wide-ranging interests--a characteristic he would maintain throughout his life. Ives was very athletic and especially loved baseball. When someone inquiring about his music asked what he played, Ives retorted, "Shortstop!"

In 1893, Ives began his studies at Hopkin's Grammar School, a preparatory school in New Haven, Connecticut. Less than two years later, when Ives enrolled at Yale and his more formal musical training began, he had already composed several works. Notable among these is Slow March (perhaps Ives' very first composition, dating from 1887), a dirge-like song dedicated to a family pet who died. Ives' most famous juvenile composition is Variations on "America," a work that displays many characteristic qualities that appear in his mature compositions. This work is still frequently performed both in its original organ arrangement as well as in the orchestral arrangement (by William Schuman). Incidentally, Ives submitted this work for publication to publisher William E. Ashmall in 1892. It was rejected.

Student Days at Yale

In October of 1894, Ives began his studies at Yale University. He suffered a difficult blow when his father died one month later. Throughout his life, Ives would remark on the tremendous influence that his father had upon him. (Stuart Feder explores the influence of George Ives upon his son in his biography Charles Ives, My Father's Song: A Psychoanalytic Biography.)

In general, Ives was not a good student. Outside of music and literature courses, he earned a steady stream of "D's." However, at Yale Ives studied under one of the foremost music teachers and composers in America, Horatio Parker. Later in life, Ives downplayed Parker's influence, and the two men were profoundly different by temperament and training. Parker always came up short when Ives compared him to his father. But Parker was a seminal influence on Ives' development. While he was a Yale and studying under Parker, Ives completed his first major works, his First Symphony and his First String Quartet.


After graduating from Yale, Ives did not to pursue a professional career in music. Later in life, he would remark that he didn't want his children to "starve on his dissonances." Instead, Ives began a career in the insurance industry. Not long after graduating from Yale, Ives met Julian Myrick. The two men became close friends, and in 1909 they formed Ives & Myrick Insurance Agency. Ives' innovation wasn't limited to music; he was also a creative, thoughtful businessman. For example, in 1910, Ives printed the first version of a how-to-sell pamphlet that would eventually grow into a publication called "The Amount to Carry--Measuring the Prospect." This guide became extremely influential throughout the insurance industry, and it remains an important early document in the estate planning field. The Ives and Myrick partnership was a successful one, and the business quickly proved to be enormously profitable. By the time that Ives' health began to fail in the late teens, he was already a wealthy man.

Even though Ives' choose not to make music his profession, he continued to compose and stay immersed in music. In 1900, he became the organist at the Central Presbyterian Church in New York City. He went on to premiere many of his early sacred works there. (Unfortunately, many of these works are now lost.) By 1902, he had completed his Second Symphony (which he later revised). Other important works from Ives' bachelorhood include "Thanksgiving," completed in 1904 and later incorporated into the Holidays Symphony.


In 1905 Ives met Harmony Twichell, the daughter of the influential Hartford minister Reverend Joseph Twichell. (Samuel Clemens was a close family friend of the Twichells.) Love and intimacy grew between Charlie and Harmony, and somehow she came to understand the meaning of Ives' innovative music. In June 1908 they married, after two years of courtship and romance. Ives' relationship with Harmony had an immediate electric effect on his efforts as a composer. For the first time in his life since the death of his father, Ives had someone in his life who believed in his music. Their relationship seemed to clarify Ives' aims as an artist and human being. In a letter to Ives shortly before their wedding, Harmony wrote to Ives articulating a vision of their relationship and Ives' art:

I think, as you say, that living our lives for each other & for those with whom we come in contact generously & with sympathy & compassion & love, is the best & most beautiful way of expressing our love...but to put it too in concrete form of music or words would be a wonderful happiness, wouldn't it? I think you will & that will be doing it for both of us, my darling...

Later in his life, Ives would remark, "One thing I am certain of is that, if I have done anything good in music, it was, first, because of my father, and second, because of my wife." Ives' marriage signals the end of his apprenticeship and the beginning of the period in which he would compose his greatest music.

Peak Years

The years 1908 to 1920 saw Ives create an immense, incredibly innovative body of music, even though he was only composing part-time--on weekends, in the morning and evening, and on vacations. Remarkably, during this time Ives composed in near-complete isolation. With a few exceptions, Ives never heard his music performed publically. He was too busy working or composing, and his few encounters with established musicians usually turned out badly. Despite these limitations, consider some of the works that Ives composed during this time:

  • "The Robert Browning Overture"
  • Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2, "Concord"
  • Symphonies 3 and 4
  • "Washington's Birthday"; "The Fourth of July"; "Decoration Day"
  • Orchestral Set Nos. 1 & 2
  • Violin Sonatas 3 & 4
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • Many songs

Ives rarely began work on a composition and saw it through to completion before beginning on another. He usually worked on several pieces simultaneously, and, over relatively long periods of time, he would assemble multi-movement works, whether symphonies, sonatas, or "sets." For example, during one prolific year (1911), Ives worked on portions of the Second String Quartet, "The Fourth of July," "The Robert Browning Overture," the Fourth Symphony, the Second Piano Sonata, and various songs!

Health Problems

In 1918, Ives suffered a severe heart attack, and he never fully recovered from it, despite the fact that he would live many more years. In retrospect, Ives probably also suffered from diabetes. Most likely, this disease was the underlying cause of the heart attack and many other maladies that Ives continued to experience for the remainder of his life. As Swafford points out, Ives' poor health led to focus on two new priorities:

One, to build up his income to provide for his family in case he died...; two, to get his music before the public while he could still see to it himself. His doings from 1919 onward, especially during the next decade, must be seen in the context of those two priorities and their corollaries. Now getting out what he had written had to take precedence over producing new work...He decided to print the Concord Sonata, the Essays, and a book of songs, and to mail them to hundreds of strangers in hopes that somewhere they would take root (288).

By the middle twenties, Ives would also stop composing, although he tinkered with works that he had written earlier.

Discovery & Lasting Influence

It is a fairly common sentiment that Ives had absolutely no interest in having his music heard by a wider public, that he was indifferent to any audience. This is a misconception. In 1921 he published his Second Piano Sonata and in 1922 he published his 114 Songs. Both of these were private printings at considerable expense. Clearly, he wanted his music to be heard. Ives' efforts to publicize his music had their intended effect, but it happened slowly.

Several notable individuals contributed to growing awareness about Ives and his music. The composer Henry Cowell had an enormous impact on Ives' musical legacy. Cowell published New Music magazine, and many of Ives' compositions were first published in the periodical. (Ives also made considerable financial contributions to the magazine.) Later Cowell and his wife would publish the first book-length biography of Ives. The conductor Nicolas Slonimsky premiered Orchestral Set No. 1: Three Places in New England in 1931. He also premiered other Ives' works, and took Ives' music on several tours all over the world. In 1938, John Kirkpatrick premiered the first complete version of the Second Piano Sonata. Kirkpatrick's performance was extremely influential in bringing Ives' music before the public. Kirkpatrick went on to become an Ives scholar, cataloging his music at Yale University. In 1946, Lou Harrison conducted the premiere performance of Ives' Third Symphony. One year later, he served as the editor when the work was published. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1947. Leonard Bernstein also helped bring even greater recognition to Ives. He premiered the Second Symphony in 1951, three years before Ives' death.

Like Ives' paradoxical music, his influence is difficult to pin down. In many regards, Ives is a maverick, a one-of-a-kind. But others argue that his music belongs squarely in a European art-music tradition. Within the world of classical music, some critics regard him as an interesting aberration whose musical ideas are more interesting on paper than in performance, while others do not hesitate to call him America's greatest composer. One thing is certain: nearly 50 years after his death, Ives' influence is greater now than it has ever been.


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002-2006


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