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Ives Quotes


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These are some facts, opinions, and ruminations on a variety of Ivesian topics, presented in the form of questions and answers. Our understanding of Ives' music--any music!--is bound up with the way that we understand of the world. Everyone's route will be different. I just wanted to share what I've noticed along the way. As you'll see, I've also incorporated some of my favorite quotes from Ives scholars and authors.

How would you describe Ives' music?

Here's how Jan Swafford describes Ives (taken from his book Charles Ives: A Life with Music):

From Charles Ives's first advent before the public until now some seventy-five years later, his music has often baffled listeners, musicians, and critics alike. He has never fit the picture of the "great" composer, creator of "masterpieces." In one page of the Fourth Symphony, he stacks up a roaring brass-band march, 'Turkey in the Straw,' 'The Irish Washerwoman,' a piano whose right hand is atonal and left-hand is ragtimey, and assigns everyone else wildcat tunes in sundry rhythms and keys, all of it adding up to a pandemonium like nothing else ever heard in the genteel confines of a concert hall. Obsessed by the past, he wrote a music of the future…And…his music [is] at once so familiar and so peculiar, complex and naïve, rude and gentle (ix).

This last sentence especially significant. Many who are familiar with Ives name tend to think of his music as a wildly dissonant free-for-all. And much of Ives music is dissonant. But his music is also sometimes gentle, contemplative, and tonal.

Ives consciously avoided cultivating a particular style. For him, the internal logic of each composition determined its form.

Is Ives the "greatest American composer"?

Impossible to answer. I think he is! But that doesn't mean much, does it? I think he is still misunderstood by many.

Are Ives compositions performed frequently?

Relative to other American composers, Ives' compositions are performed fairly frequently. But relative to European composers, Ives is performed very rarely--even in the U.S.A. Consider the following statistics from Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI): Ives was the fifth most performed American composer in the USA during 2004 (behind Copland, Barber, Bernstein, and Gershwin). In 2003, Ives ranked third behind Copland and Bernstein.

Interestingly, the totals by all American composers pale in comparison with the most-performed standard repertoire composers: Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms are performed exponentially more than any American composer.

Where can I hear Ives' music performed live?

Go to the Charles Ives Society's Calendar of Upcoming Events page for a list of upcoming performances.

Which of Ives' works are most popular?

Ives' most frequently recorded work appears to be "The Unanswered Question."

Orchestral Set No. 1, Three Places in New England is Ives' most frequently recorded multiple-movement work.

These also appear to be the most frequently performed works as well, although I don't have any statistical evidence to back this up.

Which of Ives' works are most important?

This is a much more difficult question to answer than the previous one. Most critics seem to regard the following works as Ives' greatest compositions:

If I'm new to Ives' music, where should I begin?

That depends on where you're coming from musically. If you like standard repertoire classical music, you might begin with the Second Symphony or Third Symphony. These aren't as "outrageous" as many of Ives' other works. If you're a bit more adventurous and you want to dive right in, check out Three Places in New England or the Holidays Symphony.

You might also want to take a look at my list of Ten Essential Ives recordings. Of course, this list is ridiculously subjective, but that's precisely what makes it fun, isn't it?

Why does Ives quote others' tunes in his works?

Ives uses quotations much like modernists (and post-modernist) authors use allusions in their works. For example, when T.S. Eliot quotes Dante at the beginning of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Eliot uses the quote as a talisman to evoke all sorts of emotional associations that the reader had from reading Dante. What distinguishes Ives from Eliot and other "classical" modernists is that Ives does not limit his quotations to great composers like Beethoven or Wagner, he quotes everything, "high" and "low," classical and popular. Whereas Eliot refers only to the touchstones of literature, Ives incorporates everything which affects him--regardless of it artistic context: classical music, folk music, marching band tunes, church music, even ambient sounds from life. In this regard, Ives' approach to composition is more accurately post-modernist than modernist. But let's muddy the waters even more. I believe that it is not really correct to label Ives a "post-modernist" for a variety of reasons. First of all, Ives does not use allusions in an ironic way, as do most post-modernists. He has a high regard for all of the music that he quotes, regardless of its origin. So, even though his Ives uses what we might call post-modernist methods, I don't think that it is an accurate label for him. (In fact, forced to pick a label to describe Ives, I'd call him a "Romantic." But that's neither here nor there in the context of this question.) To recap (and get us back on track), Ives uses other music as a device to evoke emotional responses in his listeners. He wants us to hear old music anew. He wants to transform us by helping us re-encounter what is most fundamental in us, regardless of the origin. Allusion (or "borrowing") is just another tool for creating psychologically and spiritually truthful music.

Why is Ives' music so dissonant?

Much of it isn't dissonant!

Here's what Wilfrid Mellers has to say about this topic in his wonderful book Music in a New Found Land (reprinted 1987):

The first quality [of Ives' music as a whole] is its acceptance of life-as-it-is, in all its apparent chaos and contradiction; and it is this that encouraged him to employ any and every technique that seemed empirically appropriate, whether drawn from conventional European music, from folk improvisation, from chapel or bar-parlour, or from the sounds of the natural world. . . . [T]he second quality of Ives' music . . . is that the attempt to discover unity within chaos is in essence a transcendental act (44-45).

Another great quote from Mellers: "Ives . . . would have said that all his music . . . was only a sketch. . . . [A]ll he would have claimed is that some sketches were less complete than others" (51).

Who & what influenced Ives' music?

Ives' father, first and foremost, exerted a greater influence on Ives than anyone else. George Ives laid the groundwork for Ives revolutionary approach to music, his incredible openness to new sounds. As a result of his upbringing, Ives music incorporated sounds from very disparate musical streams.

Peter Burkholder describes the four musical traditions that Ives drew from and eventually synthesized as: 1.) American Popular music, 2.) Protestant Church music, 3.) European Classical music, and 4.) Experimental music. (Quoted from Charles Ives and His World, Edited by Burkholder, Princeton University Press, 1996).

Ives' wife Harmony was a tremendous influence on Ives. After their marriage, Ives compositions changed dramatically for the better. It is impossible to imagine Ives' lonely composing career without Harmony's support.

Horatio Parker, Ives' music teacher at Yale University, was influential in Ives' life, even though Ives tended to underplay his significance.

Of European composers, Ives was perhaps most influenced by Beethoven. Ives make regular allusions to Beethoven in many of his works. But, like any other composer of his day, Ives was also influenced by a variety of composers, including Brahms, Dvorak, Wagner, and Debussy. But, as Ives became a mature composer, he always managed to transform their influence into something personal and specific to himself. Consider the following quote from Jan Swafford's Charles Ives: A Life with Music (1996):

Certainly Ives was familiar with French impressionism. Debussy had begun to emerge in the American scene in the first decade of the century; Ives would have encountered his music in New York concerts and on the shelves of music stores. Debussyan impressionism, however, is a matter of wind and waves observed from the outside, abstracted images of festivals and Spanish music and the like. Always the French looked for a polished and sensuous surface. Ivesian impressionism is intimate, interior, and Puritan. He is close to his subjects; his scenes and quoted tunes are filtered through human consciousness, with emotions added. He does not give a damn for sensuousness or polish. By Ives' maturity, roughness had become a virtue. . . . [R]oughness was an emblem of sincerity and authenticity, of the supremacy of the amateur over the professional, of substance over superficial, sensuous manner (229).

Has Ives influenced other composers?

Yes. But Ives didn't establish a "school" or approach, as did a composer like Schonberg. Ives didn't have a method; he couldn't create disciples. But he changed the way that many American composers think about themselves and their relation to the classical music tradition.

In Swafford's Charles Ives: A Life with Music, American composer and author Elie Siegmeister explains how Ives influenced him as a composer:

When Ives burst upon me, mainly through Henry Cowell, Benny Herrmann, Jerry Moross, Nicky Slominsky, circa 1931, it was like a real path for an American composer suddenly opened up, and one that's been with me ever since . . . [While] I'm a very different composer than Ives. . . we share so much in common-identity with common things, even commonplace things, and derive much of our thought and feeling from everyday American life, and are not afraid to use 'found objects' as the themes of our stuff; and also (very important) are deeply anti-academic, anti-German, and anti-theory as the source of music (396-97).


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Original text copyright © Scott Mortensen 2002-2006


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