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Commentary

In 1922, Ives privately printed a song collection, 114 Songs, at his own considerable expense. Along with the "Concord" Sonata (printed one year earlier), 114 Songs represented Ives' first attempts to make his music available to the wider public. Also like the "Concord" Sonata, Ives included a prose explanation with the work, which appeared at the end of the volume. This "Postface to 114 Songs," as it now known, is a fascinating glimpse at Ives' preoccupations and intentions as an artist. Both self-effacing and assertive, jocular and serious, nervous and insightful, the writings tell us much about the songs--and Ives' music in general.

The following are selected passages from the "Postface":

...The printing of this collection was undertaken primarily in order to have a few clear copies that could be sent to friends who from time to time have been interested enough to ask for copies of some of the songs, but the job has grown to something different; it contains plenty of songs which have not been and will not be asked for. It stands now, if it stands for anything, as a kind of "buffer state"--an opportunity for evading a question somewhat embarrassing to answer: "Why do you write so much --- which no one ever sees?"...

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...[A]n interest in any art-activity from poetry to baseball is better, broadly speaking, if it is held as a part of life, or of a life, than if it sets itself up as a whole--a condition verging, perhaps, toward a monopoly or, possibly, a kind of atrophy of the other important values, and hence resting unfavorably upon itself. ... If a fiddler or poet does nothing all day long but enjoy the luxury and drudgery of fiddling or dreaming, with or without meals, does he or does he not, for this reason, have anything valuable to express?--or is whatever he thinks he has to express less valuable than he thinks?

This is a question that which each man must answer for himself. It depends, to a great extent, on what a man nails up on his dashboard as "valuable." Does not the sinking back into the soft state of mind (or possibly non-state of mind) that may accept "art for art's sake" tend to shrink rather than toughen up the hitting muscles--and incidentally those of the umpire or the grandstand, if there be one? To quote from a book that is not read, "Is not beauty in music too often confused with something which lets the ears lie back in an easy-chair?" Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason are we not inclined to call them beautiful? ... Possibly the fondness for personal expression--the kind in which self-indulgence dresses up and miscalls itself freedom--may throw out a skin-deep arrangement, which is readily accepted at first as beautiful--formulae that weaken rather than toughen the musical-muscles. If a composer's conception of his art, its functions and its ideals, even if sincere, coincides to such an extent with these groove-colored permutations of tried-out progressions in expediency so that he can arrange them over and over again to his delight--has he or has he not been drugged with an overdose of habit-forming sounds? And as a result, do not the muscles of his clientele become flabbier and flabbier until they give way altogether and find refuge only in exciting platitudes--even the sensual outbursts of an emasculated rubber-stamp, a 'Zaza,' a 'Salome' or some other money-getting costume of effeminate manhood?

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To see the sunrise a man has but to get up early, and he can always have a Bach in his pocket.

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Everyone should have the opportunity of not being over-influenced.

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The instinctive and progressive interest of every man in art, we are willing to confirm with no qualification, will go on and on, ever fulfilling hopes, ever building new ones, ever opening new horizons, until the day comes when every man while digging his potatoes will breathe his own epics, his own symphonies (operas, if he likes it); and as he sits of an evening in his backyard and shirt sleeves smoking his pipe and watching his brave children in their fun of building their themes for their sonatas of their life, he will look up over the mountains and see his visions in their reality, will hear the transcendental strains of the day's symphony resounding in their many choirs, and in all their perfection, through the west wind and the tree tops!

*********

Some have written a book for money; I have not. Some for fame; I have not. Some for love; I have not. Some for kindling; I have not. I have not written a book for any of these reasons or for all of them together. In fact, gentle borrower, I have not written a book at all--I have merely cleaned house. All that is left is out on the clothes line; but it's good for man's vanity to have the neighbors see him--on the clothes line.

For some such or different reasons, through some such or different process, this volume, this package of paper, uncollectable notes, marks of respect and expression, is now thrown, so to speak, at the music fraternity, who for this reason will feel free to dodge it on its way--perhaps to the paper basket. It is submitted as much or more in the chance that some points for the better education of the composer may be thrown back at him that any of the points the music may contain may be valuable to the recipient.

Some of the songs in this book, particularly among the latter ones, cannot be sung, and if they could, perhaps might prefer, if they had a say, to remain as they are; that is, "in the leaf"--and that they will remain in this peaceful state is more than presumable. An excuse (if none of the above are good enough) for their existence which suggests itself at this point is that a song has a few rights, the same as other ordinary citizens.If it feels like walking along the left-hand side of the street, passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it? If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poet's castle, or the prosodic law, will you stop it? Must it always be a polite triad, a "breve gaudium," a ribbon to match the voice? Should it not be free at times from the dominion of the thorax, the diaphragm, the ear, and other points of interest? If it wants to beat around in the park, should it not have immunity from a Nemesis, a Ramses, or a policeman? Should it not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing?--to enjoy itself without making a bow, if it can't make a bow?--to swim around in any ocean, if it can swim, without having to swallow "hook and bait," or being sunk by an operatic greyhound? If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly, to sing what cannot be sung, to walk in a cave on all fours, or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith and try to scale mountains that are not, who shall stop it?

--In short, must a song
always be a song!

These last few paragraphs, in particular, contain some of Ives' most famous quotations.

In his lifetime, Ives wrote nearly 200 songs. His best songs certainly represent some of his most enduring work, and the entire corpus is as valuable as any body of songs ever composed by an American.

What are Ives' greatest songs? I think that question is impossible to answer. But here are a few of my favorites:

  • "The Cage"
  • "The Children's Hour"
  • "The Circus Band"
  • "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven"
  • "The Greatest Man"
  • "The Housatonic at Stockbridge"
  • "Like a Sick Eagle"
  • "Memories"
  • "The New River"
  • "Remembrance"
  • "Serenity"
  • "The Side Show"
  • "The Things Our Fathers Loved"
  • "Thoreau"
  • "Tom Sails Away"
  • "Vote for Names!"
  • "Walking"

Of course, this is just a start. James Sinclair, whose Descriptive Catalogue I looked through to compile this list, requires nearly 225 pages to catalog the songs!

Song Texts and Other Resources

Wondering about the words that Ives used in a particular song? For the texts of (most of) Ives songs, see The Lied and Song Texts Page CEI entry.

The Charles Ives Society has published a complete Critical Commentary for 129 of Ives' songs. Click here to access the document on the CEI Society site.

 


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002