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20th Century pioneer composer Charles Ives

Audiences and critics’ opinions over time.


Kenneth Walton, a music critic for The Scotsman, offered a dual characterization of "the eccentric American composer, Charles Ives" (1874-1954), in a May 2004 article republished in the website. Walton noted that "Some have labeled him [Ives] the ‘great Yankee maverick’; others have simply dismissed him as a crank".

By offering and not resolving these alternatives but letting his most positive alternative use the not particularly complimentary word, "maverick", I conclude that Walton isn’t particularly fond of Ives. Let me try to talk about why Walton’s caution may say something about musical correctness constraints on contemporary critics.

After formal musical training at Yale (1894-98) Charles Ives increasingly pursued unorthodox experiments in his compositions, until at length his music almost completely alienated him from contemporary players and audiences. His active composing was cut short after 1926 – though his insurance business and other activities kept him financially comfortable until his death in 1954. Ives’ experimentation, not his relatively conventional early pieces, earn him recognition as a musical pioneer and praise from the overwhelming majority of leading musicologists, music historians and music writers. He’s commonly regarded as a composer of great stature (see examples, below).

The Britannica Book of Music (1980) summarizes Ives as "A significant U.S. composer whose innovations anticipated most of the later musical developments of the 20th Century.". Block and Burkholder, 1996, in Charles Ives and the Classical Tradition cite Igor Stravinsky, who " . . . in a rare moment of candor . . . conceded that Charles Ives had been The Great Anticipator"; and quoted Arnold Schoenberg as saying of Ives: "There is a great man living in this country . . . ". Gilbert Chase’s America’s Music (3rd Edition, 1992) summarizes: " By the time the 4th Symphony had its belated premiere, Ives had achieved international recognition as a greatly original, immensely creative composer, who gave new dimensions to the vast and varied heritage of America’s music." Chase’s opinions carried much authority. His book has been termed "A landmark of American musical historiography", and received a special commendation from the Sonneck Society for American Music.

Ives' music is the subject of Ph.D. dissertations, long and respectful treatments in the New Grove Dictionary, commemorative volumes, and festivals. It is frequently performed, accompanied by reverent program notes. Time magazine once called Ives ‘America's most important composer’. Ives became the first American composer to have a society dedicated to him (1973).

In contrast to the above, comments on Ives as a "crank" or other negative appellations by modern experts are hard to find. The first sour note about Ives that I saw was on the back of an LP record featuring the work of the middle 20th Century American composer, Samuel Barber. Barber was quoted, referred to Ives as "a hacker".

Most New York Times music critics celebrated Ives. However, the Times’ late, audience-friendly music critic, Harold Schonberg, referred to Ives's contempt for "pretty sounds" and his looking forward to the time "in some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter tones, when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now" (Facing the Music, 1981). Another New York Times columnist who took anti-establishment tacks at times, Donal Henahan, delivered a blow to Ives's image when he revealed research demonstrating that Ives apparently cheated by backdating some of his compositions once he perceived that he was beginning to achieve a reputation as a musical pioneer.

The most clinical evaluation of Ives is by Nicholas Tawa in American Composers and their Public (1995). It’s worth mentioning that Tawa delayed the latter book until after his retirement as a professor of music at the University of Massachusetts in Boston -because of its candid analysis of 20th Century composers (personal communication, 1994). Tawa points out that the Second Symphony was one of the few Ives works that the general public liked.

"Charles Ives had long been John the Baptist to modern innovators when Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic played his Second Symphony on 22 February, 1951….Ives quoted and contemplated the meaning of nineteenth-century American hymns, popular tunes, dances, and Columbia the Gem of the Ocean. Nowhere was the experimentation of his later works in evidence. …. Without affectation, the symphony’s five movements reveal affection for and a firm belief in the America he knew. Bernstein said it conveyed the real measure of Ives’s greatness though it relied on normal procedures, simplicity, and easy listenability. At the work’s conclusion, a frenzied and lengthy ovation broke out. It showed how greatly the audience had enjoyed the music."

Tawa then goes on to describe the almost universal disapproval by critics of the Second Symphony, e.g. referring to "primitive quaintness", or suggesting that in this early work Ives had kow-towed to his conservative teacher at Yale, Horatio Parker. These criticisms contrasted with their praise for Ives’ more iconoclastic works.

To me some of the clearest analytical notes on Ives’ compositions are by Hitchcock and Gann (Music in the United States, 4th ed., 2000), partly quoted in the following passage. The above authors point out a philosophical underpinning for cacophony in Ives’ compositions in the idea that "musical texture [with] coexisting disparate elements does not threaten order any more than, say in a forest, the coexistence of trees, rocks, mosses, flowers, animals, and insects threaten order". The authors are enthusiastic admirers of Ives’ polytonal and polyrhythmic compositions, e.g. those whose tonally and rhythmically disconnected parts "movingly bring us in touch with his faith in the harmonious coexistence of disparate elements". Hitchcock and Gann did not praise Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1923-24). In this late work the two pianos are tuned a quarter tone apart, producing excruciating discomfort, even potential physiological nerve damage if continued, to normal human ears.

Continuing from Hitchcock and Gann, while Ives approved of "wrong notes and off-key playing by amateur musicians as ‘substantial music’ ", it should not be assumed that his compositions did not contain carefully constructed, technically complex structural detail. In Hallowe’en, a "cacophonic spoof" for string quartet, piano and drum ad lib, the 18-measure work "rushes by in a blur", with each string instrument playing in a different key, with an atonal piano part. The "the rigorous contrapuntal texture of the string parts" is pointed out by Ives as canonic not only in tones, but in phrases, accents, and durations or spaces.

In summary, nowhere more clearly than in Charles Ives’ compositions is the fundamental split between the reception of compositions by nonprofessional musical audiences more clearly differentiated from that by the majority of professional musicologists, music critics and composers. The more audaciously experimental the composition, and the less contemporary audiences liked or understood it, the higher its status was among the professionals.

Walton’s reluctance to be more positive about Ives’ total production is thus a negation of prevailing scholarly and professional opinion. But Walton seems reluctant to come right out and say what he really thinks. I speculate that Walton, as a professional critic, doesn’t want the "maverick" label that he offered as a best-case label for Ives to be assigned to him as a critic. I also suggest that other music critics who lean toward the audience view still have to use veiled and cautious ways to express their opinions.

I have conducted a random survey of articles by contemporary professional music reviewers. That survey suggests that a small but increasing number of writers not limited to more audience-friendly media like The Scotsman, are edging away from the formal music establishment’s commitment to the renowned revolutionary compositions that broke with the 500-year old traditions of music practice in the early 20th Century. The general public did not understand or like this music when it first appeared more than 85 years ago, and its opinion has not changed.

The View from the Audience


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