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Almost as much as music, Ives was attuned to the power of words, and his own writings often clarify his musical compositions. Here is a selection of interesting passages that shed light on Ives' goals as an artist and human being. The quotes are taken from the following sources:

  • Essays before a Sonata, The Majority, and Other Writings. Edited by Howard Boatwright. (Norton, 1999).
  • Memos. Edited by John Kirkpatrick. (Norton, 1991).
  • Charles Ives: A Life with Music. By Jan Swafford. (Norton, 1996).

Click on a link to read Ives' thoughts on the subject:

On the Impossibility of Objective Expression

"Expression, to a great extent, is a matter of terms, and terms are anyone's. The meaning of 'God' may have a billion interpretations if there be that many souls in the world" (Essays 8).

"The word 'beauty' is as easy to use as the word 'degenerate.' Both come in handy when one does or does not agree with you" (Essays 77).

On Emerson

"Emerson is . . . America's deepest explorer of the spiritual immensities--a seer painting his discoveries in masses and with any color that may lie at hand--cosmic, religious, human, even sensuous; a recorder freely describing the inevitable struggle in the soul's uprise, perceiving from this inward source alone that 'every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series' . . . who would then discover, if he can, that 'wondrous chain that links the heavens with the earth-the world of beings subject to one law'. . . We see him-standing on a summit at the door to the infinite . . . , peering into the mysteries of life, contemplating the eternities. . . We see him--a mountain-guide so intensely on the lookout for the trail of his star that he has no time to stop and retrace his footprints" (Essays 11-12).

"Emerson wrings the neck of any law that would become exclusive and arrogant, whether a definite one of metaphysics or an indefinite one of mechanics. He hacks his way up and down, as near as he can to the Absolute, the oneness of all nature, both human and spiritual, and to God's benevolence. To him, the ultimate of a conception is its vastness, and is probably this rather than the 'blind-spots' in his expression that makes us inclined to go with him but half-way, and then stand and build dogmas. But if we cannot follow all the way-if we do not always clearly perceive the whole picture-we are at least free to imagine it; he makes us feel that we are free to do so. Perhaps that is the most he asks. For he is but reaching out through and beyond mankind, trying to see what he can of the infinite and its immensities, throwing back to us whatever he can, but ever conscious that he but occasionally catches a glimpse . . . (Essays 14).

"Thus is Emerson always beating down through the crust towards the first fire of life, of death, and of eternity. Read where you will, each sentence seems not to point to the next but to the undercurrent of all" (Essays 15).

On the Validity of Vagueness

"Vagueness is at times an indication of nearness to a perfect truth" (Essays 22).

"An apparent confusion, if lived with long enough, may become orderly . . . A rare experience of a moment at daybreak, when something in nature seems to reveal all consciousness, cannot be explained at noon. Yet it is part of the day's unity" (Essays 22-23).

"It is conceivable that what is unified form to the author or composer may of necessity be formless to his audience" (Essays 23).

On the Nature of Musical Experience

". . . It seems that so close a relation exists between [Emerson's] content and his expression, his substance and his manner, that if he were more definite in the latter he would lose power in the former. Perhaps, some of those occasional flashes would have been unexpressed-flashes that have gone down through the world and will flame on through the ages--flashes that approach as near the divine as Beethoven in his most inspired moments--flashes of transcendent beauty, of such universal import, that they may bring, of a sudden, some intimate personal experience, and produce the same indescribable effect that comes in rare instances to men from some common sensation.

In the early morning of a Memorial Day, a boy is awaked by martial music--a village band is marching down the street--and as the strains of Reeves majestic Seventh Regiment March come nearer and nearer--he seems of a sudden translated--a moment of vivid power comes, a consciousness of material nobility--an exultant something gleaming with the possibilities of this life--an assurance that nothing is impossible, and that the whole world lies at his feet. But, as the band turns the corner, at the soldier's monument, and the march steps of the Grand Army become fainter and fainter, the boy's vision slowly vanishes-his 'world' becomes less and less probable-but the experience ever lies within him in its reality.

Later in life, the same boy hears the Sabbath morning bell ringing out from the white steeple at the 'Center,' and as it draws him to it, through the autumn fields of sumach and asters, a Gospel hymn of simple devotion comes out to him--'There's a wideness in God's mercy'--an instant suggestion of that Memorial Day morning comes--but the moment is of deeper import--there is no personal exultation--no intimate world vision--no magnified personal hope--and in their place a profound sense of spiritual truth--a sin within reach of forgiveness. And as the hymn voice dies away, there lies at his feet--not the world, but the figure of the Saviour--he sees an unfathomable courage--an immortality for the lowest--the vastness in humility, the kindness of the human heart, man's noblest strength--and he knows that God is nothing--nothing--but love!

Whence cometh the wonder of the moment? From sources we know not. But we do know that from obscurity and from this higher Orpheus comes measures of sphere melodies, flowing in wild, native tones, ravaging the souls of men, flowing now with thousand-fold accompaniments and rich symphonies through all our hearts, modulating and divinely leading them" (Essays 30-31).

On the Future of Music

"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--perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized. But maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense" (Essays 71).

On Substance and Manner in Art

"If local color, national color, any color, is a true pigment of the universal color, it is a divine quality, it is part of substance in art-not of manner. . . .Whatever excellence an artist sees in life, a community, a people, or in any valuable object or experience, if sincerely and intuitively reflected in his work-his work, and so himself, is, in a way, a reflected part of that excellence. Whether he be accepted or rejected, whether his music is played or never played-all this has nothing to do with it; it is true or false by his own measure" (Essays 81).

On the Distinction Between Sound and Music

"A MS. score is brought to a concertmaster-he may be a violinist-he is kindly disposed, he looks it over, and casually fastens on a passage: 'That's bad for the fiddles--it doesn't hang just right--write it like this, they will play it better.' But that one phrase is the germ of the whole thing. 'Never mind, it will fit the hand better this way-it will sound better.' My God! What has sound got to do with music! The waiter brings the only fresh eggs he has, but the man at breakfast sends it back because it doesn't fit his eggcup. Why can't music go out in the same way it comes in to a man, without having to crawl over a fence of sounds, thoraxes, catguts, wire, wood, and brass? Consecutive fifths are as harmless as blue laws compared with the relentless tyranny of the 'media.' The instrument!--there is the perennial difficulty--there is music's limitation. . . . Is it the composer's fault that man only has ten fingers? Why can't a musical thought be presented as it is born--perchance a 'bastard of the slums,' or a 'daughter of a bishop'--and if it happens to go better later on a bass drum than upon a harp, get a good bass drummer. That music must be heard is not essential--what it sounds like may not be what it is" [Ives' italics] (Essays 84).

On the Artist's Aims

"The humblest artist will not find true humility in aiming low--he must never be timid or afraid of trying to express that which he feels is far above his power to express, any more than he should be in breaking away, when necessary, from easy first sounds, or afraid of admitting that those half-truths the come to him at rare intervals, are half-true; for instance, that all art galleries contain masterpieces, which are nothing more than a history of art's beautiful mistakes" (Essays 97).

On the Role of Habit in Hearing Music

"There may be an analogy between . . . the ear, the mind, and the arm muscles. They don't get stronger with disuse. Any art or habit of life, if it is limited chronically to a few processes that are easiest to acquire (and, for that reason, are said to be some natural laws), must at some time, quite probably, become so weakened that it is neither a part of art nor a part of life. Nature has bigger things than even-vibration-ratios for man to learn how to use. Consonance is a relative thing (just a nice name for a nice habit). It is a natural enough part of music, but not the whole, or only one. The simplest ratios, often called perfect consonances, have been used so long and so constantly that not only music, but musicians and audiences, have become more or less soft. If they hear anything but doh-me-soh or a near cousin, they have to be carried out on a stretcher (Memos 42).

On the Importance of His Influences

"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" (Memos 114).

On Being Open to Modern Music

". . . . I'd played over the Second Violin Sonata for him-that harmless piece. 'After stuff like the that"--he said--'if you consider that music, and like it, how can you like Brahms or any good music?' That is a very common attitude among almost all the well-known lilies. They take it for granted--a kind of self-evident axiom, a settled-for-life matter, ipso facto, admitting no argument. The classical is good for all time, the modern is bad for all time--so if you like one, you can't like the other. They don't always limit it to 'good and bad.' They, in a general way, throw (in their nice little minds) all that fits into their accustomed habits of sound, technique, etc., all together into a classical idiom, good or bad. Everything not in it, they throw out as non-existent music, as such. Assuming that there are some good things among the latter class, that can in essence and substance compare with the better of the former, this type of mind then does the same thing as to say--'Now if you look out of that window and enjoy the mountains, how can you possibly look out of this window and enjoy the ocean?'" (Memos 121-22).

On Percussion

"The possibilities of percussion sounds, I believe, have never been fully realized" (Memos 124-25).

On Composers' Idioms

"If idioms are more to be born than to be selected, then the things of life and human nature that a man has grown up with--(not that one man's experience is better than another's, but that it is 'his.')--may give him something better in his substance and manner than an over-long period of superimposed idiomatic education which quite likely doesn't fit his constitution. My father used to say, 'If a poet knows more about a horse than he does about heaven, he might better stick to the horse, and some day the horse may carry him into heaven'" (Memos 240).

On Composing Music

"In 'thinking up' music I usually have some kind of a brass band with wings on it in back of my mind" (CI: A Life With Music 37).

On the Relation of Art to Life

"The fabric of existence weaves itself whole. You cannot set art off in a corner and hope for it to have vitality, reality, and substance. There can be nothing exclusive [Ives' italics] about substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life" (CI: A Life With Music 207).

"Every great inspiration is but an experiment" (CI: A Life With Music 335).

Ives' Rationale for Pursuing a Career in Insurance, Rather than Music

If [a composer] has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances?" (CI: A Life With Music 143).

Ives' Rationale for Leaving His Position as Church Organist in 1902

"I seem to have worked with more natural freedom, when I knew that the music was not going to be played before the public, or rather before people who couldn't get out from under, as in the case of a church congregation . . . .To a body of people who come together for worship-how far has a man to do what he wants, if he knows that by so doing he is interfering with the state of mind of the listeners, who have to listen regardless. . . . A congregation has some rights" (CI: A Life With Music 160).

On Tonality and Dissonance

"Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good I can't see. Why it should always be present I can't see. It depends, it seems to me. . . on what one is trying to do, and on the state of the mind, the time of day or other accidents of life" (Essays 117).

"An instance shows the difference between [Ives'] Father's and [Ives' music teacher, Horatio] Parker's ways of thinking. In the beginning of my Freshman year, and getting assigned to classes, Parker asked me to bring him whatever manuscripts I had written (pieces, etc.). Among them, a song, At Parting-in it, some unresolved dissonances, one ending on a [high] E flat ([in the] key of G major), and stops there unresolved. Parker said, "There's no excuse for that--an E flat way up there and stopping, and the nearest D sharp way down two octaves."--etc. I told father what Parker said, and Father said, "Tell Parker that every dissonance doesn't need to resolve, if it doesn't happen to feel like it, any more than every horse should have it's tail bobbed just because it is the prevailing fashion" (Memos 116).

 

 


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2006

 

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