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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
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?"...
...[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?
To see the sunrise a man has
but to get up early, and he can always have a Bach in his pocket.
Everyone should have the opportunity
of not being over-influenced.
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
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"
- "The New River"
- "The Side Show"
- "The Things Our Fathers Loved"
- "Tom Sails Away"
- "Vote for Names!"
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.