Charles Edward Ives

1874 - 1954

Charles Edward Ives, Danbury born and raised maverick composer, cared little for the musical styles and fashions of his day. He cared even less for music critics. He was fond of saying that pretty music was for pretty ears, and he had no regrets that his music was not considered “pretty.” Not until 1939, twenty years after he stopped composing, did the American public become aware of his music. Acceptance came much later.

Charles Ives’ first and most influential teacher was his father, George, a Civil War band leader, who introduced him to the concepts of polytonality and multiple meters. Young Charles grew up listening to his father’s bands marching up and down Danbury’s Main Street and was greatly influenced by his father’s frequent musical experiments. One popular anecdote recounts the occasion when several of George’s bands marched to Elmwood Park from different directions, simultaneously playing marches in different meters and keys. Another tells of George’s experiments with quarter tones, which were inspired by the out-of-tune church bells of the First Congregational Church next to his home.

George Ives’ musical innovation and the sights and sounds of the Danbury area had a powerful impact on young Charles and contributed to his unconventional approach to music writing.

Charles Ives began composing at a young age. In 1888, he played his composition “Slow March” at the funeral for Chin-Chin, his cat. Some people say Chin-Chin was a dog! Charles was fond of using fragments of music familiar to Danburians. Patriotic music, hymns and marches figured prominently in his compositions. He combined fragments of this conventional music with the unconventional compositional techniques he learned from his father. The result was uniquely American and uniquely Charles Ives.

His music did not meet with acclaim either in Danbury or anywhere else in the United States. Europeans, however, were very curious about Ives and everything American. Renowned Austrian composer-conductor Gustav Mahler, during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic, reportedly happened upon a copy of the Third Symphony (Camp Meeting). He brought the score back to Europe in 1911 with the intention of performing it, but died before doing so. Several published sources,

however, report that the symphony was indeed played in Munich. The score Mahler took has never been recovered.

In the early 1930’s, American conductor Nicholas Slonimsky premiered several of Ives orchestral works in New York City, Los Angeles and Boston to unreceptive and hostile audiences. Subsequent performances in Cuba and Europe, funded by Charles Ives, were met with enthusiasm. Success in Europe lent Ives’ music a modicum of respectability here in the States. Gradually, his music began to be performed in American concert halls and slowly, over the years, the public began to understand and accept the music of Charles Ives.

Ives’ interest in Transcendentalism and the Concord Four – Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau – is evident in the Concord Sonata and its accompanying literary work “Essays Before A Sonata” published in 1919. In creating a unique musical style, Ives may have been influenced by Emerson who wrote: “…imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity.” Ives was a weekend composer, deliberately choosing to make a living selling insurance rather than music. Perhaps he suspected his music would not sell. Ives subscribed to Thoreau’s words from Walden, “…instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.”

In 1918 Ives suffered a serious illness and stopped composing shortly afterward. He continued, however, to extensively revise his compositions while concentrating on making a living in the insurance business he co-founded with Julien Myrick in 1907. Ever the innovator, Ives became well known in the industry for introducing new concepts such as estate planning. In 1930 he retired, a very wealthy man. Ives obviously had no reason to sell his baskets.

Charles Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Third Symphony. Over the years, his “grand and glorious noise” has gained popularity and a large following. The centennial of his birth was widely celebrated, and his music is now played to appreciative audiences. Such celebrity would have been inconceivable to Charles Ives during his lifetime!

Nancy F. Sudik
Executive Director, Danbury Music Centre

Copyright 2005