Born on October 20, 1874, in Danbury, CT; died on May 19, 1954, in New York City, NY; married Harmony Twichell. Education: Yale University, bachelor of arts degree.

Charles Ives was arguably the first and greatest American composer. Although aware of the work of European composers such as Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann, Ives broke with their traditional style. He instead used distinctively American materials in his works. He utilized New England hymns, folk tunes, military marches and popular songs of the day to evoke places in the United States, such as Central Park and Concord, Massachusetts, and typical American holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Decoration Day and the Fourth of July. Far from writing comfortable, homespun music, however, Ives' work ranks among the most advanced and experimental of the twentieth century, anticipating by years innovations eventually introduced by giants like Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Debussy, and Darius Milhaud.

Charles Ives began his musical education at an early age. His father, George E. Ives, was also a musician. He was the youngest bandmaster to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, and General Grant reportedly told President Abraham Lincoln that Ives' band was also the best in the Army. When Charles was five years old, George started a comprehensive musical instruction that ranged from piano, organ, and cornet, to theory, ear training, composition, orchestration, and sight-reading. George Ives, like his son later, was also interested in experimenting with music, for example using more than one key or more than one rhythm simultaneously. He encouraged these interests in Charles. He had his son play a melody in one key while he accompanied it in a completely different one; similarly he had Charles play two melodies in different keys on the piano simultaneously. According to Composers Since 1900, the elder Ives told his son, "you've got to learn to stretch your ears."

When Charles was 13 years old he took a job as the organist at St. Thomas Church in Danbury, Connecticut. Not long after, he composed his first piece, Holiday Quick Step, which was performed by his father's band. He was a seemingly talented football and baseball player while in high school, but he gave up athletics when he entered Yale University because his father realized his grades would suffer otherwise. Ives nonetheless graduated from college in 1898 with barely passing grades, presumably because he had devoted himself so single-mindedly to music. While at Yale, he composed some 80 pieces, including work for organ, songs, and a string quartet. He continued to study composition and organ at the same time. Ives' compositions were not warmly received by his teachers at Yale, though. They criticized his already widespread use of unresolved dissonance.

After graduating from college, Ives was faced with the question how he should support himself. His father had believed Charles had such great talent he could become a famous pianist. His near-pathological shyness prevented him from taking up a life of public performance, however. Instead, he moved to New York City with friends and took a job clerking at an insurance company while continuing to play organ at the Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

In 1901 he composed From the Steeples and Mountains, his most radical piece yet. It used two groups of bells, four trumpets and four trombones. The bells, tuned in different keys, were meant to suggest bells tolling from different church towers. The effect was discordant, polytonal, and eerie. The work would not be premiered until the New York Philharmonic played it in July of 1965, more than eleven years after Ives' death. Also in 1901, Ives finally completed his Second Symphony which he had been working on for more than four years. Composers Since 1900 called Ives' Second Symphony the composer's "first significant attempt to make use of authentic American materials." It quotes a number of tunes popular at the time, including "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," "America the Beautiful," and the Stephen Foster songs "Old Black Joe," and "Camptown Races." The symphony was not performed until 1951.

Ives left the Mutual Insurance Company in 1906 to form his own insurance firm, Ives and Company, which three years later became Ives and Myrick. The company did very well, eventually growing into one of the largest agencies of its kind in the country. Ives was senior partner of the firm and was quite proud of his business success, feeling that experience contributed something important to the music he was composing. "My business experience revealed life to me in many aspects that I otherwise might have missed," he is quoted in Composers Since 1900. "I have experienced a great fullness of life in business. The fabric of existence weaves itself whole."

In June of 1908, he married Harmony Twichell, and they eventually adopted a daughter. The family settled in New York, and Ives spent weekdays working in his insurance company, and evenings, weekends and holidays composing. Mrs. Ives, quoted in Composers Since 1900,said "He could hardly wait for dinner to be over, and he was at the piano. Often he went to bed at 2 or 3 a.m." Music was everything in his life. He never owned a radio or a phonograph. He did not read newspapers. He did not attend concerts, not even the few dedicated to his own music. He avoided most social functions. Fortunately, his wife supported him completely. "Mrs. Ives," he is quoted in American Composers, "never once said or suggested or looked or thought that there must be something wrong with me. She never said, 'Now why don't you write something nice, the way they like it?' Never. She urged me on my way to be myself and gave me her confidence."

Ives wrote his greatest works between 1904 and 1920. Three Places in New England, Ives' first orchestral piece to be performed, made its debut in 1931 in a version for chamber orchestra, though its original scoring for full orchestra was not heard until 1974. New England Holidays, completed between 1904 and 1913, is a kind of musical memoir by Ives, intended to conjure up, through snatches of familiar melodies, his boyhood in New England on holidays like the Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving Day, and Forefather's Day. 1907's Central Park in the Dark is "a picture of sounds of nature and happenings that men would hear ... when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night," Ives is quoted in American Composers. Again, the instrumentation and collage of melodies suggested the sounds surrounding a visitor in the park.

Ives wrote his Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, between 1909 and 1915. Like many other Ives pieces, the sonata is both deeply philosophical in nature and intended to conjure his native New England. The four movements are entitled "Hawthorne," "Emerson," "The Alcotts," and "Thoreau," all writers from Concord, Massachusetts. The piece includes some of Ives' boldest technical experiments, such as a portion of "Hawthorne" that calls for the pianist to play a cluster of notes using a wooden ruler. Lawrence Gilman, writing in the New York Herald Tribune at the time of the piece's debut in 1939, called the sonata "the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in pulse and implication."

Ives' final symphony, the Fourth Symphony, was completed in 1916 but did not premiere until Leopold Stokowski conducted a performance by the American Symphony Orchestra in 1965. Part of the reason was the piece's complicated rhythms--27 different rhythms are heard at the same time in one section. Another is the size of the ensemble called for by Ives. Besides a greatly expanded orchestra, the symphony is written for a huge percussion section, a chorus, and a brass band. Between the sheer size of the group of musicians and the technical demands placed on them, three conductors are called for. Afterward Stokowski called the Fourth Symphonythe most difficult piece of music he had ever played.

Few of Ives compositions were performed during his own lifetime, in part because he made no effort to have them published. Once a work was complete, he seemed satisfied to file it away and move on to the next one. He published the Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, himself in 1919, distributing it among friends, and in 1922 paid for the publication of an anthology of his songs, entitled 114 Songs. As a consequence, he remained largely unknown, except among a group of younger composers interested in the innovations he pioneered. In a tantalizing "what if," Gustav Mahler was said to have discovered a score of Ives' Fourth Symphony which he copied out and was taking back to Vienna where he planned to perform it. Unfortunately, Mahler's death put an end to the plan.

In 1918 Ives suffered a heart attack. By 1928 diabetes and nervous trembling in his hands which made transcription impossible, ended his composing. He attempted some pieces in the mid-1920s, but by 1926 his confidence was unalterably shaken. His wife, quoted in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, related "he came downstairs one day with tears in his eyes and said he couldn't seem to compose any more--nothing went well--nothing sounded right." He never composed again. After that, his music slowly attracted more and more attention, championed by composers such as Henry Cowell and Aaron Copland. Copland and Hubert Linscott gave a performance of Ives songs in 1932 that attracted a good deal of attention and helped make Ives' name known among young composers. In 1947 Ives was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his Third Symphony. In 1951 Leonard Bernstein gave the premier performance of the Second Symphony.

But the shy Ives did not emerge from his home to hear his music or to accept the honors he was given. He even declined Bernstein's offer of a private performance by the New York Philharmonic. On May 19, 1954, while recovering from a minor operation, Ives suffered a stroke and died.

by Gerald E. Brennan

Charles Ives's Career

Accepted job as organist at St. Thomas Church, Danbury, CT, 1887; composed first piece, Holiday Quick Step, 1888; composed first song, "Slow March," 1988; composed first choral composition, Psalm 67, 1898; composed Second Symphony, 1897-1901; composed From the Steeples and Mountains, 1901; composed Third Symphony, 1901-03; composed New England Holidays, 1904-13; co-founded his own insurance company, Ives and Company, 1906; composed Central Park in the Dark, 1907; composed The Unanswered Question, 1908; Ives and Company became Ives and Myrick, 1909; composed Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, 1909-15; composed Fourth Symphony, 1910-16; performed Third Symphony for the first time, 1946; published Piano Sonata No. 2 himself, 1919; published 114 Songs, 1922; gave first performance of Second Symphony, 1951; gave debut performance of both From the Steeples and Mountains and Fourth Symphony, 1965.

Charles Ives's Awards

Pulitzer Prize in music for Third Symphony, 1947.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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