• Introducing the Mavericks: It All Started With Charles Ives

    Andrew Byrne's series about the American maverick composers continues with an introduction to the man who started it all—Charles Ives.

    About Charles Ives

    It all started with Charles Ives, American Mavericks' own George Washington, the first composer to break with European classical music traditions and write with a distinctively American voice. References to American popular culture abound in Ives's work—hymns, marches, parlor songs, dance music, and other sounds from the American street—and yet it is how these tunes are combined that creates the unique Ives sound. He loved musical collage, delighting in superimposing two or more completely different types of music in different keys and moving at different speeds to create teeming multi-layered soundscapes of Americana—a glorious cacophony of sound like nothing else that had come before. Even today, first-time listeners can be baffled by the sheer eclecticism of Ives's vision. His music is at once so familiar and so strange, naive and complex, tender and unruly.

    Born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874, Ives received formal musical training at Yale University, but it was his father, George Ives, who was to have a lasting influence on the young Ives. As Ives later said, he inherited his father's "natural interest in sounds of every kind, everywhere, known or unknown, measured as such or not." Realizing the difficulty of making a living from music (especially with the music he wanted to write!), Ives took a job in insurance, a field in which he was to make a fortune. Freed from financial pressures, Ives was able to compose unhindered, following his unique musical vision.

    And the music poured forth. Four symphonies, orchestral suites, songs, choral works, and chamber music flowed from his pen in a remarkable 25-year period, until he gave up composing in the mid-1920s because of failing health. Most remarkably, Ives worked in complete isolation. None of his compositions were published until the 1920s; indeed, none of his major works received public performances until his composing life was virtually over.

    While recognition for Ives's achievement was slow in coming (his Fourth Symphony—widely regarded as his masterpiece—received its first performance in 1965, almost 50 years after the completion of the piece and 11 years after the composer's death!*), today he is revered as the first truly American composer, a maverick of fierce integrity and uncompromising vision who changed American music forever.

    * The first critical edition of the work was only released last year.

    Suggested Playlist

    "Concord" Sonata (orchestral version): The "Concord" Sonata traces its ancestry to numerous earlier projects. The opening movement derived from Ives’s incomplete Emerson Overture for Piano and Orchestra, in addition to five of his Studies for Piano; the second movement from a lost Hawthorne Concerto for Piano and Orchestra and some lost works for piano solo; the third from a lost Alcott Overture and/or something he identified as his "Orchard House" Overture; and the fourth from a lost piece seemingly called "Walden Sounds." This being Ives, the score is also riddled with references to pre-existent music from the broader sonic environment, ranging from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (very prominent) and Hammerklavier Sonata to such icons of Americana as “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” and Stephen Foster’s song “Massa’s in de Cold Ground.” Read more at americanmavericks.org.

    Symphony No. 4, "Comedy": Ives called this movement "a comedy—in which an exciting, easy and worldly progress through life is contrasted with the trials of the Pilgrims in their journey through swamps and rough country. The occasional slow episodes—Pilgrim's hymns—are constantly crowded out and overwhelmed by the former. The dream, or fantasy, ends with an interruption of reality—the Fourth of July in Concord—brass bands, drum corps, etc." The inspiration for this scenario was Nathaniel Hawthorne's story "The Celestial Railroad." Read more about the Fourth Symphony at schirmer.com.

    Dig Deeper

    San Francisco Symphony Charles Ives Listening Room > 

    Charles Ives (Chapter 3) in American Mavericks book  

    American Mavericks
    March 28, San Francisco Symphony
    Break the Rules
    Charles Ives Listening Room