Charles Ives: The Attacker of Beauty or Its Defender?

I’m reading Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise, having seen it recommended too many times to count. And indeed it’s a very fun read, a real page-turner. But his section on Ives annoyed me enough to write this post. Some good stuff, but also many cliches and stereotypes. It made me then mentally run through the common stereotypes of Ives: the eccentric innovator or the serial fabricator of dates, the dogmatic stubborn visionary, the non-professional musical purist or the cranky amateur, an independent man isolated from the classical music world. All of these are at least partly wrong. Yet people keep coming back to them as they cast him in that much-desired heroic Romantic role.

However, my biggest bugbear is the portrayal of Ives as the attacker of beauty — far from it! Yes, Ives wrote for quarter tone pianos, he took polyrhythms to unheard levels, he was among the first to use tone clusters, he famously adored dissonance. But despite his oft-quoted phrases, he never rejected beauty — only the monopoly of beauty and the monopoly of tonality. His complaint was a just one considering those American composers that had preceded him, such as his teacher Horatio Parker, whose genteel ersatz European music will doubtless not be remembered. Yet he never seemed to have spoken ill of Parker, and indeed respected him. He wasn’t an iconoclast (another myth). In fact, he spoke somewhat disdainfully of Schoenberg and Stravinsky and admiringly of Brahms. But he was fed up of the stale ‘niceness’ of the music around him. Ives sums it up wonderfully:

Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently, when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.

His issue is the mis-identification of beauty, not beauty itself. I see him as fighting the corruption of beauty, how it was used as an excuse for stale thinking. One gets a sense from the quotation that he wanted to reclaim beauty from its idle captors. In fact, Ives knew there was nothing more beautiful than a hymn, so he ended his best work, the Fourth Symphony, with one. Skip to 31:40 to hear it, though to feel the full impact listen to the fourth movement in its entirety (25:20) or preferably the full symphony. The whole thing is one spectacular journey, an attempt to get, in the words of the hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee:

Few other ‘modernists’ (and I’m not sure he was a modernist, really) wrote or writes like Ives. He didn’t invent theories or schools of composition. He didn’t formalise his method; he tinkered around. He was a mischievous, playful chap, and thoroughly impassioned and excitable, someone who approached life with the utmost fury and levity in equal measure. He doesn’t belong the the dull world of the abstract modernists, so pure and detached from reality and their audience. Elliot Carter could not understand Ives’ music, for instance. He had no idea what the purpose of quoting Yankee Doodle in a piece was, and that would ruin it for him — I suspect he found it all too silly.

Ives did try to be more like his good friend and fellow composer Carl Ruggles — more wholly atonal, that is. But he admitted failure. Take the Robert Browning Overture. It’s one of his least interesting works (in a non-academic sense), and he admitted he could never realise it, though felt slightly more optimistic 20 years later (1930s), for reasons I’m not sure of (still, his judgement of the work is merely lukewarm). It certainly doesn’t hold up when I listen to it. From Ives’ Memos:

[The Robert Browning Overture] is a kind of transition piece, keeping perhaps too much (it seems to me) to the academic, classroom habits of inversion, augmentation, etc. etc., in the development of the first theme and related themes. … But it seemed (I remember when finishing it) somewhat too carefully made, technically–but looking at it now, most twenty years after, it seems natural and worth copying out.

One of the works Ives was most happy with was his setting of Psalm 90. It strikes that Ivesian balance between tonality and dissonance, and unfolds its beauty at the end, typical for Ives. He is of course drawing on his faith, which had been foremost in his life. (His wife, Harmony, was even the daughter of a pastor.) And he reaches for the celestial, that other side to Ives. He was at once the young boy from Danbury, Connecticut, relishing those memories, and the impassioned universalist eager for grand international projects and ecumenical faith. In his setting of Psalm 90 he gets perhaps the closest to the celestial, yet still grounded in his character as a ‘Yankee’ composer, though less so than than other works. This work strikes me as somewhere between the Fourth Symphony and his never-completed, insanely-ambitious Universe Symphony. But much more contained and focused than either of those works.

Ives is known, perhaps, for his love of dissonance — dissonance for its own sake. But he also loved folk melodies for their own sake. He didn’t disdain the surrounding popular culture as the Frankfurt School came to. He was fond of incorporating ragtime in his work, for example (and Alex Ross rightly points this out in his book). Look up his joyous Four Ragtime Dances to see this.

One of the most hauntingly beautiful moments in Ives’ music — and one which was apparently a great struggle to compose — comes in the form of a simple folk-like melody in ‘Thanksgiving and Forefather’s Day’, the last movement of his Holidays Symphony. The section begins 7:20 until a bit after the 11 mark. Apologies for audio quality — it hardly does it justice — but it was the best I could find:

Ives would sometimes give the appearance of deferring to musical simplicity. He would make it so that his music resembled amateur bands — notes coming in late, or simply the wrong notes, for instance. Ives wrote about his friend: ‘Keyes says these notes are O.K. –he is the best critic, for he doesn’t know one note from another’. Biographer Jan Swafford suggested that ‘failing to find he approval of the sophisticated, Ives settled for that of the tone-deaf. So far, he seemed to find it funny.’ He certainly did, but as much as it was a reactionary posture in terms of the classical music world, he really did have a strong democratic sense.

What I’m trying to say, is that Ives was far from the stubborn modernist people portray him as. He didn’t resent beauty or simplicity. At one point Alex Ross described him as ‘uncompromising’, and at another time a ‘stubborn youth’ — which is total nonsense, as he was a terribly shy boy and his early works were quite conventional, with a couple of fun lighter works written mostly for his peers. Maybe what Ives really was was a Romantic with a mischievous bent. I don’t know — and it’s not as if music is one linear, easily-categorised progression. Ives was unusual though, for sure, just not in the way so many think.

I’d like to end with Feldeinsamkeit, what Jan Swafford has called ‘one of the most beautiful songs an American has created’. Ives wrote it in 1897, a sort of memorial for a Dr. Griggs, a choirmaster Ives was close to. This is my favourite recording: