One of the most original American composers of the 20th Century was Charles Ives. Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut on October 20, 1874. Ives’s father, George Ives, was a bandmaster – the youngest one in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and was a bit of a free spirit himself. George Ives passed that quality on to his son in part by forcing his son to participate in strange musical experiments. One night George stood outside in a thunderstorm listening to the church bells ring in the wind. He spent the rest of the night trying to find the pitch on his piano, only to discover that it wasn’t there (the bells were out of tune). This led George to build a device made up of 24 violin strings and a series of weights and pulleys which he called a quarter-tone machine. This device was able to play the notes “in between the cracks” of the piano keyboard, notes out of tune with the normal tuning system.
George Ives would compose melodies on his quarter-tone machine and make Charles sing them. Ives would later say that his father “gave that up except as a form of punishment.” Another experiment George subjected Charles to was to make him sing a popular song in one key while George played the accompaniment in a completely different key.
All this strange experimentation grew on Ives. Attending Yale University, his studies were noted for excellence in music, but he was average in other subjects (his lowest mark was a 45% in French). Upon graduation Ives decided to go into the insurance business instead of music, realizing that the direction he wanted to go musically was not financially lucrative and didn’t want his family to “starve on his dissonances.” He eventually founded his own insurance agency and was able to live very comfortably, allowing him to devote his free time to his original sounding compositions.
Ives was a very hard working composer, spending the bulk of his free time composing music. He would eventually compose five symphonies, several large orchestral works, two piano sonatas, and about 200 songs. In between composing “serious” music he also managed to compose marches for the Yale band and music for Yale fraternity vaudeville shows. Most of his serious work, however, collected dust in the barn of his Connecticut home for years.
During World War I Ives lost much of his interest in music, being unusually sensitive to the mood it provoked, and didn’t compose much. In 1918 he suffered a heart attack, from which he never fully recovered. He composed nothing after 1921 and instead concentrated his efforts on getting performances of his music and getting his work published. Ives died in 1954 in New York City.
Initial reaction to Ives’s music was scornful – critics panned his music. Over time a few younger composers and performers realized that his music was very original and began to champion his work. By 1939 Ives was beginning to gain some recognition as an important composer. The premier performance of his Concord Sonata received a standing ovation. Ives’s Third Symphony, composed from 1904 to 1911, won a Pulitzer Prize nearly forty years later in 1947.
Ives’s music was very experimental for his day. Even today many listeners hear his music and don’t understand his meaning (he once was heard to remark, “My God, what has sound got to do with music?!”). Even within all this experimentation, however, there is a heavy influence of folk and popular music he heard while growing up. Often there are either elements from or direct quotes of revival hymns, ragtime, popular melodies, patriotic songs, and dances in his music. His experiences hearing this music, or rather the “unconventional” performances by amateur musicians, seem to have influenced how Ives wanted his music to sound. One event in particular, hearing two of his father’s marching bands approach a park while playing in different meters and different keys, is cited as influencing Ives’s interest in exploring bitonality (two tonal centers at once) and polyrhythms (two or more contrasting rhythms at the same time).