Charles Ives (1874-1954) was known as perhaps the most influential American composers of the 20th century; “by his centenary in 1974 he was recognized worldwide as the first composer to create a distinctively American art music” .
Unlike the careers of many other prolific composers, he spent most of his working for insurance companies, composing only on the side. As a result, he was sometimes regarded as an amateur and did not become widely successful until late in his life.
One hallmark ‘American’ feature of his music was his tendency to borrow Protestant hymn melodies and American popular songs, complexifying and inserting them into his pieces. He also heavily quoted European composers in his music, such as Beethoven, Bach, and Massenet .
However, Ives constantly went back and revised pieces he had already written, often times adding more dissonance to pieces as time went on, perhaps suggesting a level of insecurity in his composition. In 1921, Henry Bellamann, dean of Chicora College for women, wrote Ives and proposed to program his Concord piano sonata on a lecture recital. Ives’s reply “shows his reluctance to accept praise without a veil of self-deprecation” (Burkholder 215). Ives writes, “I am afraid [the Concord Sonata] will arouse little enthusiasm with most audiences…perhaps by this time you have decided that to undertake my music will be a too arduous and thankless job” (Burkholder 215). He also encourages Bellamann to feel free to make any revisions desired to the sonata. It is somewhat unclear what Ives means by the statement that his piece will be unsuccessful with “most audiences;” either he is unconfident in the sonata, or he thinks it is too good for average listeners to appreciate. I think that it is likely a combination of both sentiments.
Ives’s father, who had taught Charles his fundamental knowledge in counterpoint and composition, died prematurely and suddenly in 1894 . Ives’s health later began deteriorating, and he developed both diabetes and depression (which he refused to acknowledge and referred to as ‘n x’). He also suffered from tremors, making it necessary for his wife and daughter to transcribe his letters for him.
In a 1938 letter to composer and friend John Becker, Ives rants, “These Philharmonic-nice-lady-bird-afternoon-tea-parties are an insult to music and to ‘man’…any American Music (that is not American but made in America) the Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony….play has to be ‘emasculated’ to get the saps’ okay. I would get in a row with these g*dd*mn sissy conductors if I came within cussing distance” (Burkholder 237). Ives argues that ‘feminine’ music is inherently European and not truly American, regardless of where it was composed. This sentiment is interesting, considering Ives drew significant influence from European composers and often quoted them in his pieces.
In my opinion, the sudden loss of a father figure combined with his forced reliance on the women in his life likely contributed to Ives’ anger towards women and ‘feminine’ music. His insertion of ‘masculine’ traits into his compositions reflect his own insecurities, also evident in how often he revised already composed pieces. However, I am honestly not sure where his view of Americanness and masculinity as synonymous originated from.
- Burkholder, J. Peter, James B. Sinclair, and Gayle Sherwood. “Ives, Charles.” Grove Music Online. 2001. Oxford University Press. Date of access 23 Oct. 2019, <https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000014000>
- Burkholder, J. Peter . Charles Ives and His World . Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1996. Print.