Charles Ives Startles Bandmaster John Philip Sousa

Probably the most famous story of the Ives family is that of George Ives directing two town bands to walk towards each other in an aural experiment of clashing proportions.  Whether or not this story is true, it does tell how George inspired a desire to experiment in his son, as well as the tradition of band music that comes from the late nineteenth century.

As an adult, Charles Ives became involved in insurance, but remains one of the most prolific American composers of the 20th century.  Much of this acclaim comes from the innovation of his compositions as they experimented with key, quotations, melody, and rhythm.

In 1918 Ives became ill with some sort of heart disease.  As Ives grew sicker, he tried harder to reach the American musical communities by sending out his works to composers and musicians.  Many recipients thanked him generously for the free scores he sent, but likely did not read through the pieces–or if they did, might have been put-off by the strange and new work.  This is why John Philip Sousa’s reply is one of the best.

1 June 1923, John Philip Sousa to Charles Ives

My Dear Mr. Ives:

Permit me to thank you for your kindness in sending me your volume of 114 Songs of which you are the composer.  Some of the songs are most startling to a man educated by the harmonic methods of our forefathers.

Yours Sincerely,

John Philip Sousa”

Sousa’s comment is neither positive nor negative, but reflects the sentiment of a man confronted with something entirely new.  As a composer steeped in the tradition of bandmasters such as Sousa, Ives must have been honored that Sousa took the time to read his work.  Band music played such a prominent role in the Ives household as George led the town bands himself and probably chose many Sousa marches to direct.  The satisfaction of knowing Sousa was impressed by Ives’ work reflects his life desire to write his father’s work.  To Charles, Sousa probably represented a bit of George with his marches.  Gaining the attention of the famous march composer must have been like receiving the approval of George Ives himself.

Burkholder, J. Peter.  “Charles Ives and His World.”  Princeton University Press, Princeton 1996.