Beethoven is for “Aural Cowards”: Charles Ives and the Establishment of an American Musical Identity

One of the letters in Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives, edited by Tom C. Owens, is from the composer and educator Percy Goetschius, a composer and the head of the theory department at the Institute of Music and Art in New York (which later became Juilliard School of Music), acknowledging his receipt of Ives’ Concord Sonata.1 Ives’ music was not met with much acclaim during his lifetime, forcing him to adopt the rather unorthodox method of simply sending his music to anybody who might show interest, from friends to complete strangers in the musical establishment, as well as fans outside of it. Many recipients of his music were confused as to the nature and potential merits of Ives’ music, which was very unconventional, as well as why they were even receiving it at all.

Goetschius’ letter is typical of much of the correspondence that Ives received, and reveals the source of much of this confusion. He apologizes for having neglected to write earlier, but eagerly states that the piece “excited [his] deep interest”. He reassures Ives that he does not “wish to take [his] music lightly”, but confesses his dislike for it, as it does not align with the “classic methods”, which “to [his] mind[…]are correct ones” and speak to unchanging facts of physics. Goetschius even writes that he “[hesitates] to call it ‘music'”, choosing instead to refer to it as Ives’ “work” and describing his methods as “experiments”. However, Goetschius does reflect that he is biased towards the “habits[…]of the classic method”, which despite reflecting some fundamental truths in his opinion, are nevertheless to some extent “habits”. Declaring that he is not “a heartless and brainless conservative” who sees Beethoven (or Ives, or any other composer) as the end-all and be-all of art music, he ends by expressing his fervent hope that Ives’ “sincerity” and “logic” would lead to greater success in the future.

Ives’ music was highly experimental, and he deliberately abandoned many earlier traditions. Ives was already financially comfortable through his job in the insurance business, giving him the freedom to do essentially whatever he wanted musically.2 This made much of his music fantastically impractical, as he did not have to consider how it might actually be performed. Ives was part of the generation that Antonín Dvořák had declared needed to establish a truly American musical identity by drawing on spirituals and other American folk music, and many today regard him as the first composer to find success in this regard.3 Ives was one of the few white composers to include black folk music in his music as Dvořák had envisioned. His music drew on a wide variety of both white and black influences, from Protestant hymnody to spirituals and ragtime. He adapted these genres to his own idiosyncratic style and combined them to capture particular moments in the soundscape of America.4 The Concord Sonata, which Goetschius wrote his letter in response to, was an homage to the Transcendentalist philosophers of the mid-nineteenth century full of dissonance, cluster chords, and a brief flute solo.2 Ives self-consciously sought to distance his music from the music of composers who came before in an attempt to solve the “Beethoven problem” of having to establish an identity in relation to a supposedly universal but paradoxically German ideal.5 He would probably have been rather pleased, then, when Goetschius admitted that Ives’ “experiments” interested him as a rejection of the idea that Beethoven should be taken as the “Last Word” in art music.1

However, Ives reacted with frustration and defensiveness to those who did not understand his compositions, retorting rather petulantly in the margins that objective standards are “for soft-eared cissies and aural cowards!” In a different letter that Ives wrote to Henry F. Gilbert, a fellow New Englander and composer who appreciated Ives’ music, this defensiveness shines through again when he protests that he is “not a bad composer[…]though it’s inconvenient to have no one know that but [himself]!”6 This reveals the almost total lack of support he found, as well as the obstinacy with which he refused to change his methods. Although Ives found some admirers during his lifetime and achieved greater success after his death, his refusal to adhere to the objective standards set by European classical music and determination to create experimental music were reflected in the confusion, distaste, and apathy he faced in audiences who simply did not understand what he was going for. However, Ives’ total abandonment of convention in favor of experimentation and his utilization of American folk music, both black and white, ultimately helped him establish a distinctively American style.

Citations:

1 Goetschius, Percy. Letter to Charles Ives. Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives, 67-8. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, May 20, 2007.

2 Tomes, Susan. The Piano : A History in 100 Pieces. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. Accessed November 13, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.

3Mauk, David C. “New England Transcendentalism Versus Virulent Nationalism: The Evolution of Charles Ives’ Patriotic March Music.” American Studies in Scandinavia 31, no. 1 (1999): 24–33. https://doi.org/10.22439/asca.v31i1.1478.

4 Garrett, Charles Hiroshi. “Charles Ivesʹs Four Ragtime Dances and ʺTrue American Musicʺ.” In Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century, 1st ed., 17–47. University of California Press, 2008. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp004.6.

5 Shadle, Douglas W. Essay. In Orchestrating the Nation: The Nineteenth-Century American Symphonic Enterprise, 242–57. Oxford University Press, 2018.

6 Ives, Charles. Letter to Henry F. Gilbert. Selected Correspondence of Charles Ives, 82-3. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, May 20, 2007.

The two sides of Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith's portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Fig. 1: Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of American writer Walt Whitman

Xanthus Russell Smith painted the posthumous portrait of American writer Walt Whitman in 1897, several years after Whitman’s death.1 The oil study on canvas appears to be based off of a portrait photo which was taken by photographer George C. Cox in 1887. Whitman had loved this photo so much that he titled it “The Laughing Philosopher” and sold the other portraits from the session to supplement his income.2

Whitman lived from 1819 to 1892, spending the majority of his life on the east coast, dying in Camden, New Jersey, He was an American poet, essayist and journalist and as a humanist, his works are regarded as being transitory between transcendentalism and realism with elements of each idea present. He was concerned with politics and abolitionism (although this is not necessarily based on his belief in racial equality) and was wishy washy with his endorsement of abolitionism. There has also been debate over what Whitman’s sexuality was, although this began much later after his death and there is still disagreement among biographers as to whether or not Whitman had even had sexual experiences with men (although having or lacking experience should not be the validating factor as to whether a person truly identifies a certain way).

George C. Cox's photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

Fig. 3: George C. Cox’s photograph portrait of Walt Whitman

It is unknown as to whether or not Xanthus Russell Smith was acquainted with Whitman or was instead an admirer of his work. Smith was known for using small brushstrokes and sharp detail. The portrait can be interpreted by many different lenses, including artistic, historical and modern perspectives.

The portrait is composed fairly symmetrically, with Whitman’s shoulders facing at an angle away from the painter and his face squared to the front. The colors of the portrait are muted and neutral, lacking color except for around the eyes, which could be interpreted as a nod towards Whitman’s interpretation of the world, beliefs and persuasions (i.e. gray).

The focal point of the portrait is definitely the eyes. The viewer is drawn to them immediately, then down Whitman’s nose to his shock-white mustache and beard. The eyes are the most lifelike piece of the portrait and along with the rest of the face are almost completely centered in the portrait. However, this positioning is not so much a surprise as it is a given that the focal point of a portrait should be the subject’s face.

The painting is divided down the center of the frame, with one side of the background lighter than the other, and on Whitman’s face, the light patterns seem to be reversed, suggesting that there were two different light sources used in the photograph Smith used or in his interpretation of it. The use of light might be a nod to Whitman’s ideas and philosophy, which went between transcendentalism and realism or to the two sides of his sexuality and the way the public perceived him. The latter interpretation would however be carried into that of the modernist lens as few writers speculated on his sexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, Whitman’s poetry has been set to music by many composers, including the music of John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Kurt Weill, Roger Sessions and Ned Rorem.

You can view Xanthus Russell Smith’s portrait of Walt Whitman in the Flaten Art Museum reserve collection housed in St. Olaf College’s Dittman Center.

Bibliography

1. Smith, Xanthus Russell. Walt Whitman. 1897. Oil on canvas. 17.5 in x 13.5 in. Dittman Center : Second (2) Floor : Storage Vault : 19A : Flaten Art Museum.

2. Whitman, Walt. Lafayette in Brooklyn. New York: George D. Smith, 1905.

3. Cox, George C. Walt Whitman. 1887. Photograph.