Innovation & Isolation: Charles Ives and the American Voice

By Dr. Andrew Childs

In 1828, at the age of 70, Noah Webster published his American Dictionary of the English Language. When considering the American Imagination, and certainly the conception of a distinctly American culture, few figures loom larger than Webster.1 Webster’s contribution to the cause of establishing an American culture unbeholden to Britain in particular and Europe by extension deserves a separate consideration, but he understood keenly that establishing a new cultural identity begins with controlling language. This profile of American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) begins with Webster’s definition of Imagination, either “the action or faculty of forming mental images or concepts of what is not actually present in the senses,” or the “ability to face and resolve difficulties; resourcefulness.”2 While the latter of these two definitions hints at the American spirit of ingenuity and resiliency, the former highlights, as applied to cultural development, the pioneering aspect of the American mind, unafraid to consider the unknown, and unashamed simultaneously to appropriate the contents of the European cultural edifice while rejecting much of the identifiable external structure.

Though Charles Ives was one of the first American classical composers to establish a national and international reputation—he won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy award for his work—much of his music remained unknown and unperformed in his lifetime. He gained professional recognition during his career for his pioneering work not in music, but in the insurance industry. Accolades for his music, and the shamefully grudging respect from his peers came long after he had stopped writing. Now recognized for his technical boldness and innovation, another aspect of his compositional career stands out as truly remarkable—his near-total isolation, both personal and professional, from the musical establishment. Professionally, his choice to pursue finance rather than composition as a career gave him freedom to develop truly innovative and groundbreaking methods, and the means to publish and disseminate his works. Personally, his deeply conservative political and religious views and patriotic temperament—not to mention his refusal to abandon traditional techniques—alienated him from the modernist American composers who followed him, most of whom had no idea the debt they owed him. Duty and patriotism were concepts he applied to his art and his trade with equal zeal. He wrote publicly in support the American effort in World War I, and even drafted an amendment to the Constitution. In many ways, he is the ultimate American composer, fiercely independent yet grounded in traditional values, sentimental and experimental, equally comfortable with cultivated and vernacular styles, unafraid to break with European models—and a successful capitalist.

Ives was born October 20, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut. His father, George, served as a bandleader for the Union army in the Civil War. Often portrayed as a sort of musical “mad scientist,” George Ives devoted himself to breaking down what he considered artificial technical barriers and to extending musical boundaries, traits Charles naturally absorbed. Delightful vignettes exist of father and son: the toddler Charles listening to his father practice the fiddle, banished to the barn by an exasperated Mrs. Ives; polytonal family hymn-singing; contraptions rigged to find partial tones; George’s nurturing toleration and discipline of Charles’s more radical rhythmic and tonal departures. A famous story goes that one day, Charles stood in the middle of the large town square for the purpose of hearing two bands playing simultaneously while marching towards each other from opposite ends. For George and Charles, music was as much about play as technical mastery. ‘Radical’ techniques such as polytonality and polyrhythm came naturally to Charles, and in his music never sound academic or contrived.

Education in late-19th-century New England represented one of the more glaring hypocrisies in American democratic experiment. Boys from the right families went to the right schools in preparation for professional careers predestined for them. Ives began composing and performing as a child. Though not a prodigy in the classical sense, he wrote his first known complete song, “Slow March,” at age 12 to commemorate the death and burial of a family pet. He took his first church organist position at 14 and composed hymns and organ music for services. Though clearly more than a simple hobby for Ives, music nonetheless just as clearly did not qualify as a legitimate profession for someone of his evolving educational pedigree. He finished high school at Hopkins preparatory school in New Haven, Connecticut, and enrolled at Yale University in 1894. Charles and George no longer played musical games together, and for some time, George had felt the pain not of physical but psychological separation. It was an uncle, Lyman Brewster, who had established and sponsored Charles’s educational and future professional plans in finance, and George felt left behind. Father and son recognized the tension, and one evening in the fall of 1894, Charles began a letter to his father that would be his last; he left this unfinished to go hear a talk given by Joseph Twichell, noted preacher-philosopher and friend of Mark Twain. No one could have scripted what transpired among these three men on this night. Charles knew at the time neither that he would soon lose his father, nor that he would gain as a surrogate father the man he had gone to hear. When he returned to his room that night, he wrote a final request in a postscript, “Send Harmony,” referring to a textbook he had left at home. George died on November 4, 1894. In 1908, Charles Ives married Joe Twichell’s daughter—Harmony.

At Yale, he studied composition with Horatio Parker, one of the most important figures in American music, but whose methods and compositional philosophy remained thoroughly European. Ives absorbed the techniques but strove always to apply them in unique and spontaneous ways. He took as much inspiration from hymn tunes, folk songs, and Stephen Foster as he did from classical models. “The ‘unity of dress’ for a man at a ball,” he wrote later in his life, “requires a collar, yet he could dance better without it.”3 Ives refused to commit entirely either to the classical or the vernacular idiom, long assumed to be antithetical in form and function, and by exploring the common ground between them, created new synthetic procedures using experimentation as the catalyzing force and bonding agent. In his estimation, cultivated music might “dance” better without a collar, and vernacular music lost nothing of its character by dressing up a little. Though he acquired a real mastery of classical techniques, for Ives, putting on a collar never implied putting on airs. He and Parker developed a mutual respect and appreciation for each other, though Parker had his limits. He would patiently tolerate even the most outrageous of Ives’s compositional flights of fancy and gently remind him that it ‘wasn’t polite to hog all the keys,’ or something to that effect. Ives came to recognize when he had crossed a line with Parker and would quickly provide him with something more “correct” to make amends.

After graduating from Yale 1898, he began his career in finance and insurance in New York City as a clerk for New York Mutual. He founded his own firm in 1907 and was remarkably successful, credited as pioneer in estate planning and mutual funds. By the late 1920’s Ives drew a salary of nearly $500,000, and he supported the careers of many avant-garde composers, without their knowing it. Some later criticized and deride Ives’s music as amateurish or fraudulent, never knowing that he had made their own careers possible. His artistic isolation resulted not only from his desire to write experimental music, but also to be a good American, which for him meant providing for his family. He wrote, “If a man has, say, a certain ideal he’s aiming at in his art, and has a wife and children whom he can’t support, should he let his family starve and keep his ideals? No, I say—for if he did, his ‘art’ would be dishonestly weakened, his ideals would be but vanity.”4

Harmony Twichell was thirty-two when she and Charles wed in June of 1908, married by her father. She had worked as a nurse for several years and was artistically gifted both as a musician and poet. They had known each other for a dozen years, first introduced by her brother, Dave, Yale class of 1897. For Ives, the marriage represented the realization of countless dreams, known and unknown; fatherhood, the fulfillment of his own childhood, and the dream of a partner who would fathom the scope of his vision, tolerate his darker moods, and amplify his artistic spirit. Had Ives married someone not possessing an artistic sensibility, neither could have survived it. In Harmony’s poetry, his musical instincts found an empathetic voice. After only ten months of marriage, the one child they did conceive died before birth. In April 1909, Harmony Twichell Ives entered a hospital in New York City with internal bleeding due to miscarriage and underwent an emergency hysterectomy. They adopted a daughter, Edith, in 1916. Privately, Ives supported Edith’s birth family for the rest of his life.

Ives knew that America afforded few opportunities for “professional” composers. He also knew that mastery of technique and hard work required no specific laboratory. By 1915 he had composed most of his major works, including his Symphony #3 (“The Camp Meeting,” 1904-1911) for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1946, and his Symphony #4, awarded a Grammy for Best Composition by a Contemporary Classical Composer in 1965. Ives’s catalog seems less a recognizable linear development than a serious of spontaneous utterances, some nearly off-putting in their complexity (and cacophony), others cloyingly simple, but each one genuine, from a sight-readable one-page song to the monumental unfinished Universe Symphony. Listening to Ives requires patience and an open mind, and perhaps more than any other composer, a belief in his sincerity, without which, his use of quotation could easily sound like sarcasm or parody (in his Symphony #2, for instance, he quotes Brahms, Wagner, church hymns and Negro Spirituals, and his Variations on America for organ which he wrote as a teenager seems to do violence to the theme). The Unanswered Question (ca. 1906) features layers of seemingly unrelated elements; a string quartet playing serenely in the background, a solo trumpet that poses the melodic ‘question’ the strings refuse to answer, and a group of woodwinds that interrupt with increasingly dissonant hostility. The initial effect is jarring, yet Ives represents the plight of the misunderstood individual in a way reminiscent of the second movement of Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto. He pays homage to the New England Transcendentalists in his Sonata #2 for Piano: Concord Mass., 1840-1860 (1904-1915). Ives quotes the ‘fate motive’ from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony throughout the four movements entitled “Emerson,” “Hawthorne,” “The Alcotts,” and “Thoreau.” In his Orchestral Set #1: Three Places in New England, Ives recreates the episode from his childhood of opposing bands playing simultaneously in different keys meters, an ultimate tribute to his father.5 Nowhere, however, does Ives reveal more of himself than in his songs. He wrote 129 in total, and his self-published 114 Songs (1922) present a comprehensive summary of his stylistic development, philosophy, and temperament. Protest and parlor songs, ballades and lullabies, hymns and mystical reveries stand side by side, most often singing the original words of Charles and Harmony. The songs provide perhaps the easiest access to Ives’s music, but much like the songs of Gustav Mahler, these do not lack in significance due to their brevity, but rather provide a distillation of his entire vision.6

By 1926 at age 52, he had uttered his last original statement. He knew he was finished as a composer. Harmony related, “he came downstairs one day with tears in his eyes and said he couldn’t seem to compose any more—nothing went well, nothing sounded right.”7 He had fully realized his isolation. He continued to revise earlier works and support performances of his music, and gradually, the musical establishment came to recognize the importance of his contributions. His work endures, unlike many of his contemporaries, because he allowed the traditional and the innovative, the serious and the frivolous, the cultivated and the vernacular to coexist, in challenging, unlikely, and delightful ways. He spoke with an original voice, both highly imaginative and quintessentially American.



1 For further reading, consider After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture, by Joseph Ellis, and The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, by Joshua Kendall.

2 Webster’s College Dictionary (Random House, 1991)

3 Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata, the Majority, and Other Writings (Norton, 1970), 98.

4 Charles Ives, Memos (Norton, 1972), 131.

5 James Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalog of the Music of Charles Ives (Yale, 1999)

6 I offer Songs of Charles Ives (Centaur Records #2796) for your consideration.

7 Memos, 279. Harmony told the story to scholar and friend John Kirkpatrick.



Charles and Edith,

Charles at Hopkins & Charles and Harmony, author