Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

A Life with Music
By Jan Swafford
Norton. 525 pp. $30

Read the first chapter of Charles Ives: A Life With Music

Go to Chapter One

Charles Ives: A Life With Music

By Kenneth Singleton
Sunday, July 28, 1996
The Washington Post

JAN SWAFFORD’S new biography, Charles Ives: A Life With Music, goes a long way toward dispelling or clarifying many of the most prominent myths surrounding the life and music of perhaps America’s greatest composer. This book draws on materials recently added to Yale University’s extensive Ives Collection, in addition to well-known sources and previous biographies. Swafford’s unrelenting quest for accuracy and fair play is further enhanced by a lively writing style and his composer’s insights into the creative process.

Ives was born in Danbury, Conn., in 1874, the son of a former Civil War bandleader who provided his son with a surprisingly thorough musical background. Swafford paints an intimate picture of the town and its history, the Ives family’s position in business and society, and his father’s precarious career as a bandmaster and musical jack-of-all-trades. Along with revival hymns, barn dances and patriotic tunes,bands and band music inspired Charles Ives throughout his creative life. He once wrote to an inquiring musician, "I am afraid that in ‘thinking up’ music I usually have some kind of a brass band with wings on it in the back of my mind."

Ives attended Yale College, where he received advanced instruction from Horatio Parker, a European-trained taskmaster much maligned in the Ives mythology for not supporting his talented student’s musical experiments. While acknowledging these shortcomings, Swafford also gives Parker his due: "In the largest view Ives was a symphonist, which is one of the rarest gifts on earth. Ives owed the shaping of that gift primarily to Horatio Parker." By the turn of the century, Ives was beginning to combine his small-town musical background and the rigor of Parker’s instruction into a new kind of music: a music inspired by the way sounds occur in real life, where out-of-tuneness, wrong notes, inaccurate rhythms and simultaneity of events become sounds to be transformed into a musical world never before imagined.

Given the conservative musical climate in turn-of-the-century America, Ives decided to pursue a career outside of music. Upon graduation he moved to New York and entered the field of life insurance, later forming a partnership with Julian Myrick. By the time Ives retired in 1930, the firm of Ives & Myrick had generated nearly half a billion dollars in insurance business. Meanwhile, Ives wrote music at every opportunity in the evening, on weekends, on the train, and especially during vacations. Between 1898 and 1918 he produced an astounding quantity of work, including symphonies, orchestral "sets," sonatas, string quartets, songs, choral works and smaller instrumental pieces. Almost none of this music was performed, and Ives had a devil of a time even getting it looked at by musicians, who found it nearly impossible to play. Ives continued to live this frantic dual life as a composer and businessman until a major heart attack in 1918 greatly diminished his creative energies. By 1925 his composing career was essentially over. According to Swafford, "The gods’ great joke on Charles Ives was that while granting him the energy and intelligence and talent to carry on a double life, they bequeathed him a constitution that could only stand that pace for a little over half his life. He would not be allowed his dream of retiring full-time to music. His ruin was born into him along with his gifts."

In the early 1920s Ives privately printed and distributed free of charge for those interested a book of "114 Songs" and the "Concord Sonata" for piano. In the years that followed, his works gradually made their way into the musical world. Notable highlights include John Kirkpatrick’s performance of the "Concord Sonata" in 1939 (critic Lawrence Gilman declared the work "the greatest music composed by an American") and the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for the Third Symphony, a work completed some 40 years earlier. In writing his own music in his own way, Ives anticipated compositional techniques often credited to Europeans, including polytonality, polyrhythms, polymeters, spatiality, simultaneity and an atonality which even touched on serialism.

The Ives mythology (largely created by Ives himself in a series of "Memos" dictated in the early 1930s) frequently places undue emphasis on these techniques, leading to charges that he was writing modern, dissonant music mainly out of spite and to shock his listeners. As Swafford points out, most of Ives’s best and most difficult pieces were written between 1906 and 1916, long before the possibility of an audience even existed and decades before his written descriptions of his music. Despite such modernistic experimentation, Ives remained a romantic composer at heart and never completely abandoned traditional tonality. He died in 1954.

Swafford’s biography presents us with the most complete picture yet of this fascinating and often contradictory man and his music. Swafford saves many of his most interesting questions and opinions for the extensive end-notes. The book is directed toward a general audience and therefore omits technical musical analyses, although the descriptions of "Three Places in New England," the "Concord Sonata," and the Fourth Symphony are extensive and revelatory. The only shortcoming is the biography’s lack of a work list or recommended discography. The latter would be especially helpful to the average reader, and even the experts might enjoy debating Swafford’s informed choices.

Kenneth Singleton conducts bands at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and is a music editor for the Charles Ives Society.

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help