On Feb. 22, 1951, Charles Ives’s Second Symphony premiered in New York — some 50 years after the piece was completed. Long shunned by the musical establishment, his scores deemed too complex, Ives was finally getting the recognition he deserved. Though he was too frail to attend the performance, he heard the concert later, when it was broadcast to the nation via radio.
Ives didn’t own a radio, so he and his wife went to their next-door neighbors’ home in West Redding, Conn. He ensconced himself in the front room and listened in silence. The work’s final movement, a frenetic jamboree weaving together strains of popular American tunes, culminates in an irreverent final chord, a sort of musical raspberry. After it sounded over the airwaves and the audience began to applaud, Ives got up, walked to the fireplace, spat, then entered the kitchen without saying a word.
What must Ives have been thinking, now that his music had received its largest audience yet? He was an intensely private man, who had eschewed publicity all his life, who despised prizes and accolades (even dismissing his Pulitzer, won in 1947), but who struggled for so long to have his work taken seriously.
As Stephen Budiansky writes in “Mad Music,” his superb and genial biography, Ives came from staid Yankee stock and enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Danbury, Conn. He was adept at sports and as self-conscious about playing the piano and organ as any other all-American boy of his era.
He was a D+ student at Yale, but given his extracurricular successes — he wrote songs and marches for parades and fraternity shows — his collegiate years were a success.
In 1898, he moved to New York but decided against music as a profession, instead getting into life insurance. There, he became something of a legend by helping transform the way life insurance was sold. His pamphlets on the subject became required reading in the industry. “Ives’s idealism, integrity, and insistence on telling clients the truth,” Budiansky writes, “would prove to be not just good public relations, but good — in fact stupendously good — business.”
Prominent though he was in the insurance world, he remained outside the halls of high art, even during the prolific period that saw the composition of four symphonies, numerous songs and the monumental Concord Piano Sonata, among other works. Budiansky cannot “think of any successful composer who worked in such a degree of intellectual and musical isolation as Ives assuredly did.”
His music is unlike that of any other composer, yet at once recognizably American. It was rooted in the Danbury of Ives’s youth, filled with quotations from patriotic songs, hymns and Stephen Foster. According to Budiansky, the composer possessed “an almost phonographic, encompassing, and ineradicable memory of the sounds of those days . . . the pitch and rhythm of footfalls on a pavement, the ragged entrance of the brass players in a marching band, the choir lagging a beat behind the organ in an echoing church, the syncopations and harmonies produced by bells clanging out of phase with one another, the subtle alterations in the tone and timbre of music heard outdoors from a distance.”
With its distortions and dissonances, complicated rhythms and battling tonalities, Ives’s music is, above all, the ultimate expression of nostalgia. “You can’t recall the past,” he told his nephew late in life, but Ives’s Yankee boyhood was only ever as perfect as his memory allowed it to be. Preserving the idealized feeling of a place in art — this is what Ives did best.
Bose is the managing editor of the American Scholar.
Charles Ives: The Nostalgic Rebel
By Stephen Budiansky
ForeEdge. 306 pp. $40