Even after the diabetes that came on at age forty-three reduced Charles Ives to a frail one hundred pounds and viciously terminated his madly productive years as a composer and businessman, “in his mind he was always on fire,” said the conductor Nicolas Slonimsky, who knew him as well as anyone in the 1930s. Ives’s characteristic pose, Slonimsky recalled, was “a fighting stance, his right hand raised and a finger of scorn” thrust at some imaginary antagonist. When he spoke, the words came out in short, vehement bursts, the quick parenthetical qualifications he always inserted barely interrupting the rushing flow of ideas. Lehman Engel, then a young choral conductor, later a major figure in Broadway, television, and film musicals, remembered thinking “he was going to really hit me” when Ives would get going about what he thought was wrong—with music, American society, politics, the world—on those afternoons Engel called on the composer at his New York brownstone in the late 1930s. Ives would wind up standing right over his young visitor, shaking his fist within inches of his face, to emphasize a point. “But none of this was directed at me. It was about somebody else or about something else.”
A writer for the New York Times Magazine, granted a rare interview in 1949, made the drive out to the Iveses’ country place in southwestern Connecticut and on meeting the composer thought of “a Yankee patriarch you had met in the white hills of New Hampshire”: gaunt, wiry, with a gray, scraggly beard, wearing “rough, country clothes—sturdy shoes, blue denim trousers, a faded blue shirt without a tie, an old, darned sweater and a gray tweed jacket.” In earlier photographs he looked so different he might have been someone else entirely: the serious lean-faced New York businessman of the 1910s; the slightly dandified Yale college student of the 1890s, with combed-back hair, high collar, and loose tie; the all-American boy of the 1880s, pudgy face, hair parted down the middle, hands clutching a football or baseball, trying to strike the nonchalant pose of the serious athlete. Only the slightly protuberant brown eyes, always aglow with a touch of alert humor or a hint of ferocity, make it clear it is indeed the same man separated by years, and by chasms of life’s experience.
The one thing Ives almost always avoided looking like was a sensitive artist or intellectual. “Anybody can be intellectual,” he disdainfully told Slonimsky. He was forever mocking the “nice professors of music,” the cultured concertgoers, the music critics, the patrons of the arts, congratulating one another on their refined tastes; that was just mental laziness and conventionality masquerading as sophistication, he thought. In one long penciled tirade, scrawled on lined legal paper and shoved away with thousands of other largely unidentified pages and scraps of ruminations, he venomously lampooned the conversation of two gushing music lovers: “Ain’t it nice Mabel!” “Yes Arthur, just delicious . . . I’ve heard this exquisite thing just 8,421,697 times.” “Never Mabel will I ever permit my ears to listen to any other chord. They simply just couldn’t stand it. . . .”
And he always cracked little self-deprecating jokes when there was any danger of suggesting he was putting on airs about his own importance or stature as an artist. In 1930, discussing with Slonimsky the idea of his subsidizing the first performances of some of his own orchestral works, Ives delighted in puncturing the usual reverent aura of classical music and arts patronage by persistently referring to what they were doing as “rigging up a concert,” as Slonimsky would recollect, to his vast and enduring amusement. (In a subsequent letter to Slonimsky he asked, in a deadpan postscript, “Is it nice to like music?”)
This was not how composers were supposed to act, and not everyone knew how to take it. His music engraver Herman Langinger, who was, in his own words, a very “serious” violin student, marveled at the way Ives was “always making fun of his music.” Langinger once very earnestly asked Ives a question about how he had composed one of his pieces. “Instead of explaining it, he said, ‘This sounds like the Fourth of July—a bunch of noise.’” When the New York Philharmonic backed out of a promise to perform his “War Song March” during World War II, offering the implausible excuse that there was not enough time to rehearse the chorus, Ives’s angry reply mingled dudgeon with his usual artistic irreverence: “Tell anybody who might happen ‘conduct’—to never mind the music—just let the chorus just yell out the words & then take a Drink.” He once proposed to his fellow nonconformist New England composer Carl Ruggles that he would conduct a concert at Ruggles’s funeral, using a baseball bat instead of a baton and promising to hit a line drive into the tuba. Even when he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947 for his Third Symphony, his public stance was just to dismiss it as a sort of joke. “Prizes are the badges of mediocrity,” he told the one reporter who was allowed in the door. To Slonimsky and other musical friends he added, “Prizes are for schoolboys—I’m all grown up.” His Connecticut neighbor Charles Kauffman tried to congratulate him on the award; Ives grunted one word, accompanied by a derisive shrug: “Popularity.”
It was characteristic of him that his efforts at self-effacement only made him more conspicuous, not less; not that he was aware of having that effect. Even as he amassed a literal fortune in the life insurance business, he refused to spend anything on luxuries or ostentation. His taste in food, clothes, and furniture remained plain to the point of spartan throughout his life. The cases of Angostura bitters he stashed away in his Connecticut basement so he could continue to mix up old-fashioneds through the years of Prohibition were about the only example of creature-comfort self-indulgence anyone could point to in his entire adult life. He thought fancy attire and showy offices ridiculous for a businessman, complaining in 1914 when the Mutual Life moved his agency to new quarters that they were “too much mahogany . . . too much shine & make believe.” Working in such plush surroundings, he went on, was “like a man digging potatoes in a dress suit. Everybody ought to dig potatoes but no one ought to wear a dress suit.”
He declared his own disregard for show by wearing a simple dark suit and a battered old brown felt hat that, ironically, made him a spectacle on Wall Street. This was the era, a former employee recalled, when “men came to work in limousines with high hats and striped pants.” But there was Charles Ives, as his nephew Brewster remembered being told by another member of Ives’s agency, who “could be spotted a mile away . . . there wasn’t a single man in Wall Street who didn’t know him” with that “crazy hat he’d wear.” He still was apparently wearing the same hat, or its equally disreputable descendant, thirty years later; by then it “had several holes in the top and was the darndest looking thing,” said another nephew. Lehman Engel was astonished by the genteel shabbiness of Ives’s house on East 74th Street. “It was a painfully plain house, so plain that you knew the people who lived in it must be wealthy, because poor people would have decorated it with something. There was absolutely no decoration. I’m sure that nothing new had been brought in; there’d been no reupholstering at any time ever.”
Ives’s terror of being photographed was legendary. “When is a man, not a man,” he wrote Slonimsky in a jokey note: “(ans.)=When he has his picture taken.” When Slonimsky persisted in trying to include a photo of the composer in some program notes for Three Places in New England, Ives reacted with more serious alarm: “Please No Picture of me or any nice man anywhere!” Lucille Fletcher, who was married at the time to the composer (and great Ives enthusiast) Bernard Herrmann, spent the better part of a year trying to write a profile of Ives for the New Yorker after John Kirkpatrick’s 1939 performance of the Concord Sonata at New York’s Town Hall brought him his first widespread public notice as a composer; Ives kept marking up her drafts, cutting out every personal detail, inserting a long description of his plan for a constitutional amendment for “having the people do more and the politicians do less,” plus an entire page simply listing by name anyone who had ever done anything to help have his music performed or published, until she just gave up. “He was very pleased, and he insisted on sending me a hundred dollars,” Fletcher recounted. “He really did not want any publicity.” Fletcher did stumble on one touch of Ives’s personal vanity, his apparent self-consciousness over his five-foot nine-inch height: possibly because his wife, Harmony, was a tall woman, he sometimes wore shoe lifts—a detail Ives embarrassedly insisted Fletcher remove from her first draft.
It was only in private that Ives ever revealed the true pride he felt in his accomplishments in the business and music worlds. He kept a collection of huge scrapbooks—there would be a dozen weighty, oversize volumes in all, stored at his home and at the Ives & Myrick insurance offices—in which he meticulously preserved every review, every concert program, every piece of insurance ad copy and even every business form letter he ever wrote, along with a hodgepodge of personal correspondence and reflections scribbled atop newspaper clippings and other miscellaneous scraps of paper. He spent an “inordinate amount of time” sorting, clipping, copying, and pasting all of these bits of memorabilia, something that struck his nephew Bigelow as “most unusual.” His aversion to the limelight was part of the natural diffidence of American men of his generation, but it was greatly intensified in Ives’s case by a lifelong sensitivity toward criticism that could border on the morbid, and by a kind of prideful self-affirmation that he had not sold out or compromised his integrity for mere fame. In an achingly moving letter on the occasion of his sixty-eighth birthday in 1942, his adopted daughter, Edith, begged her father not to let his touchy pride and deep-grained privacy cause him to keep spurning the public recognition that had at last come his way:
You are so very modest and sweet, Daddy, that I don’t think you realize the full import of the words people use about you, “A great man.” . . .
You have fire and imagination that is truly a divine spark, but to me the great thing about this is that never once have you tried to turn your gift to your own ends. Instead you have continually given to humanity right from your heart, asking nothing in return;—and all too often getting nothing. The thing that makes me happiest about your recognition today is to see the bread you have so generously cast upon most ungrateful waters, finally beginning to return to you. . . . Don’t refuse it because it comes so late, Daddy.
His wariness of success was rooted in a deeper wariness of the world. He was burdened by a feeling of not fitting in with life as he found it. At work he was the idea man: he dreamed up sales pitches, developed the first-ever classroom curriculums to train agents, worked out formulas for the amount of insurance a person actually needed based on their income and household expenses (literally no one had thought to do that before), drafted pamphlets and advertising copy quoting Emerson and extolling the social virtue of life insurance; it was his partner, Julian Myrick, who dealt day to day with the agents they supervised, and with the world at large. When Ives absolutely could not get out of attending a business function or event, such as the yearly lunch for the agency’s half-dozen or so supervisors, he would show up but always leave early.His private office was all the way at the back of the agency; a second door allowed him to duck out to the elevator lobby without anyone seeing him.
“A bad day underfoot misunderstood as usual,” Ives wrote in his diary one day in 1914:
If I could arrange my thoughts through my mouth as well as those that don’t reach the mouth—it would be much more comfortable for me—my mind & tongue find it hard to work in junction. I said something today to a man which gave him entirely the wrong impression. I knew when I was saying it, that it was almost opposite to what I had in my mind—yet I couldn’t say it any differently.
But, he then added in frustration, “Why couldn’t he feel what was in my mind & not stare at my mouth—he was something of a d[amned] f[ool].”
Moreover, like many of his class and generation, Ives was often oppressed with a sense that the onrush of industrial and technological progress of the new century, for all its wonders and good, had brought with it a coarsening and cheapening of civilization, full of thrusting commercialism, noise, vulgarity, self-promotion, and loss of dignity and privacy. He was never truly at home in the twentieth century. He hated airplanes, was suspicious of telephones, went for years without reading any newspapers. Slonimsky remembered seeing in the Iveses’ home only the Spectator, the British weekly conservative political journal, which Harmony subscribed to and which took six weeks to arrive by surface mail. He refused to own a radio; Edith Ives told Bernard Herrmann that she and her mother had to go over to a neighbor’s house to listen to the CBS Symphony broadcast in 1937 when Herrmann conducted the fugue from Ives’s Fourth Symphony. (Ives stayed home.)
His relationship with automobiles was uneasy, bordering on the comical. “He was really one of the world’s wildest drivers,” said Bigelow Ives. He acquired a Model T Ford shortly after he and Harmony bought their summer property in Redding, Connecticut, in 1912—and the family horse, Rocket, chose that moment to go lame. They used the car mostly just to get to the train station and back, a little over a mile each way. “We are getting to be quite experts with it (Harmony especially),” he boasted to his aunt Amelia. “We go as slow as we can. . . . Neither of us enjoy riding in it—per se—we use it as a matter of business.” Once when he took his nephew with him on a particularly ambitious drive of six miles, to the nearby town of Bethel, he leaned on the horn as they approached a narrow turn under a railroad bridge. “I was killed here once,” he explained, “and that was enough for me.” In one of his jotted musings around this time he concluded, “Automobile riding has dulled more minds than lives they’ve saved in going for the doctor.”
He scrawled a much more furious tirade about the evils of aviation across a shareholders’ report that arrived one day from the Curtis-Wright aircraft company: “Airplanes are becoming a public nuisance! If a man should operate a boiler factory in your attic without your permission, what would you do to him?” Then, characteristically, he pasted his reply, unsent, into one of his scrapbooks.
He had a disapproval of sexual vulgarity, explicitness, and nudity that would strike a later generation as prudery or inhibition but which he saw as a matter of respecting privacy and resisting cheap exploitation of what was fundamentally spiritual. When his friend Clifton Furness, who taught English at the New England Conservatory, mentioned “some pretty rank modern poetry,” Ives exploded: “Well why don’t poets nowadays drop love themes and such and treat something inspiring like evacuation of the bowels.” He complained that “the human anatomy can never be and has never been the inspiration for a great work of art. It’s a medium to be used in Gods service and not stared at by Gods servants.” (“A bed bug or a monkeys ear ought to be nobler stimulant for a true painter,” he added.) His taste in reading was quiet and Victorian: Dickens, Trollope, Austen, George Eliot, Thoreau, Emerson. Often Harmony would read aloud by the firelight after dinner, for hours. “When she finished their favorite novels, why, she’d start right over again,” remembered Ives’s son-in-law, George Tyler. Ives thought Eliot’s Middlemarch “the Greatest Novel.” His favorite artist was Turner. He attended a few plays in his early years in New York, and later in London when he traveled to Europe with Harmony and Edith in the 1920s and 1930s, but if he ever saw a movie there is no record of it.
To family and friends, Charlie and Harmony seemed “an almost ideal couple.” She placidly accepted his outbursts and estrangement from the world and what she once described to him as his “wild nature untamed”; along with their mutual love and devotion she plainly kept his wilder swings in check throughout their long life together. “Now don’t sit up too late & do get up at a reasonable hour you are a terrible person to leave alone,” she chided him once when they were separated for a few days while she visited her father in Hartford. “I am very glad you are really going to put a check on your profanity,” she wrote another time, a few years into their marriage. “I don’t mind an occasional appropriate expression—but frequent consecutive cursing such as you’ve indulged in lately is what I don’t like to hear—poor old lamb—you do get so mad, don’t you.” Late in life she confided to several close friends that Ives’s “excited, enthusiastic outbursts” at the one dinner party they had been invited to early in their marriage had effectively put an end to their social life. It had been “such a terrible experience for all concerned that she knew she could never accept another dinner invitation again,” John Kirkpatrick said. She put up with that, along with everything else.
His angry eruptions, to be sure, were almost always directed at abstractions and imaginary targets, just as his austerity was directed almost entirely at himself; to friends and to the men and women who worked for him he displayed a loyalty and generosity that were as unworldly and idealistic as were his quixotic furies at the wrongs of the world. He was that rarest of men, a practicing idealist. “There aren’t anything but ideals in the world,” he insisted, and his transcendental belief in the divine spark immanent in all mankind was evident in an almost fierce, practical egalitarianism. Julian Myrick was not indulging in hyperbole when he told Henry Cowell, Ives’s fellow composer and first biographer, that he “made many friends and never lost one . . . he was completely unselfish . . . no one in trouble ever went away without good advice and sometimes substantial financial aid.”
The targets of his wrath were “politicians”; laziness, ease, and complacency; the moneyed interests he was always convinced had too much power in the country; the “old ladies” and “soft-eared sissies” (almost never named) who wanted only “nice” music; the currying-to-the-establishment music critics whom he personified as the goody-two-shoes children’s book character “Rollo” . . . but when it came to individuals, it was literally impossible to find anyone he had ever made an enemy of or who had a bad word to say about Charles Ives as a human being. In the oral histories Vivian Perlis collected in the late 1960s and early 1970s from his surviving employees and coworkers, there is a tone of veneration for “Mr. Ives” verging on awe. Charlie Sommer, a down-on-his-luck Ives & Myrick sales agent, was literally awestruck by Ives’s sensitivity and generosity one day; Sommer walked past a fellow employee’s desk with tears in his eyes and told what had just happened, a story his coworker vividly recalled a half century later:
As Mr. Ives went out the door, this fellow said, “There is a great man.” He had had the experience for the past few months of not making any sales at all. Since we were wholly on a commission basis, if you didn’t sell you just didn’t eat. Charles Ives walked up to this man’s desk and he thought he looked rather dejected and said, “Charlie, do me a personal favor. Will you take out your wallet?” And he did. “Now,” he said, “open it.” Then he said, “Will you point it toward me?” The wallet was empty. Charles Ives said, “I thought so. No one can ever make a sale of anything with an empty wallet. Now, I want you to take this as a business loan. I know you’ll have so much confidence with what I am going to put in that wallet that you will pay me back, and I don’t want an I.O.U. or anything else.” And he put fifty dollars in there. . . .
Fifty dollars then was the equivalent of more than a thousand dollars in the currency of the early twenty-first century. In 1917, just after America’s entry into World War I, Ives received an appeal sent to Yale alumni from the American Field Service, asking each of the college’s classes to raise $1,000, the cost of purchasing one car to help equip a Yale-sponsored ambulance unit in France. A few days later he sent a personal check for the entire sum.
To young composers and musicians advancing the cause of modern music, he was if anything more generous—indeed, generous to a fault—constantly sending checks for $100 here and there, along with more substantial patronage of major projects. For years in the 1930s and 1940s he single-handedly kept alive Cowell’s music publication series New Music, contributing regular monthly payments that usually totaled $1,500 a year. The Arrow Music Press, cofounded in 1937 by Lehman Engel and the American composers Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Marc Blitzstein, approached Ives about publishing some of his works; Ives not only insisted from the outset in paying the full costs of engraving and printing his pieces, but he added that since he did not “feel quite right in paying for mine only, when quite probably there is much music of others, especially of the younger men, which ought to be published,” he would “send you the same amount for other music.” Pledging $500, a full year’s operating expenses, to rescue the publication Modern Music in 1945, he insisted on absolute secrecy—even from the organization’s board—so that none of the members, “or anyone for that matter,” might “feel under any obligation to him in any way whatsoever. . . . Please let this matter rest as an anonymous sub-contra bass chord in a minor key.”
He often tactfully described his monetary gifts to struggling young protégés as loans, or as payment for work done to help get his scores in order (“You won’t be a celebrated musician unless you learn to send out bills,” he joshingly admonished Henry Cowell), or as reimbursements for travel expenses. He sometimes implied that the gifts were Harmony’s doing, or just made a dismissive joke about the check he had tucked into the envelope: “Enclosed find reading matter,” or “The enclosed is but a mark of respect between one citizen and another.”In 1947 he sent $250 to the composer Lou Harrison to help cover the costs of his sudden hospitalization for schizophrenia, $250 to New Music, and $250 to the composer John Becker—telling each that it was half of the $500 he had just received for the Pulitzer Prize. (“Daddy says to tell you that the enclosed check is not from him, but from that ‘ole Pulitzer feller,’” Edith Ives wrote Becker.)
His relationship to his friends was marked by the same extravagant loyalty. He was, in Slonimsky’s words, “very biased” when it came to standing up for those he once admitted to his inner circle. He never had many intimate friendships after his Yale years: Charles Kauffman thought his detachment was not “aloofness” but necessity—it was his “caring too much that made the detachment necessary.” Ives’s growing health troubles from the 1930s on gave him an additional excuse to avoid people and the world, and he saw fewer and fewer visitors as time went on. But with kindred spirits like Slonimsky—Ives was tickled from the start by Slonimsky’s extrovert enthusiasm, raconteur’s love for irreverent anecdotes (many exposing the pomposity of celebrated figures in the music world, like the conductor Serge Koussevitzky), and accounts of reading Mark Twain in Russian as a boy in St. Petersburg—he took an unalloyed pleasure, talking for hours when they met and maintaining a spirited correspondence, even as his handwriting degenerated into a shaky scrawl and he kept his distance from other correspondents by having his wife and daughter act as intermediaries.
In his prime years he was working so hard he had little time for cultivating friendships, even had he been so inclined. A form that arrived for his twenty-fifth Yale reunion from his class secretary requested information about recent activities, including “your recreations . . . hobbies and special interests.” He replied, “Dear Julien: As you know I’m a nice fellow, and have no hobbies, special interests or other bad habits to report.” Starting out in the insurance business he apparently often worked until late at night, and even in his later years he frequently was in the office on Saturdays. Coming home at night, “he could hardly wait for dinner to be over, and he was at the piano. Often he went to bed at 2 or 3 a.m.,” Harmony Ives told the New York Times in 1949.
After they built their house in Redding and began spending summers there, Ives would commute each day to his job in New York, two hours on the train each way between Redding and Grand Central Station. When he took time off to stay in the country for a few weeks, he filled his days with an arduous schedule of farm work—planting and digging potatoes, chopping wood, getting the hay in—and musical composition, the latter presumably what he was referring to with the facetious designation “Hard work” in the daily program he wrote out for himself:
6.30 up & at them
6.45–7.30 chores (fire, coal, pump, spring water, etc.)
8.15–11.00 Hard work
11–12.30 Farm work
2–6 Farm work & wood & water trees
6–6.30 Rest (hard work)
6.30–7.30 dinner (big)
7.30–8 smoke & talk
8–9 read (Jim to barn)
9– to bed
(“Jim” was the dog; the Iveses also had a gray cat, Christofina, who became a minor local celebrity for living nearly to age thirty, and for her repertoire of unusual habits, including eating asparagus off the table.)
Ives’s compositional output during the period from 1902 when, at age twenty-seven, he “resigned as a nice organist and gave up music” as he flippantly put it, and 1918, when his diagnosis of diabetes marked the beginning of the end of both his business and musical careers, was phenomenal. He wrote nearly all of his most important works during this decade-and-a-half-long burst of unbelievable creative energy: the Second, Third, and Fourth Symphonies, The Unanswered Question, the First Piano Sonata and Concord Sonata, Three Places in New England, the movements of the New England Holidays Symphony, two string quartets, four violin sonatas, dozens of smaller works. The conductor and Ives editor James Sinclair has estimated that a recording of all of Ives’s hundreds of compositions would fill twenty-six compact discs.
Ives had been a virtuoso organist and pianist since his teenage years and worked naturally at the keyboard; most of his first sketches of pieces were written as piano reductions on two staves so he could try them out and work on them at the keyboard. In a letter to Herrmann in 1945 he explained that even when it came to producing a full score, he wrote out the instrumental lines that were usually transposed—horns in F, trumpets and clarinets in B-flat—at their actual pitches and put the viola line in the treble and bass clefs rather than the standard (but unfamiliar to pianists) alto clef, “because he used to play over his scores many times on the piano in this way often getting in more readily most all of the notes in the orchestral parts.” The conductor and composer John Adams thought that even the monumental Fourth Symphony, with its complex planes of layered sounds, was really “a piano piece that’s been expanded to gigantic size.”
But seated at the piano Ives was not so much creating something in a moment of improvisatory inspiration as he was trying to reproduce and capture what he had already heard in his mind. Given his limited time to work, evenings and weekends and vacations, “I got into the habit of carrying things in my mind which were not put down, or only partly put down, on paper,” he explained. Kirkpatrick said that Ives maintained “he could hear everything he wrote in his imagination, and I think it’s true.” Lou Harrison, who edited the Third Symphony and conducted its premiere in 1946, agreed: “I believe that he knew every note he’d ever written no matter what a mess it was in or where it was.”
Ives always faced a tremendous psychological barrier in finishing a piece and would often continue making revisions for years, even decades, after first conceiving a composition. Preparing the second edition of the Concord Sonata, which was published in 1947 after eight years of revisions and ten proofs, the engraver finally protested that the metal plates had been scraped so thin to accommodate each successive round of changes Ives had sent in that they literally could stand no further alteration.
While he undoubtedly suffered from the same trepidation toward releasing a creation to the public eye that paralyzed a writer like Virginia Woolf, it was not indecisiveness that led him to engage in endless revision; he often expressed frustration that he was never quite able to get the notes on paper to reflect his true intention. In some ways, as the composer and critic David Schiff observed, this was because Ives was trying to notate what had never before been notated, what was indeed unnotatable, the sounds of music as experienced in the real world, at times descending almost into literal chaos. But Ives insisted that even a piece like the Concord Sonata, which he probably played parts of every day for most of his life, just did not sound the same each time; he drove a perfectionist like John Kirkpatrick to distraction about this, but he finally explained in reply to Kirkpatrick’s insistent questions about which of multiple alternate versions was the definitive one that the ideal form existed only in his mind, and even that depended, “sometimes, on the time of day it is heard—at sunrise that wide chord—and at sunset maybe with an overtone. . . . some music, like a landscape, though fundamentally the same, may have changing colors during a cosmic horizon, and as you know the oak tree in May doesn’t always play the same tune [the] way that it plays (shouts out) in October.”
He remarked to Clifton Furness rather more earthily, “After you get an idea written down it’s no good. Why when I see the notes I write down on the page and think of what I wanted it to sound like—why—It’s dead! It’s lousy with maggots!” He told Furness that the things that were wrong with a piece seemed to “crop up out of the corrected manuscript all the time just like stones come up in the spring in a cleared field at Redding.”
The chaos of his unpublished scores was almost frightening. There were corrections written on corrections, fragmentary patches scribbled on completely unrelated scores, scraps of paper bearing cryptic clues; sometimes he abandoned the most recent version of a piece and returned to his earliest sketches, marking new ideas directly on them; other times he tore pieces apart to make several new ones or combined several earlier pieces into a single new and larger work. John Kirkpatrick spent years after Ives’s death piecing Ives’s scores together and untangling the mess. (It was no coincidence, James Sinclair thought, that Kirkpatrick had a “pathological love for jigsaw puzzles.”)
To many of the contemporary modernist composers who first discovered Ives’s music in the 1930s, and to more than a few critics since, the great flaw in his compositions was their overcomplexity and disorder; even an avid admirer like Bernard Herrmann thought that Ives’s long isolation from the world of practical music making, the years he composed with intense fervor without ever hearing a single public performance of his pieces, allowed him to sidestep “the realistic problems” of making a piece of music work. Aaron Copland wrote an important and mostly admiring appraisal of Ives’s songs in 1934 that did much to put Ives on the musical map but that also lamented his lack of “self-criticism which only actual performance and public reaction can bring. This indispensable check on the artist Ives never had. . . . he lacked neither the talent, nor the ability, nor the métier, nor the integrity of the true artist—but what he most shamefully and tragically lacked was an audience . . . an audience which demands and rejects music—which acts as a stimulus and a brake.”
Other contemporary American composers more cattily resented the financial independence that Ives’s business success had allowed him, freeing him from the need to compete in the often cutthroat musical world, as they had to. Virgil Thomson sniffed that Ives’s “divided allegiance” between the worlds of business and art had left “fatal scars . . . on virtually all his music”; it had been “crippled” by his “gentility” and “not giving one’s all to art.” (That was ironic, given Thomson’s divided career as critic and composer and his notorious obsession with money.)
But Copland later revised his views, acknowledging that Ives’s music was so unusual, his originality so profound, that the normal rules just did not apply to his case. It was not just that Ives was so far ahead of his time, anticipating the innovations of Copland’s own later generation of self-consciously modernist composers—”a daring spirit who wrote bold dissonances and cross-rhythms . . . it’s hard to name a single innovation of the ’20s that can’t be found in music Ives wrote in the first years of the twentieth century,” Copland said in 1965—but there was something “so humanly moving” about so much of his music that Copland admitted he could never quite explain. “Ives may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but that’s their problem,” he said on another occasion. “You’re not going to get me to say anything bad about him.”Even a critic like Tim Page of the New York Times, who remained hostile to Ives’s music as late as the 1980s (Page regularly dismissed Ives as a “basement tinkerer” who knocked out “ditties” on Sundays), admitted that “it is impossible not to respect the questing, independent spirit in his music.”
Those who knew Ives instantly saw the man in his music. His brother-in-law the Reverend Joseph Twichell went to hear Kirkpatrick perform “Hawthorne” and “The Alcotts” from the Concord Sonata in Danbury in January 1940 and wrote Ives afterward that while he himself did not know “a d—— thing about music” and frankly had been expecting “a tough afternoon,” he had “enjoyed that afternoon’s music more than any other music I remember ever hearing. It seemed to me the most honest music I ever listened to.” It also, he said, made him “homesick as the devil.” Slonimsky thought there was an otherworldly quality and power to Ives’s music that simply defied categorization; its evocation of a sense of memory and nostalgia and of the experience of music being made, the way its massive harmonies and rhythmic complexities would give way in moments to “clearings of serene, cerulean beauty,” made it completely “unlike any ‘modern’ music of the day.”
The New York Times critic Harold Schonberg was another who noted the magically and “curiously evocative” quality of Ives’s work. “It was not only the most unusual body of music ever composed by an American,” Schonberg wrote in 1974 at the time of the many celebrations of the centennial of Ives’s birth. “It was probably the most unusual body of music composed by any musician in history.”
In a 1970 interview Copland acknowledged that his previous insistence that Ives’s music “would have been much better if he had an audience” was “very debatable. I mean, it might have been or it might not have been.” Most likely it would have been neither: it simply would not have existed but for the singular path Charles Ives charted and lived, a creative life as unusual as the unusual musical vision he imagined.