Charles Ives (1874-1954) pioneered a musical vision certainly unlike any that came before him and which, I believe, remains unequaled to this day — in its sheer originality, and its uniquely powerful evocation of memory, nostalgia, and the emotional resonances of musical associations.
From 1902 — when, as a young insurance clerk and part-time church organist, Ives impetuously declared that he had decided to “give up music” and all of his dreams of ever making a living as a composer — two decades would pass before he would again have any of his works receive notice in the musical press.
But during those incredible two decades, before Americans had ever heard Stravinsky or Schoenberg, Ives would not only break musical ground with a bold modernistic vision of music filled with multiple planes of sound, of brash dissonances, of battling tonalities and rhythms: he would also compose what Aaron Copland would later call some of the most “humanly moving” music ever produced by an American, music that had an eerie and uncanny power to evoke in the listener the experience of remembering music as it was performed in the real world of nineteenth century America . . . the village band, the small-town “opera” house, the camp meeting, the Fourth of July parade . . . all suffused with the emotional distortions of memory and nostalgia.
Charles Ives would also live one of the most unusual and extraordinary creative lives of the twentieth century, becoming a millionaire with his innovative ideas of selling life insurance, all the while clinging to a nineteenth century New England transcendentalist ideal of the divine spark that was inherent in every man’s soul.
Ives was part genius, part crank, part philanthropic idealist, part everyman American.
Mad Music is the culmination of a decade of my own absorbing fascination with Ives and his music and the nineteenth century New England milieu from which he sprang. I’ve tried to explain the incredible power of his artistic vision, explore his life, and delve into the inspirations and ideals that shaped his unique character.