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During the late 19th century into the 20th century, a radical new, truly American composer broke all the rules to help music incorporate new ideas that were to help make music what it is today. Charles Ives was this man, a man from Danbury Connecticut, whom use new ideas in his music from the very beginning of his musical experiences. Born in New England, his idea’s spread world wide and eventually influenced many in the music world, using radical new theoretical ideas in his music. His music is a taste that is acquired; some of it is so bizarre that one can only cringe listening to it. But his music IS music; every note written was for a reason that could be explained. He was the first American composer to write American music, with it’s own style. The tradition before Ives was that composers would be sent to Europe to be trained musically, and therefore wrote in a European style. Ives was born and raised in Connecticut, and his father, George Ives, gave him most of his musical training. A great innovator, his father had been in charge of the Army’s Band during the Civil war, and gained acknowledgment of General Grant and President Lincoln. Charles Ives wrote many of his pieces incorporating folk tunes and music commonly heard and played in America. He wrote one of his most famous pieces, Variations on America, at the age of Seventeen. Clearly, Charles Ives is a composer who’s innovation and accomplishment paved a new road for American Composition, and ways, brought new musical ideas to the whole world.
Charles Ives: A Basic Timeline of his life
Charles Edward Ives was born in Danbury Connecticut October of 1874, son of George and Mary Elizabeth Ives. George Ives was a great band master of the area, and directed many of the area’s local bands. George also had a fascination in doing innovative things. He was known to get all the different marching bands he directed together and play different pieces with different keys and different time signatures at the same time . Charles started his musical experiences at an early age, his father George acting as his teacher, ‘who ultimately had the greatest influence on him’ . George devoted himself to teaching all the music his son could absorb. His was given instruction in piano, violin, and cornet (which was George’s favorite instrument). After some time, George started teaching theory to his son with these lessons, which included all the fundamentals of harmony and counterpoint, two aspects of music theory most important to composers. Charles picked up everything with ease, making his father proud. What made George a better teacher for his son was his special ideas about teaching. George encouraged experimentation as long as Charles knew the rules behind it . Ives was greatly influenced by this later in his career, in his works: “..I felt that, if I have done anything that is good in music, I owe it almost entirely to him and his influence” George made up ‘ear-stretching’ exercises for his son to try. One of these ‘ear-stretching’ exercises included singing ‘Swanee River’ in Eb Major while playing the same thing on the piano in the key of C Major. Although extremely difficult, these experiments eventually were done with ease when Charles reached the age of eleven. George and Charles also explored ‘accidental music’; music produced by people playing different tunes at the same time, or activities such as conversations between people . These ‘accidents’ were later worked into Charles’ works. George Ives also started influencing his son with Quarter Tones, or the tones in between the half tones that form the chromatic scale. George even went as far as to build a quarter tone machine, which was an instrument built with twenty four violin strings stretched across a clothes press. He taught his son and his other students how to sing the quarter tone scales on his spare time . He even, at one point, had four of his bands play in four different places in the same area creating an Antiphonal effect, and would sometimes have them play in different keys. This didn’t go over too well with the locals. But Charles gained a lot from those experiences. By age ten, he felt the urge to write, using his father creative method of teaching. One of his first pieces was a durge for his Cat, Chin Chin. Before long, he was asked to write music by other people for their dead pets! On memorial day of 1888, the Danbury band played ‘Holiday Quickstep’, a march Charles had composed a few months earlier. However, we was too embarrassed to take his usual place at the snare drum, and instead he when out to play baseball with his peers. Charles Ives childhood was not all music. He was socially ahead, he never had problems with his peers. He was involved with many of Danbury’s activities. As a good athlete, and concerned of what his classmates thought of him, he was quite sensitive of what his peers thought of him. When asked what Charles played, he would always reply ‘I play shortstop’ .’Holiday Quick Step’ was a success, and he was praised even in the local newspaper for his accomplishment. He always did very well in high school, and played many sports, probably explaining why his music had so much energy into it. In addition to all this, Charles had become quite a good organist. At age eleven, began to study organ, and by age 13 he had a job playing at a Baptist Church. It was there he gave Organ Recitals, playing Rossini, Bach, and Mendolsohn. The locals believed that he’d become a great organist of renown. What they did not know, however, was that he was an equally talented composer, especially at his age of 16 at the time. It was at age 17 that Charles wrote one of his most famous pieces, his ‘Variations on “America”’ his first experimental piece, which was written in two different keys that were played at the same time, or polytonally . This was directly related to Charles ‘Ear Stretching’ Experiments. Charles graduated high school to go to Yale University, where his original ideas were drown out in a strictly conformist environment. He still had time for music, but he had other academic classes that he took that were of great importance to him also. His idea’s were shunned by his teacher, Horatio Parker, who wrote many religious pieces, and discouraged Charles Originality because they broke textbook rules. His friends were great innovators, also. Henery Cowell was one of them, who also used radical musical idea’s in his compositions. Henry Cowell was innovative in that he played within the piano, rather than playing by depressing the piano’s key’s, which the instrument was intended to be played. By doing so he created an instrument sounding halfway between a harp and a Hungarian Cimbalom . Cowell also invented Note Clusters, which is when all the adjacent notes on a piano keyboard are depressed at once . It was three weeks into his time at Yale, when his father died. This was a great loss to Charles, for his father was the major source of encouragement from the very beginning. He was lucky enough to have a close friend, names John Cornelieus Griggs, who was a musician himself. He encouraged Ives to even play his pieces in church, even when the congregation did not approve: “Never you mind what the ladies’ committee says, my opinion is that God must get awfully tired of hearing the same thing over and over again, and in his all-embracing wisdom he could certainly embrace a dissonance-might even enjoy one now and then” . In 1898, Charles Ives graduated from Yale and got into the Insurance Business, worried that starting off as a musician would not allow him to have the freedom to write. So he planned to make money first, then retire early and write music at his leisure. He started work for Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1898, and quickly became quite successful, still devoting all his free time to music. The only time he had to himself were meals with his roommates, or occasionally, a concert at Carnage Hall. He wrote a few symphonies, using hymns and folk tunes which he had played for the Presbyterian Church around 1901. Ives’ works did not receive it’s premiere right away; his 3rd Symphony did not until 1947, and it was premiered with the New York Little Symphony orchestra, and Ives’ was awarded with the Pulitzer Prize for it. In a concert in New York in 1939, people began to grasp the depth of Ives’ music. In 1902, Charles Ives wrote his Second Symphony, at a mere 27 years of age. Audiences had never really been moved by the quality that Ives’ had tried hardest to instill in his music; a universal spirit . The piece performed was Ives’ Concord Sonata, and was conducted by John Kirkpartick, who spent ten years getting to know the piece well enough to conduct it. He did not let his new found fame get to his head, remembering all the criticism of his work in his early years . Charles Ives died on May 19th, 1954, in New York City. His funeral was attended by a few close family and friends, including John Kirkpatrick.
Charles Ives’ Second Symphony
During 1902, when Charles was 27, he wrote his Second Symphony. From Charles history, his father brought him up playing the classics, such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner - as well as the traditional folksong, patriotic marches, etc. In Ives’ Second Symphony, all these can be found in his work, from Beethoven’s Fifth to the Fiddling of Turkey in the Straw. There are also references to other classical works that Ives’ worked into the Second Symphony, such as Wagner’s Tristan and Walkure, Bach, Bruckner, and Dvorak. But the amazing part of the whole piece is, that Ives’ Second symphony never actually SOUNDS like any of those pieces; it sounds like Ives . Apart from some of his other works, the Second Symphony sounds like it all fits (Except for the very ending which everyone plays one huge note cluster-like pounding on all the keys on a piano at once). There are some who even believe that Ives’ Second Symphony is one of the most Beautiful written by an American composer . In one of the movements of the Second Symphony, the theme breaks off into what is obviously America The Beautiful and then returns into the rest of the movement. You can hear the Patriotic Marches in the last movement with a piccolo and snare leading the rest of the orchestra. You can also hear Ives’ innovation; modulations by half steps, etc. Although his other works may sound harsh, Ives’ Second Symphony clearly shows that he knew exactly what he was doing. In conclusion, many who are involved with music still cannot accept some of Ives’ music because of it’s harsh nature. But once understood, it can be exciting to play, and Ives’ ideas themselves interesting to experiment on. When listening to a piece in the same key the whole piece, one can easily become bored of the same repetition of chords and harmonies. What makes music interesting is to hear such a sudden change AND understand that change to get the feeling when a change happens of ‘WOW’. Ives’ was set apart from others because his pieces used dissonaces and Polytones throughout the whole entire piece, and not just sections of it. Therefor, Ives’ music is going to still be heard hundreds of years from now; because it is truly unique and still to be understood by many.
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  2. 2. Hamm, Charles; Nettl, Bruno; Byrnside, Ronald Contemporary Music and Music Cultures Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.© 1975.
  3. 3. Burkholder, J. Peter; (CD program notes) Charles Ives Symphony No. 2 Performed by New York Philharmonic, Conducted by Leonard Bernstein; Deutche Grammophon (Producer) © 1990.
  4. 4. The New Oxford Companion to Music Volume A-J CHARLES IVES (Pg.963) Smith, Elizabeth Oxford University Press, Walton Street, Oxford, London (England)
  5. 5. Music’s Connecticut Yankee: An Introduction to the Life & Music of Charles Ives
  6. Sive, Helen R. The Book Press, Brattleboro, Vermont © 1977