2009-10-20

Charles Ives

Today marks the 135th birthday of composer Charles Ives (1874-1954).

Ives did not shy from clangs and bangs but he was a romantic at heart. That's what makes his music so American. As Walt Whitman was for poetry, Ives was for music.

Biographer Jan Swafford describes the composer's philosophy:

For Ives, music is not mere sound but the underlying spirit, human and divine, which the sounds express even in the inexpert playing and singing of amateurs. Thus the paradox of Ives's music, echoing his paradoxical person: he could be realistic, comic, transcendent, simple, complex, American, and European, all at the same time. If some of his music seems crowded nearly to bursting, it is a vibrant and entirely realistic portrayal of his conception of life, his sense of democracy in action, and of his own all-embracing consciousness. As Ives once said, 'Music is life.'


The Music Encyclopedia puts the matter succinctly: 'The only consistent characteristic of this music is liberation from rule.'

Everyone has been to a parade and heard a marching band pass, playing a quickstep march in E-flat, while another band a block away is striking up a circus march in F and 'Turkey in the Straw' jingles from an ice cream truck around the corner, all as crowds cheer and children shout and fireworks pop. We've all been there.

Ives's idea of giving us that scene in music wasn't to sand corners and varnish everything to a gloss. He sought to render it more as life hands it to us in the wild. He invites us to notice how very much is going on all around us, to take it all in as best we may and come to a deeper appreciation.

He heard America singing. He helped it find its voice.

Charles Ives Society

Jan Swafford: 'Charles Ives: A Life with Music' (Ives Society)

Charles Ives (Answers.com)

Ives biography (Schirmer)

Ives recordings (Schirmer)

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Conductor's Notebook

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