Ives Primer 2: His Significance

c1948 photo: Clara Sipprell
courtesy Yale Music Library

Great people transcend their time.  Better, for those of us following, they define it.  Charles Ives’ accomplishments are tangible in the substantial body of work composed until his health failed him in his mid-fifties, around 1927.  Even more importantly, he has become recognized as the true father of American music, breaking ground for confident innovators of a generation later such as Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and John Cage.  Thanks to his insurance business fortune, he would also provide economic encouragement along with the inspirational.

Ives’ daring musical experiments firmly established a national musical identity free of the dead hand of historical Europe, whose musical hegemony he was among the first to challenge.  He set the example that has informed progressive music since: new is good.  Ives became American music’s defining grand old man.

His progressive student inclinations might have cost him his Yale degree.  However, he bowed to his conservative teacher and concluded his first, student thesis symphony in the key in which it started, instead of moving elsewhere, an innovation he had preferred.  It’s a bland, easy-going piece.  But by his last numbered symphony, the fourth, he incorporates raucous, all-American vernacular gestures, culminating in his most well-known effect, that of a marching band passing by an open window completely out of time with the progress of the symphony.

Some of his most groundbreaking work is in the two orchestral ‘sets’, which he might have called symphonies had they been less exuberantly original, filled to bursting with fresh ideas which often draw on folk culture even while using characteristically tough harmony and radical structure.  The section names themselves evoke a nation growing in self-confidence: Central Park In The Dark, Boston Common, The Housatonic At Stockbridge.  Ives had transcended the cultural dependence of his contemporaries.

His abstract work was no less innovative, and today still defines its own stylistic space.  The chamber music, notably the classic Concord Sonata for piano (with flute), and other dramatic orchestral works such as The Unanswered Question, built on a fresh American intellectual base first articulated in the previous century notably by Emerson and Thoreau.  The Robert Browning Overture still sounds startling today.  Much of his work would lie unplayed, even for decades.  His greatest abstract work of all, the Universe Symphony, had to wait until 1996 for its definitive performing version.  It was ironic that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his third symphony, one year after its premiere but 38 years after its completion.

Charles Ives pulled off the double trick of composing an extensive, inspiring, enduring and passionate body of work while exercising the daring that continues to inspire composers, even beyond the United States.  He continues to provoke respect and controversy equally.  Truly, the American Original.

download a bundle of four five-minute excerpts
from the Universe Symphony (18Mb): mp3 | m4a

To Ives Primer 3: His Universe Symphony

Ives Primer 1: His Life
Ives Primer 2: His Significance
Ives Primer 3: His Universe Symphony
Ives: Short Biography
Ives Downloads and Resources

Symphonic Tradition And The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Of Pitch And Time: Delivering The Universe Symphony, by Johnny Reinhard
Interview (2005) with Johnny Reinhard about the Universe Symphony

Performers of the Universe Symphony
Recording the Universe Symphony: the producer's note
Recording the Universe Symphony: the sound engineer's note

Thumbnail links to selected Ives site illustrations

Premiere Previews and Reviews:
New York Times June 2 1996
(Richard Taruskin)
New York Times June 8 1996
(Alex Ross)
Village Voice April 5 1995 (Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 4 1996
(Kyle Gann)
Village Voice June 25 1996
(Kyle Gann)

To Johnny Reinhard's home at the Stereo Society