Let me add my own small voice in recommending Stephen Budiansky‘s Mad Music, a biography of American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) released last year. Much smaller, my voice, than those of Leon Botstein in the Wall Street Journal (“a first-rate introduction geared to the general public. … Mr. Budiansky lures the reader into the mystery of Ives’s life, and the eccentric power of his music, in prose free from jargon and pretense”) and Sudip Bose in the Washington Post (“[a] superb and genial biography”), but let me add it nonetheless and promise that you won’t be disappointed.
As Botstein points out, this is a biography for a general readership — and, since Ives is an acquired taste, it is therefore most welcome. Ives was arguably the first great American composer, devising a distinctly American kind of music (even Scott Joplin looked to European models in his attempt to legitimize ragtime), and it was met at first with ridicule and even contempt, not least because, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ives perceived that a distinctly American content required, for its aspirations to transcendental art, a distinctly American form. Many of Ives’s compositions were based on the hymns and band music he heard as a New England youth, growing up in the intellectual shade of Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the Alcotts as well as the musical shade of John Philip Sousa (Ives’s father was himself a professional band leader for a few years during his early manhood and made sure his children, like many parents of the time, received at least a rudimentary musical education). Budiansky paints a vivid picture of New England musical culture at the end of the 19th century, a culture that Ives would mine and even cannibalize for his own work.
Shortly after his graduation from Yale, Ives entered the insurance industry in New York and rapidly rose to the top of his profession, which had recently been decimated by a series of financial scandals. It was a full-time job and it made Ives rich. (It also made Ives generous; Budiansky lists Ives’s extensive donations to the careers of many young composers and new music publications, and touchingly details his financial and emotional support of Henry Cowell, who had been imprisoned in 1936 on a “morals” charge — Cowell was homosexual.) Ives’s musical output, however, was still prodigious, at least until he began to suffer from the ravages of diabetes several years before insulin therapy was generally available. In 1918 he stopped writing music almost entirely, devoting the rest of his life to preparing final versions of his earlier compositions.
It may be a simplification to say that Ives was a “Transcendentalist” composer as Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts were “Transcendentalist” writers, but there’s evidence that the label is not unfair. “We return to reason and faith,” Emerson wrote in Nature, a central Transcendentalist essay. “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Not to push the point too much, Ives in his music and his writings made a pleading for a “transparent ear,” somehow confronting and becoming absorbed in all of natural experience and God through surrender to a particular soundworld, in this case the soundworld that Ives attempted to reconstruct through his memories of childhood and youth.
Ives was, along with Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, among the first masters of an American vernacular, rejecting Old World practice and tradition for a New World art. The similarities don’t end there; Ives, like Whitman and Twain, was condemned for his seeming vulgarity; Ives, like Whitman and Twain, forged new forms and structures in his chosen discipline (though, it must be said, form and structure were not strong points in the work of any of these three men). In his 1837 speech “The American Scholar,” Emerson had insisted that it was time for the new nation to create its own art distinct from that of the Old World. It was twenty years before Whitman and Twain would do so in literature, apparently sixty or so years before Ives did so in music. There have been a few Americans who have done so in theater, but they were not O’Neill, Williams, and Miller, who remained straitened by melodramatic and European forms, however vernacular their dialogue.
So do yourself a favor and open yourself to Ives and this new biography. You will be encouraged to seek Ives out, who still remains something of a jewel in the exclusive hands of the academic and critical professoriate. Try, for a start, Ives’ 1908 The Unanswered Question below; the piece likely took its title from Emerson’s “The Sphinx.” There is a short text about the connection between the Ives piece and the Emerson poem here. In the below performance, Rutger van Leyden conducts Combustion Chamber in the work.