Charles Ives: Biography, Music & Songs

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Iconoclast Charles Ives was the first American composer to successfully abandon the European music tradition. In this lesson we will learn how the music of rural America and experiments in sound paved the way for a new American music.

Charles Ives, Ahead of His Time

You might never guess that the most experimental composer in America at the turn of the 20th century was a professional insurance salesman, but such is the case. Charles Ives, often called the 'Yankee maverick' by his contemporaries, sold insurance by day and composed wildly cutting edge music by night. He was and still remains a powerful influence in the development of American contemporary concert music.

A True Yankee Boy

Charles Ives as a boy
Photo of Charles Ives as a boy

Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut on Oct. 20, 1874. The traditional music of this era comprised church hymns, brass bands, circus music, patriotic songs, revival tunes, and holiday songs. Everything Ives heard settled deeply into his artistic soul. His family life offered a great deal of musical exposure as well. His father George had been a bandmaster for the Union Army in the Civil War. After the war he continued to teach music, conduct bands and choirs, and play the cornet in Danbury. His father's love of many different kinds of music had a tremendous influence on young Charles.

When Charles, at age five, showed an interest in the piano by banging on the keys with his fists, George decided to teach him piano and also sent him to drum lessons. Charles became an accomplished pianist, but he soon found he preferred the organ. He began playing the organ for church services in adolescence and was a salaried organist by age fourteen.

Postcard of downtown Danbury, 1907
Postcard Danbury, CT., 1907

Ives began composing at this time as well. His earliest works are simple marches and songs for church. At age seventeen he composed Variations on America for organ. This frequently performed work was a harbinger of the direction his mature music would take. It is one of the earliest examples of polytonal music. Polytonal music is music that has more than one tonal center played simultaneously. For example, the right hand might play in the key of C while the left hand plays in the key of A. Polytonality, the use of a popular American tune, dissonant harmonies, rhythmic complexity, and an overall sheer inventiveness previously unheard in proper musical circles became the hallmarks of the Charles Ives style.

Yale University

Ives attended Yale University to study music with Horatio Parker. Parker had studied composition in Germany, and while he was a fine musician and composer, he was also deeply embedded in the old European romantic traditions. Parker did not appreciate Ives' experiments with harmony and counterpoint, which is the playing of more than one melody simultaneously. Ives had to tone down his music and follow the traditional theory rules for his teacher. In spite of this, he received an excellent and much needed education in the basic elements of composition such as form, orchestration, counterpoint, and harmony.

Productive years

In 1898 Ives left Yale to work in the insurance business in New York. He was a talented businessman and eventually started his own company, Ives and Myrick. His financial success freed him to compose to his heart's delight, without constraints placed by patrons, critics, or performers who might find his experiments daunting.

The years 1908-1927 proved to be his most productive. The orchestra works Three Places in New England, Holidays, and Fourth Symphony all date from this period. Each of these pieces quote fragments of American music juxtaposed against each other. This juxtaposition creates polytonality, dissonance, and complicated rhythms. To some listeners his music sounded like a jumbled mess, but Ives believed that all sound is potentially music. Thus, each composition is a sonic feast dense with variety.

In addition to large orchestra works, Ives composed numerous chamber pieces. One of the most famous is The Unanswered Question. Composed either in 1906 or 1908, this work (scored for string quartet, woodwind quartet, and trumpet) employed spatial design as part of the music. The original instructions were for the string quartet to sit offstage. Ives used distance in space as a creative element and unknowingly influenced generations of future composers in the field of 'spatial music.'

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