Charles Ives

The question of Ives’s influence is a vexing issue.  He is almost universally acclaimed as America’s first true great composer and widely acknowledged as a leading figure of early modernism (though his work was unknown at the time), alongside other contemporary giants like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartok.  At the same time, little of his actual musical practice has found followers in succeeding generations of composers.   In that sense Ives remains unique among these other composers.  Perhaps his work is simply too idiosyncratic to allow for easy adoption by others; his influence can more easily be felt on an abstract level as a model for a certain kind of “American” sound.  Big, rugged, expansive, without the learned polish of European music, this sound has found resonance in the years since.  In this elemental “American-ness,” Copland, Bernstein, Carter, Wuorinen, and many others have found a profound and fertile basis for their own music.

Early Life and Studies

Charles Edward Ives was born in 1874 in Danbury Connecticut.  His father was a musician and a band director and Ives was surrounded throughout his childhood with the sound of vernacular American music, something that was to have a profound effect on his later concert compositions. He studied piano and organ as a child, becoming a highly proficient performer and improviser as evidenced by the fact that he held the position of organist in a succession of churches from the age of fourteen until his late twenties.  Ives studied the basics of music theory with his father and seemed to have an early disposition towards experimentation and innovation with musical materials.

Ives went to Yale University in 1894, and while there participated in a wide range of musical activities.  He continued his primary association with church music and organ performance, but he also wrote a great deal of occasional music: marches, pieces for the glee club, fraternity songs, theater music, etc.  At Yale Ives likewise began a serious study of Western classical music for the first time under the tutelage of the American composer Horatio Parker.

Ives was a diligent student of music (though less so in his other subjects), but upon graduation in 1898 he moved to New York City and began what became a lifelong career in the life insurance industry.

Mature Works and Experimentation

It is possible that Ives’s decision to relegate his composition to an avocation freed up his innate tendencies to experiment with the form and content of his works in a way that, if he had had to sustain himself with his compositions, he might not have.  Ives’s experimentation took many different forms. Perhaps his primary strategy was to integrate bits and pieces of American popular or vernacular music, or quotations from hymn tunes into a more traditional art-music framework.  This was the main approach he took in his first symphony (1898) and more particularly in his first string quartet (1896), both of which derived thematic material from protestant hymn tunes.

Another strong impulse for Ives was to depict philosophical ideas or concepts in musical terms.  The most notable instance of this approach is the famed “Unanswered Question” (1908), in which a trumpet intones a haunting existential “question” against an imperturbable “universe” represented by a slow chorale in the strings.  The trumpets tune, of ambiguous tonality is answered by a group of woodwinds who grow increasingly frantic and dissonant in their efforts to find a satisfactory response. This was a remarkably original approach to music without obvious precedent in the traditional repertoire.

Ives was also drawn to representing specific places or events from his childhood in his music, depicting aspects of nature and using snatches of band music or popular songs to create an audio portrait of a particular moment in time.  For example, “The Housatanic at Stockbridge” from the Orchestral Set “Three Places in New England” (1903) represents a moment in Ives’s life when he and his wife strolled along the banks of a river overhearing the music from a church on the far bank over the sound of the rushing waters.  Likewise, “Central Park in the Dark” (1898-1907) and “The Rock-strewn Hills Join the People’s Revival Meeting” from his second Orchestral Set (1912-15) also depict specific places and events in purely musical terms.

In all these groundbreaking and now classic works, Ives worked almost completely without the benefit of hearing his works performed and without exchanging ideas with other composers.  As the director of a highly successful insurance company, Ives was intensely busy throughout these years and his composing was done in the evenings or on weekends; pieces were sometimes tinkered with for many years.  The few people to whom Ives did show these works were largely baffled or affronted by their radically innovative content.

At the same time, Ives himself had a decidedly ambivalent view of the established euro-centric concert music world, considering it too effete and pretentious to accommodate his more rugged and free-spirited art (he facetiously subtitled several sections in his second string quartet “andante emasculata,” “Allegro con fisto,” “andante con scratchy,” etc.). Ive’s compositional work was interrupted by the First World War, during which he dedicated his time to the war effort by working with both the Red Cross and Liberty Loan Appeals. After the war his output slowed down considerably as he produced the massive “Concord Sonata” for piano, with each movement dedicated to a significant American literary figure (Emerson, The Alcotts, Hawthorn and Thoreau), and the compilation of his songs into a self-published volume.

Later Life and Celebrity

By the late 1920s Ives had basically ceased new work, but he continually reworked and revised earlier compositions as interest in his work began to grow with arrival of a newer generation of composers who sought new and innovative music.  Ives became a kind of father figure to such young American composers as Henry Cowell and Elliott Carter. Ives stature as an American original and founding figure in musical modernisms continued to expand throughout the rest of his life with conductors such as Nicholas Slonimsky and Leonard Bernstein championing his works and the awarding of major honors such as the Pulitzer Prize (for the Third Symphony in 1947) and an election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1945.  It is among the many paradoxical aspects of Ives’s career that his greatest recognition came decades after he had ceased composing.  Ives died of a stroke in 1954.


Burkholder, J. Peter:  ‘Ives, Charles (Edward)’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 19 November 2006),