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Music / Charles Ives

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"My God! What has sound got to do with music?"
Charles Ives

Charles Edward Ives (October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954), was an American composer, organist, and insurance salesman. He is regarded as one of the leading composers of American modernism in music. Born in Danbury, Connecticut, he was taught music by his father George Ives, a bandmaster with an apparent love for musical "experiments." Ives then studied composition under Horatio Parker at Yale University, where he was also a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

He made his living for the most part in insurance while composing on the side, and remained rather obscure until the premiere of his second piano sonata, known popularly as the Concord Sonata, in 1939 by John Kirkpatrick - By then Ives was 65. This brought a sudden interest in Ives's earlier works, and he came to be regarded as one of the great experimenters of his age.

Along with his many songs and shorter pieces, his major works include Piano Sonata No. 2 (Concord, Mass., 1840-1860), Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No. 2), Central Park in the Dark, The Unanswered Question, and his Fourth Symphony. They are characterized by a complex style, often employing elements of polytonality, tone clusters, polyrhythm, and occasionally quarter tones. Ives is well known for quoting tunes from his childhood - band marches, hymns, American folk tunes and popular music, including the songs of Stephen Foster. There are also references to classical composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven.

A good way to understand his complicated style of dissonance and quoting of multiple pieces is to think of his childhood, and how he would have first experienced music. As noted above, his father was a bandleader in late 19th century America. Now imagine him as a child in the middle a public park, going to hear his father's band play on the Fourth of July. Being a major celebration, however, three other bands in three other areas of the park are also playing at the same time. Ives's compositions reflect this muddled aural experience.

In addition to American and European music, Ives was influenced by literature and philosophy: the transcendental writers of Concord, Massachusetts served as the subject of the Concord Sonata, and the movements are named so: "Emerson" (after Ralph Waldo Emerson), "Hawthorne" (Nathaniel Hawthorne), "The Alcotts" (Bronson and his daughter Louisa May Alcott), and "Thoreau" (Henry David Thoreau).

Charles Ives' work provides examples of:

  • Avant-Garde Music: Ives was more than willing to experiment with many unusual techniques, including polytonality, quarter-tones, tone clusters, and chance-related elements. For this reason, Zappa found Ives's work inspirational.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: He once said:
    Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ear lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently — possibly almost invariably — analytical and impersonal test will show that when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep.
  • Last Note Hilarity: The last movement of his second symphony ends on a fortissimo cluster chord after an epic buildup.
  • Left Hanging: Ives composed a piece called "The Unanswered Question," featuring a trumpet asking, and a woodwind quartet trying and failing to answer said question.
  • Outsider Music: He is sometimes seen as an outsider musician, though he has been Vindicated by History as one of America's more important composers.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Ives often quoted music he remembered from his childhood, especially marches.
    • Frank Zappa was among his followers. He listed Ives as one of his influences in the liner notes of his debut album Freak Out. In The Real Frank Zappa Book Zappa also states that near the end of "Call Any Vegetable" on Absolutely Free there is a twisted reference to Ives:
      One of the things that Ives is noted for is his use of multiple colliding themes — the musical illusion of several marching bands marching through each other. In our low-rent version, the band splits into three parts, playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" all at the same time, yielding an amateur version of an Ives collision. Unless listeners pay attention in that one spot, there are only a few bars of it, they might think it was a "mistake".
  • Uncommon Time: The Concord Sonatas are composed in free time.