Charles Ives

For the New Zealand international football (soccer) player, see Charles Ives (footballer). For the American physician, see Charles Linnaeus Ives.
Charles Ives
Background information
Birth name Charles Edward Ives
Born (1874-10-20)October 20, 1874
Danbury, Connecticut
Died May 19, 1954(1954-05-19) (aged 79)
New York, New York
Occupation(s) composer, insurance agent

Charles Edward Ives (/vz/; October 20, 1874  May 19, 1954) was an American modernist[1] composer. He is one of the first American composers of international renown,[2] though his music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. Over time, he came to be regarded as an "American original".[3][4][5] He combined the American popular and church-music traditions of his youth with European art music, and was among the first composers to engage in a systematic program of experimental music, with musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatoric elements, and quarter tones,[6] foreshadowing many musical innovations of the 20th century.

Sources of Ives' tonal imagery are hymn tunes and traditional songs, the town band at holiday parade, the fiddlers at Saturday night dances, patriotic songs, sentimental parlor ballads, and the melodies of Stephen Foster.


Charles Ives, c. 1889

Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874,[7] the son of George Ives, a U.S. Army bandleader in the American Civil War, and his wife, Mary Parmelee. A strong influence of his may have been sitting in the Danbury town square, listening to George's marching band and other bands on other sides of the square simultaneously. George's unique music lessons were also a strong influence on him; George took an open-minded approach to musical theory, encouraging him to experiment in bitonal and polytonal harmonizations. It was from him that Ives also learned the music of Stephen Foster.[8] He became a church organist at the age of 14[9] and wrote various hymns and songs for church services, including his Variations on "America", which he wrote for a Fourth of July concert in Brewster, New York. It is considered challenging even by modern concert organists, but he famously spoke of it as being "as much fun as playing baseball", a commentary on his own organ technique at that age.[10]

Ives moved to New Haven, Connecticut in 1893, enrolling in the Hopkins School, where he captained the baseball team. In September 1894, Ives entered Yale University, studying under Horatio Parker. Here he composed in a choral style similar to his mentor, writing church music and even an 1896 campaign song for William McKinley.[11] On November 4, 1894, his father died, a crushing blow to him, but to a large degree he continued the musical experimentation he had begun with him.

At Yale, Ives was a prominent figure; he was a member of HeBoule, Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi chapter) and Wolf's Head Society, and sat as chairman of the Ivy Committee.[11] He enjoyed sports at Yale and played on the varsity American football team. Michael C. Murphy, his coach, once remarked that it was a "crying shame" that he spent so much time at music as otherwise he could have been a champion sprinter.[12] His works Calcium Light Night and Yale-Princeton Football Game show the influence of college and sports on Ives' composition. He wrote his Symphony No. 1 as his senior thesis under Parker's supervision.[11]

Charles Ives, left, captain of the baseball team and pitcher for Hopkins Grammar School

Ives continued his work as a church organist until May 1902. Soon after he graduated from Yale, he started work in the actuarial department of the Mutual Life Insurance company of New York.[13] In 1899, Ives moved to employment with the insurance agency Charles H. Raymond & Co., where he stayed until 1906. In 1907, upon the failure of Raymond & Co., he and his friend Julian Myrick formed their own insurance agency Ives & Co., which later became Ives & Myrick, where he remained until he retired.[14] During his career as an insurance executive and actuary, Ives devised creative ways to structure life-insurance packages for people of means, which laid the foundation of the modern practice of estate planning.[15] His Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax, published in 1918, was well received. As a result of this he achieved considerable fame in the insurance industry of his time, with many of his business peers surprised to learn that he was also a composer. In his spare time he composed music and, until his marriage, worked as an organist in Danbury and New Haven as well as Bloomfield, New Jersey and New York City.[11]

In 1907, Ives suffered the first of several "heart attacks" (as he and his family called them) that he had throughout his lifetime. These attacks may have been psychological in origin rather than physical. Following his recovery from the 1907 attack, Ives entered into one of the most creative periods of his life as a composer.

After marrying Harmony Twitchell in 1908,[14] they moved into their own apartment in New York. He had a remarkably successful career in insurance, and continued to be a prolific composer until he suffered another of several heart attacks in 1918, after which he composed very little, writing his very last piece, the song "Sunrise", in August 1926.[14] In 1922, Ives published his 114 Songs, which represents the breadth of his work as a composer—it includes art songs, songs he wrote as a teenager and young man, and highly dissonant songs such as "The Majority."[14]

According to his wife, one day in early 1927 Ives came downstairs with tears in his eyes. He could compose no more, he said, "nothing sounds right."[16] There have been numerous theories advanced to explain the silence of his late years, which seems as mysterious as the last several decades of the life of Jean Sibelius, who also stopped composing at almost the same time. While he had stopped composing, and was increasingly plagued by health problems, he did continue to revise and refine his earlier work, as well as oversee premieres of his music.[14] After continuing health problems, including diabetes, in 1930 he retired from his insurance business, which gave him more time to devote to his musical work, but he was unable to write any new music. During the 1940s he revised his Concord Sonata, publishing it in 1947 (an earlier version of the sonata and the accompanying prose volume, Essays Before a Sonata were privately printed in 1920).[17]

Ives died of a stroke in 1954 in New York City. His widow, who died in 1969 at age 92, bequeathed the royalties from his music to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the Charles Ives Prize.[18]

Ives' career and dedication towards music was from the time when he started playing drums in his father's band at a young age. Ives published a large collection of songs, many of which had piano parts. He composed two string quartets and other works of chamber music, though he is now best known for his orchestral music. His work as an organist led him to write Variations on "America" in 1891, which he premiered at a recital celebrating the Fourth of July.

In 1906, Ives composed the first radical musical work of the twentieth century, "Central Park in the Dark". He composed two symphonies, as well as "The Unanswered Question" (1908), written for the unusual combination of trumpet, four flutes, and string quartet. "The Unanswered Question" was influenced by the New England writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Around 1910, Ives began composing his most accomplished works including the "Holiday Symphony" and "Three Places in New England". "The Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass.", known as the "Concord Sonata" was one of his most remarkable pieces. He started work on this in 1911 and completed most of it in 1915. However, it was not until 1920 that the piece was published and the revised version appeared only in 1947. This piece contains one of the most striking examples of his experimentalism. In the second movement, he instructed the pianist to use a 14¾ in (37.5 cm) piece of wood to create a massive cluster chord.

Another remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives completed was his "Fourth Symphony". He worked on this from 1910 to 1916. This symphony is notable for its complexity and over sized orchestra. It has four movements and a complete performance of it was not given until 1965, i.e. half a century after it was completed.

Ives left behind material for an unfinished "Universe Symphony", which he was unable to assemble in his lifetime despite two decades of work. This was due to his health problems as well as his shifting idea of the work.


Ives' music was largely ignored during his lifetime, particularly during the years in which he actively composed. Many of his published works went unperformed even many years after his death in 1954. However, his reputation in more recent years has greatly increased. Juilliard commemorated the 50th anniversary of his death by performing his music over six days in 2004. His musical experiments, including his increasing use of dissonance, were not well received by his contemporaries. Furthermore, the difficulties in performing the rhythmic complexities in his major orchestral works made them daunting challenges even decades after they were composed.

Early supporters of Ives' music included Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland. Cowell's periodical New Music published a substantial number of Ives' scores (with his approval), but for almost 40 years he had few performances that he did not arrange or back, generally with Nicolas Slonimsky as the conductor.[17] After seeing a copy of his self-published 114 Songs during the 1930s, Copland published a newspaper article praising the collection.

Ives began to acquire some public recognition during the 1930s, with performances of a chamber orchestra version of his Three Places in New England both in the U.S. and on tour in Europe by conductor Nicolas Slonimsky and the New York Town Hall premiere of his Concord Sonata by pianist John Kirkpatrick in 1939, which led to favorable commentary in the major New York newspapers. Later, around the time of Ives' death in 1954, Kirkpatrick teamed with soprano Helen Boatwright for the first extended recorded recital of Ives' songs for the obscure Overtone label (Overtone Records catalog number 7). They recorded a new selection of songs for the Ives Centennial Collection that Columbia Records published in 1974.

Ives' obscurity lifted a bit in the 1940s, when he met Lou Harrison, a fan of his music who began to edit and promote it. Most notably, Harrison conducted the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting (1904) in 1946.[19] The next year, it won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He gave the prize money away (half of it to Harrison), saying "prizes are for boys, and I'm all grown up".[20] He himself was a great financial supporter of twentieth century music, often supporting works that were written by other composers. This he did in secret, telling his beneficiaries it was really his wife who wanted him to do so.[21] Nicolas Slonimsky said in 1971, "He financed my entire career."[22]

At this time, Ives was also promoted by Bernard Herrmann, who worked as a conductor at CBS and in 1940 became principal conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra. While there, he championed his music. When they met, Herrmann confessed that he had tried his hand at performing the Concord Sonata. Remarkably, Ives, who actually avoided the radio and the phonograph, agreed to make a series of piano recordings from 1933 to 1943 that were later issued by Columbia Records on a special LP set issued for his centenary in 1974. New World Records issued 42 tracks of his recordings on CD on April 1, 2006. One of the more unusual recordings, made in New York City in 1943, features him playing the piano and singing the words to his popular World War I song They Are There!, which he composed in 1917, then revised in 1942–43 for World War II.

Also in Canada, the expatriate English pianist Lloyd Powell played a series of concerts including all of Ives' piano works, at the University of British Columbia in the 1950s.[23]

Recognition of Ives' music steadily increased. He received praise from Arnold Schoenberg, who regarded him as a monument to artistic integrity, and from the New York School of William Schuman. Shortly after Schoenberg's death (three years before Ives died), his widow found a note written by her husband. The note had originally been written in 1944 when Schoenberg was living in Los Angeles and teaching at UCLA. It stated:

There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self-esteem and to learn [sic]. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives.[24]

There is a report that Ives also won the admiration of Gustav Mahler, who said that he was a true musical revolutionary. Reportedly, Mahler talked of premiering Ives' Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic, but he soon died (in 1911) thus preventing the premiere. However, the source of this story is Ives himself; since Mahler died, there was no way to verify whether he had seen the score of the symphony or decided to perform it in the 1911–12 season.[25] Nonetheless, it is known that Ives regularly attended New York Philharmonic concerts and probably heard Mahler conduct the Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

In 1951, Leonard Bernstein conducted the world premiere of Ives' Second Symphony in a broadcast concert by the New York Philharmonic. The Iveses heard the performance on their cook's radio and were amazed at the audience's warm reception to the music. Bernstein continued to conduct Ives' music and made a number of recordings with the Philharmonic for Columbia Records. He even honored him on one of his televised youth concerts and in a special disc included with the reissue of the 1960 recording of the Second Symphony and the Fourth of July movement from Ives' Holiday Symphony.

Another pioneering Ives recording, undertaken during the 1950s, was the first complete set of the four violin sonatas, performed by Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster Rafael Druian and John Simms. Leopold Stokowski took on Symphony No. 4 in 1965, regarding the work as "the heart of the Ives problem". The Carnegie Hall world premiere by the American Symphony Orchestra led to the first recording of the music. Another promoter of his was choral conductor Gregg Smith, who made a series of recordings of his shorter works during the 1960s, including first stereo recordings of the psalm settings and arrangements of many short pieces for theater orchestra. The Juilliard String Quartet recorded the two string quartets during the 1960s.

Today, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is an enthusiastic exponent of Ives' symphonies as is composer and biographer Jan Swafford. Ives' work is regularly programmed in Europe. He has also inspired pictorial artists, most notably Eduardo Paolozzi, who entitled one of his 1970s sets of prints Calcium Light Night, each print being named for an Ives piece (including Central Park in the Dark). In 1991, Connecticut's legislature designated him as that state's official composer.[26]

The Scottish baritone Henry Herford began a survey of Ives' songs in 1990, but this remains incomplete because the record company involved (Unicorn-Kanchana) collapsed. Pianist-composer and Wesleyan University professor Neely Bruce has made a life's study of Ives. To date, he has staged seven parts of a concert series devoted to the complete songs of Ives. Musicologist David Gray Porter reconstructed a piano concerto, the "Emerson" Concerto, from Ives' sketches. A recording of the work was released by Naxos Records.

Ives continues to be very influential on contemporary composers and arrangers as shown by the most recent Planet Arts Records release Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra.


Note: Because Ives often made several different versions of the same piece, and because his work was generally ignored during his lifetime, it is often difficult to put exact dates on his compositions. The dates given here are sometimes best guesses. There have also been controversial speculations that he purposely misdated his own pieces earlier or later than actually written.


Ives proposed in 1920 that there be a 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would authorize citizens to submit legislative proposals to Congress. Members of Congress would then cull the proposals, selecting 10 each year as referendums for popular vote by the nation's electorate. He even had printed at his own expense several thousand copies of a pamphlet on behalf of his proposed amendment. The pamphlet proclaimed the need to curtail "THE EFFECTS OF TOO MUCH POLITICS IN OUR representative DEMOCRACY." His proposal joined his music in being ignored during his lifetime.[28]

It is claimed in the biographical film A Good Dissonance Like a Man that the first of Ives' crippling heart attacks occurred as a result of a World War I era argument with a young Franklin D. Roosevelt over his idea of issuing of war bonds in amounts as low as $50 each. Roosevelt was chairman of a war bonds committee on which Ives served, and he "scorned the idea of anything so useless as a $50 bond." Roosevelt changed his mind about small contributions as seen many years later when he endorsed the March of Dimes to combat poliomyelitis.[29]

See also


  1. Botstein 2001.
  2. Hitchcock & Perlis 1977, pp. 45–63.
  3. Downes, Olin (May 30, 1950). "American Original". The New York Times.
  4. Taruskin, Richard (May 16, 2004). "Underneath the Dissonance Beat a Brahmsian Heart". The New York Times. Retrieved November 14, 2015.
  5. Hall 1964, p. 42.
  6. Burkholder, p. 4.
  7. "Charles Ives". Music Sales Classical. Retrieved July 17, 2015.
  8. 1 2 Burkholder, Sinclair & Sherwood 2001.
  9. Cowell & Cowell 1955, p. 27.
  10. Burkholder, Sinclair & Sherwood 2001, "Youth, 1874–94".
  11. 1 2 3 4 Burkholder, Sinclair & Sherwood 2001, "Apprenticeship, 1894–1902".
  12. Moor 1996, p. 411.
  13. Gill 2013, p. 24.
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 Burkholder, Sinclair & Sherwood 2001, "Maturity, 1908–18".
  15. Karolyi 1996, p. 10.
  16. Burkholder, Sinclair & Sherwood 2001, "Last works, 1918–1927".
  17. 1 2 Burkholder, Sinclair & Sherwood 2001, "Revisions and premières, 1927–54".
  18. "Awards List". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Archived from the original on December 19, 2015.
  19. Miller & Hanson 2001.
  20. Lewis 2005, p. 642.
  21. Slonimsky 1971.
  22. Slonimsky 1971, part 2, after 28:50.
  23. "Lloyd Powell". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Retrieved January 4, 2016.
  24. Ross 2007, p. 132.
  25. Ross, Alex (February 20, 1996). "Ives and Mahler, Through the Same Lens". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 18, 2013.
  26. State of Connecticut, Sites º Seals º Symbols; Connecticut State Register & Manual; retrieved on January 4, 2007
  27. Sinclair 1999, pp. 264–276.
  28. Broyles 1996, p. 154.
  29. Timreck 1977.


  • Gill, Ardian (July–August 2013). "Free Agent: Charles Ives' Dual Careers". Contingencies. American Academy of Actuaries. 25 (4): 22–27. ISSN 1048-9851. 
  • Botstein, Leon (2001). "Modernism". In Macy, L. Grove Music Online. (subscription required (help)). 
  • Broyles, Michael. "Charles Ives and the American Democratic Tradition". In Burkholder (1996).
  • Burkholder, J. Peter (1995). All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-05642-6. 
  • Burkholder, J. Peter, ed. (1996). Charles Ives and His World. The Bard Music Festival. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-01164-6. 
  • Burkholder, J. Peter; Sinclair, James B.; Sherwood, Gayle (2001). "Ives, Charles (1874 - 1954), composer". In Macy, L. Grove Music Online. (subscription required (help)). 
  • Cowell, Henry; Cowell, Sidney (1955). Charles Ives and His Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. OCLC 56865028. 
  • Hall, David (September 1964). "Charles Ives: an American Original". Hi-fi/Stereo Review. 13 (3): 42. OCLC 17931951. 
  • Hitchcock, H. Wiley; Perlis, Vivian, eds. (1977). An Ives Celebration: Papers and Panel of the Charles Ives Centennial Festival-Conference. Urbana, Chicago and London: University of Illinois Press. pp. 45–63. ISBN 978-0-252-00619-7. 
  • Karolyi, Otto (1996). Modern American Music: from Charles Ives to the Minimalists. Cygnus Arts. ISBN 978-0-8386-3725-8. 
  • Lewis, Uncle Dave (2005). "Charles Ives". In Woodstra, Chris; Brennan, Gerald; Schrott, Allen. All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 978-0-87930-865-0. 
  • Miller, Leta E.; Hanson, Charles (2001). "Harrison, Lou (1917 - 2003), composer". In Macy, L. Grove Music Online. (subscription required (help)). 
  • Moor, Paul. "On Horseback to Heaven: Charles Ives". In Burkholder (1996). Originally published 1948.
  • Ross, Alex (2007). The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-24939-7. 
  • Sinclair, James B. (1999). A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-07601-1. 
  • Slonimsky, Nicolas (December 28, 1971). Nicolas Slonimsky Eats Dinner (mp3). Other Minds via 
  • Timreck, Theodor W. (producer-director) (1977). A Good Dissonance Like a Man (Vimeo). New York Foundation for the Arts. (subscription required (help)).  Reviewed by Weiler, A. H. (April 22, 1977). "A Good Dissonance Like a Man". The New York Times. Archived from the original on February 4, 2016. 

General references:

  • Block, Geoffrey (1988). Charles Ives: a bio-bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 978-0-313-25404-8. 
  • Budiansky, Stephen (2014). Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England. ISBN 978-1-61168-399-8. 
  • Cooper, Jack (1999). Three sketches for jazz orchestra inspired by Charles Ives songs (Thesis). University of Texas at Austin: UMI Publishing. OCLC 44537553. 
  • Herzfeld, Gregor (2007). Zeit als Prozess und Epiphanie in der experimentellen amerikanischen Musik. Charles Ives bis La Monte Young [Process and Epiphany in American Experimental Music. Charles Ives to La Monte Young] (in German). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag. ISBN 978-3-515-09033-9. 
  • Hitchcock, H. Wiley, ed. (2004). Charles Ives: 129 Songs. Music of the United States of America (MUSA). 12. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions. 
  • Johnson, Timothy (2004). Baseball and the Music of Charles Ives: A Proving Ground. Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0-8108-4999-0. 
  • Kirkpatrick, John (1973). Charles E. Ives: Memos. London: Calder & Boyars. ISBN 978-0-7145-0953-2. 
  • Perlis, Vivian (1974). Charles Ives Remembered: an Oral History. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 978-0-306-80576-9. 
  • Sive, Helen R. (1977). Music's Connecticut Yankee: An Introduction to the Life and Music of Charles Ives. New York: Atheneum. ISBN 978-0-689-30561-0. 
  • Swafford, Jan (1996). Charles Ives: A Life with Music The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-03893-4. 
  • Woolridge, David (1974). From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-48110-4. 

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