An American Original
Charles Ives was a creative genius and in his music he set out to challenge all of us - listener, performer and himself - to expand our musical parameters. He believed that our ear and mind will learn to hear and understand new music with unfamiliar sounds and textures. To performers he explained "the impossibilities of today are the possibilities of tomorrow," and so he wrote the music that suited his creativity, using humor to make possible our task of learning to understand and even find pleasure in what he created.
Ives life began much more conservatively. His family lived in Danbury, Connecticut, a small New England town where his father George led the town band, taught private lessons to neighborhood children, and was known as "the best band leader in the Union Army."
On October 20, 1874, just nine years after the Civil War ended, Charlie was born into a world where church hymns, Sousa marches, barn dances, fiddle music and parlor songs were regular musical fare. His lessons began at age five and he and his papa had a close relationship. His dad was interested in song and was an experimenter. He tried to work out a system of microtones with 24 notes to the octave. When Charles was ten his father had him sing Swanee River in the key of E flat while he accompanied him in C major. George did require that Charlie learn the rules before breaking them. (Harold Schonberg, The Lives of the Great Composers).
At age 14 he had his first paid position as church organist; also that year (1888) his first piece, a march, was played by his father's band. His early music was conventional, following all the forms of various types of popular music and was pleasing to the Danbury public.
Entering Yale in 1894, his compositions continued in the same "popular genres, achieving a high enough level of polish and professionalism to have some pieces published." (Charles Ives and His World, Edited by J. Peter Burkholder, 1966, Princeton University Press). His March "Intercollegiate" was published and performed at President William McKinley's inauguration.
Ives' first published song, in the Yale Courant in 1896, was A Scotch Lullaby, an earnest parlor song. He also wrote several pieces for the all-male glee club and three were published. He wrote high-spirited or satirical songs for several fraternity shows to entertain without challenging anyone's musical assumptions. He did use absurd juxtapositions in the text to expose the humor inherent in them.
After graduating from Yale in 1898 Ives moved to New York City and worked as an insurance clerk and church organist around the area. Ives continued to compose but he came to realize that he would have to compromise his musical vision to earn a living in music.
Looking back it is easy to see what a momentous decision Ives faced for what we now know as American music. At Yale his teacher Horatio Parker and his organ teacher Dudley Buck were conventional, in the European tradition. As class assignments, Ives completed songs using texts set by German and French masters. His work is never less than competent. In the discography you will find a recording of twelve German texts sung by Thomas Hampson. Even so, Ives was American through-and-through and his creativity could not be so easily contained.
His ancestors came to New England in 1653 and his family had been a part of the taming of the wilderness, fighting for a new republic and defending the Union in the Civil War. Ives was "an heir of New England Transcendentalism" and he decided to follow his own path in music. In 1907, with a partner, he established an insurance agency, and the following year he married Harmony Twichell. They settled into a partnership that lasted 46 years and had them raising a family and collaborating on song texts. When Charlie's health failed she took excellent care of him while together they promoted his music.
He did not compromise his musical creativity, rather he wrote music in his spare time while becoming a wealthy businessman. This intense pace led to a serious heart attack at age 43. Afterwards he reduced his business activity and his composition nearly stopped. In 1930 he retired from business and spent the next 24 years revising his compositions and quietly promoting American music.
In 1922 he published at his own expense a book of 114 Songs and sent them to his friends, musicians and anyone else who asked for a copy. His last song is dated 1929 and is a setting of the spiritual In the Mornin'. As the years went by publishers did pick up his works, publishing pieces at their expense and paying Ives royalties. These he turned over to composers in need. He believed that anyone who wished should have free access to his music. "In the end he agreed to copyright his music only on the condition that profits earned should be used to publish the music of younger composers."
The first recital of his songs was in May of 1932, reviewed in Modern Music magazine. Of the seven songs Alfred H. Meyer wrote "The melody is strikingly unconventional and economical with a marvelously apt certainty of expressive touch." (Burkholder, p. 306). The first LP recording was made in August of 1954 only two months after Ives died. John Kirkpatrick, who played the New York premiere of Ives' Concord Sonata, was pianist and Helen Boatwright sang 24 Ives songs. The material is now on a CRI CD 675, distributed by Koch International. The sound is that of a historic recording. Ernst Bacon's 20 settings of Emily Dickinson poems fills out the album.
In my early twenties circa 1965 I discovered the newly made recording of Ives Symphonies. In time some songs became available sung by Evelyn Lear and Thomas Stewart. They delighted me. Like Ives, I grew up with church music, popular music and fiddle music. My Irish grandpa was a fiddler playing for community dances in the mountains of West Virginia. The first live piece I ever heard was Turkey in the Straw. He also occasionally sang songs like Bicycle Built for Two from his youth.
I knew the same church music that Ives did and his raucous sense of fun in composing new tunes for At the River, Rock of Ages, and Abide with Me caught my attention and held it.
Some of my old favorite CDs are Jan DeGaetani, mezzo soprano with Gilbert Kalish, piano, Nonesuch #71325. From Fanfare Magazine "She has chosen repertoire that suits her talents (17 songs) which includes a sensitivity to the metaphysical side of Ives artistry."
Andrey Kasparov, Moscow Conservatory trained composer, pianist and director of Creo, the contemporary music ensemble at ODU tells me that Ives, John Cage, Elliot Carter and George Crumb (also a West Virginia native) are American composers with a world-wide reputation. Ives is as well known as Tchaikovsky in the rest of the western world. On a Bridge CD BDG 9006 there are nine Ives songs and a George Crumb song cycle Apparitions, once again with DeGaetani and Kalish. I highly recommend it!
If you want all 153 songs by Ives, then the four CD set on Albany Records (ALB 077, 078 079, 080) is for you. There are four singers each with his own pianist performing this collection. The songs are in roughly chronological order by year of composition (more about this in the VASS review that follows). All four singers are on each CD: Dora Ohrenstein has a lovely soft soprano voice, Mary Ann Hart has a light mezzo voice. To quote Fanfare Magazine reviewer James H. North on the baritone: "I find William Sharp's direct natural style preferable to tenor Paul Sperry's more fanciful rendition with his use of wider dynamics and shading of tone, as well as an occasional operatic climax, lead to some questionable pitches."
Argo CD #433027-2 with Sam Ramy, bass and Warren Jones, piano is divided between Ives and Copeland songs. "Sam Ramy's impeccable sense of rhythm is especially helpful in doing Ives song. He has the wit and sincerity to convey the substance of this music." (Reviewed by Robert McColley in Fanfare).
Once there were two volumes of Ives songs sung by Roberta Alexander in a fresh, unaffected and natural voice on Etcetera 1020 and 1068 for Vol.2, now deleted. I would certainly like to find a used copy.
Thomas Hampson. Lieder: Ives, McDowell, Griffes, Teldec 9031-72168, Armen Gwzelimian, piano. Deleted.
Nonesuch 979249-2 John Adams: American Elegies contains five Ives songs orchestrated by Adams and beautifully sung by Dawn Upshaw.
Charles Ives sings They Are There on Nonesuch 979242-22 by Kronos Quartet on Black Angels with gentle string quartet accompaniment. Other composers on this CD are George Crumb, Thomas Tallis, Istvan Marta and Shostakovich's Quartet #8.
If you are beginning a collection of Ives on CD an excellent first album would be Charles Ives An American Journey RCA 9026-63703-2. Works of America's most inventive composer are performed by some of America's top singers and instrumentalists. Michael Tilson Thomas conducts and plays piano and Thoms Hampson sings with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, depending on the piece. There are three songs for voice and piano , four songs for voice and orchestra, several choral pieces and Three Places in New England, The Unanswered Questions and From the Steeples and the Mountains and more.