Ives: Our Musical Grandfather

Classic Arts Features   Ives: Our Musical Grandfather
Stephen Hartke reflects on the legacy of Charles Ives, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.

While it was, of course, just an accident of birth, I nonetheless count myself as extremely fortunate that the beginning phases of my becoming a composer coincided with the great Ives revival of the 1960s and '70s. In those heady times, I waited eagerly, Sam Goody's discount newspaper ad in hand, for each new LP with yet another world premiere recording, another piece unearthed and reconstructed. I marveled along with everybody else at the seemingly countlessinstances of Ivesanticipating in his music the modernism of the European contemporaries whom he never met and seems scarcely to have cared about. I delighted in Ives's writing, filled with passionate railing against "Rollos" and "Old Ladies, Male and Female" who would deprive us, if they could, of the fortifying, ear-stretching vitality of the gritty new music.

Fairly soon I discovered that the American Music Center, then housed in a cramped little suite in the Ansonia Hotel on Manhattan's Upper West Side, had photostatic copies of Ives scores which couldn't be found anywhere else, so I checked them out and would hang on to them shamelessly long past their due dates. My friend, art critic Peter Frank, and I would throw Ives birthday parties every October 20, forcing our bemused friends to listen to our latest discoveries and enthusiasms. I even started to compose a cantata in the style of Handel, for reasons which now escape me, entitled Ives Lives, and as my more modernist composition exercises grew thicker and thicker in texture, I would take comfort in the thrilling chaos of Ives's Fourth Symphony.

Which isn't to say that there were not other people, musicians and critics especially, who were skeptical, expressing concern that the interest in Ives was mostly a fad, a flash in the pan. Some were troubled by the mixing of tonal and atonal languages, the quotations from hymns and 19th-century popular music, the sometimes ineffective orchestration born of a lack of practical contact with performance of his music. But certainly for most American composers of my era, Ives quickly became our adoptive musical grandfather whom we happily imagined as blessing us in our modernist endeavors. And fortunately for American music, those who had thought that Ives would have no staying power were wrong: his music triumphantly entered the mainstream of our concert life and nothing has been the same since.

The significance of Ives and his music is much more than his being a pioneering innovator and precursor of modernism. Indeed, the encounter with his astonishing body of work, most of it composed within the span of 20 years in a blaze of white-hot creativity, proved a great wake-up call in an era when new music seemed to be turning more and more inward, and was in danger of becoming bloodless. Ives reminded us that truly great music is not necessarily merely serious and well constructed, but also outgoing, passionate, disturbing, comforting, visionary, and even funny sometimes. He led us to question why we oughtn't mix in elements from the popular musics that constantly swirl about us, and to see that many of the stances of the modernist aesthetic tended to produce music of considerably limited emotional variety. His music told us not to shy away from the exalted, but at the same time not to take ourselves so seriously.

The echo of Ives's expansive musical spirit can be heard in so many composers' works now, from the metric modulations of Elliott Carter, the stylistic pluralism of George Rochberg, and the microtonality of Ben Johnston, to the vernacular explorations of Michael Daugherty, the chaotic zaniness of John Zorn, and the transcendentalist radiance of John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls, to name but a few.

In sum, Charles Ives saved American music from itself, pulled us back from a creative abyss, and urged us, through his music, to carry on celebrating the richness, diversity, grit, and glorious messiness of American culture.

American composer Stephen Hartke is the recent recipient of the Charles Ives Living, a grant awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters that will permit him to take a three-year leave from his teaching duties at the University of Southern California to devote himself exclusively to composition. His Symphony No. 3, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, was premiered at Avery Fisher Hall in September 2003.

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