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Charles Ives, American Composer

[1]3,095 words

Today is a fitting occasion to celebrate the works of Charles Ives (October 20, 1874–May 19, 1954), one of America’s greatest composers. In true American fashion, Ives was an iconoclast who combined old-world influences with adventurous musical experimentation and the sounds of his small-town New England childhood. He could justly be called the musical equivalent of Ben Franklin or Thomas Edison.

Ives was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut to an established family active in business and civic affairs. His greatest influence was his father, George Ives, an eccentric bandleader with an unusually experimental approach to music. The elder Ives, the black sheep of the family, was known to have two bands march beside each other playing completely different pieces, an effect created in many of Ives’ works. George Ives also experimented with quarter-tones, which appear in Ives’ Three Quarter-Tone Pieces and his Fourth Symphony.

Ives showed promise at an early age. At 14, he became the youngest salaried organist in Connecticut. His first notable composition, Variations on “America,” [2] is a witty set of variations on “America” (“My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) for organ written in 1891 for a Fourth of July concert in Brewster, New York. Even then, Ives was ahead of his time: his use of bitonality in the Interludes predates Stravinsky’s Petrushka chord by two decades. The highlight of the piece is the challenging pedal line in the last variation, which Ives famously declared to be “as much fun as playing baseball”—a testament to his virtuosity. Since E. Power Biggs rediscovered and published the piece in 1949, it has entered the repertoire of every American organist.



In 1894, Ives became a student at Yale, where he studied with Horatio Parker, a prolific composer influenced by German Romantic music who, though little-known today, was highly regarded during his lifetime. Under Parker’s tutelage, Ives composed his String Quartet No. 1 [3] and Symphony No. 1 [4]. Ives later dismissed the latter as one of the worst things he had ever written, but it is a compelling late-Romantic symphony. Other products of his Yale days include Calcium Light Night [5], a colorful miniature for chamber orchestra that depicts two rival fraternities marching past each other singing their respective songs, and Yale-Princeton Football Game [6], a three-minute-long condensation of a football game (in which Yale was victorious) that incorporates a number of cheers and uses a piccolo in place of the referee’s whistle.[1]

Ives’ String Quartet No. 1, subtitled “From the Salvation Army,” reflects the influence of American hymnody on his composing style. The first movement is a stately fugue in C whose subject is based on Lowell Mason’s “Missionary Hymn” and whose countersubject is based on Oliver Holden’s “Coronation.” Other hymn tunes used in later movements include “Beulah Land” and “Shining Shore.” In contrast to Ives’ String Quartet No. 2, the work is traditional in conception, though the superposition of “Shining Shore” over “Stand Up for Jesus” in the finale introduces a bit of Ivesian chaos.

Ives’ Symphony No. 2 [7] is his most accomplished early work. He most likely composed it between 1899 and 1902. (Dating Ives’ works is difficult because he revised his works many times throughout his life.) The symphony is littered with quotations from popular American tunes and hymns—“Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” (once considered the unofficial anthem of the United States), “Pigtown Fling” (which is superimposed over “Columbia” in the first movement), “Massa’s in de Cold Ground,” “Camptown Races,” “Long, Long Ago,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “Nettleton,” “Beulah Land,” “America the Beautiful”—and also contains excerpts from classical works, including Brahms’ First Symphony and Bach’s three-part invention in F minor. Having begun with a Brahmsian fugue, the symphony ends with a fiddle tune and an explosive fusion of melodies that culminates in a strikingly dissonant chord (11 different tones sounding simultaneously), foreshadowing the dissonance of Ives’ later works.

Ives’ Symphony No. 3 [8], subtitled “The Camp Meeting” and written between 1908 and 1910, is at once traditional and novel. Though tonally conservative, it eschews the structure of a traditional symphony; instead of beginning with a theme and developing it for the rest of the movement, it begins with fragments from which a singular theme gradually emerges, a process that evokes the titles of the outer two movements (“Old Folks Gatherin’” and “Communion”). Drawing upon hymns and tunes popular during the Civil War, it captures the spirit of 19th-century American camp meetings, large outdoor gatherings where people would listen to itinerant preachers and sing hymns. Ives admired the rugged, free-wheeling character of the hymn-singing at camp meetings, which he contrasted with the manicured, tame renditions of hymns in churches. The score is sprinkled with stray lines that diverge from the overall melody, perhaps representing lone voices out of sync with the rest of the congregation. Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the symphony in 1947 (he was indifferent to the award and gave away the prize money).

Ives’ Holiday Symphony [9] (also titled A Symphony: New England Holidays), composed between 1897 and 1913, also pays homage to his New England roots. It is based on his recollections of American holidays as a boy growing up in Danbury. The symphony contains four stand-alone tone poems, each representing a different holiday coinciding with one of the four seasons: Washington’s Birthday (Winter), Decoration Day (Spring), The Fourth of July (Summer), and Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day (Fall).

Washington’s Birthday begins with an evocation of a cold, wintry night in February. The middle section depicts a raucous barn dance—a village band, a lone fiddler, someone playing the Jew’s harp. When the dance is over, the flutes intone “Goodnight, ladies,” and the bleak midwinter night returns.

The beginning of Decoration Day is similarly meditative, evoking “the meeting places of those who, with tender memories and devoted hands, gather the flowers for the Day’s Memorial.” After the graves of fallen soldiers are decorated, taps sounds out, and the people jubilantly march back to town. The piece concludes with the setting of the sun. 

The Fourth of July is one of Ives’ most celebrated works. The festivities begin before dawn and become increasingly louder and more chaotic with the introduction of a band and fireworks. The piece is a boy’s experience of the day, with 

 . . . cornets, strings around big toes, torpedoes, church bells, lost finger, fifes, clam chowder, a prize-fight, drum-corps, burnt shins, parades (in and out of step), saloons all closed (more drunks than usual), baseball game (Danbury All-Stars vs Beaver Brook Boys), the sky-rocket over the Church steeple, just after the annual explosion sets the Town Hall on fire.[2]

Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day grew out of a prelude and postlude Ives wrote for a Thanksgiving service. The movement blends warm nostalgia (in the middle section) with haunting dissonances and a Puritan sternness and robustness. The movement concludes with a rousing rendition of “O God, Beneath Thy Guiding Hand,” a patriotic hymn that commemorates the arrival of the Pilgrims in America.

Ives’ Three Places in New England [10] (or Orchestral Set No. 1) is a tribute to three New England landmarks/settings: the monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th regiment in Boston (which was defaced by BLM protestors last month); Israel Putnam’s camp in Redding, Connecticut; and the Housatonic River near Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

The first movement, sprinkled with Civil War tunes, depicts the 54th regiment’s solemn march to battle. The second, the most imaginative and lively movement, takes place during a Fourth of July celebration at Putnam’s Camp and borrows from several patriotic tunes. A young boy wanders away from the crowd and dreams of soldiers in the Revolutionary War before waking up and rejoining the festivities. Like the worshipers at camp meetings, the bandsmen here are enthusiastic amateurs, which adds to the spontaneity and excitement of it all. The third movement is a dreamy evocation of the Housatonic River. Polyrhythmic string ostinati recreate the mist and fog, while soft horns mimic the sound of singing from across the river.

The Orchestral Set No. 2 [11], another triptych, also has much to recommend it. The first movement, “An Elegy to Our Forefathers,” juxtaposes snippets of Stephen Foster songs with a dark, multilayered orchestral texture. The second, “The Rockstrewn Hills Join in the People’s Outdoor Meeting,” is a lively scherzo that fuses the ethos of the camp meeting with ragtime. The third, “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose,” commemorates an incident Ives witnessed on a train platform the day the Lusitania sank. As he awaited his train, some workers began singing “In the Sweet By and By”; soon the whole crowd was singing the tune. Some people kept humming the tune even after the train departed, represented here by the soft strains of the accordion at the end.

Ives’ most famous work is The Unanswered Question [12], which was composed in 1908 as part of a set called Two Contemplations (the other being Central Park in the Dark). The backdrop of the piece consists of slow, quiet tonal triads in the strings that represent, according to text provided by Ives, “The Silence of the Druids—who know, see, and hear nothing.” An atonal melody—“The Perennial Question of Existence”—is sounded by a solo trumpet seven times. The woodwinds—“Fighting Answerers”—respond the first six times; their responses progressively become agitated and unstable, despairing in the face of their futile search. The strings quietly fade away into “Undisturbed Solitude” after the final restatement of the question.

The title of The Unanswered Question derives from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Sphinx”:

Thou art the unanswered question;
Couldst see they proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh;
And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
Time is the false reply.[4]

Emerson was an abiding influence on Ives, whom he hailed as a prophet and spiritual “mountain-guide.”[3] Ives’ approach to composition was influenced by Emerson’s call in “The American Scholar” for American intellectuals to break with Europe and forge a uniquely American identity. Ives set Emerson’s verses to music and drafted an overture in his honor that was later incorporated into his highly experimental (even by Ives’ standards) Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840–60, which was completed in 1915.

The “Emerson” Overture (also titled the “Emerson” Piano Concerto) was to be part of a cycle of overtures written in honor of notable writers: Emerson, Walt Whitman, Matthew Arnold, Henry Ward Beecher, Robert Browning, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The “Robert Browning” Overture [13] is the only one Ives completed and is based on Browning’s five-part epic Paracelsus. (Ives’ song “From ‘Paracelsus’” borrows material from the overture.) It is a dense, brooding work rich with polytonality and polyrhythms. Ives writes that he tried to capture “the Browning surge into the baffling unknowables, not afraid of unknown fields, not sticking to nice main roads, and so not exactly bound up to one key or keys (or any tonality for that matter) all the time.”[4]

Like The Unanswered Question, Central Park in the Dark [14] is a short programmatic work that features meandering string harmonies juxtaposed with contrasting textures (though the string part is atonal while the rest is tonal). The piece conjures up the sounds one might hear on a summer night in Central Park: singing, whistling, ragtime being played on a pianola, a brass street band. The confluence of sounds reaches a cacophonous climax that abruptly subsides into the quiet, dark textures that appear at the work’s beginning.

Ives’ Symphony No. 4 [15], a hugely ambitious work scored for a large orchestra and choir, returns to the subject of The Unanswered Question. Ives began working on it in 1910 and continued to revise it throughout the 1920s. The first movement is a short prelude that, according to Ives, poses “the searching questions of What? and Why? which the spirit of man asks of life.”[5] It opens with the searing growl of the piano, celli, and basses and the ethereal strains of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” emanating from an offstage ensemble comprised of five violins and a harp. The chorus enters with a rendition of “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” with a polytonal and polyrhythmic twist, after which the music gradually fades into silence.

The successive movements offer possible answers to the question of existence. The second, marked “Comedy: Allegro,” is the most complex and chaotic movement, a veritable three-ring circus requiring the presence of two conductors. “In ‘thinking up’ music,” wrote Ives, “I usually have some kind of brass band with wings on it in back of my mind.”[6] Nowhere is this more apparent than in this movement. It is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Celestial Railroad” (Ives wrote a piano piece of the same name in 1924), in which pilgrims journey to the Celestial City by train instead of by foot, dodging the tribulations that befell Bunyan’s Christian as he trudged through the Slough of Despond. (At the end of the story, the man who boasts about the bridge built over the Slough of Despond is revealed to be a creature from Hell.) It is a parody of the chaos of modern life and Americans’ faith in progress. The rare moments of contemplation are drowned out by bombast. The piece ends when the climactic quodlibet abruptly topples over, as if built on a weak foundation.

The third movement is an adaptation of the fugue from Ives’ String Quartet No. 1—a marked departure from the previous two movements. It is essentially the same as the original fugue, though here Ives introduces a trombone line that quotes “Joy to the World.” The answer offered in this movement is ritual and the wisdom of tradition.

The final movement, like the second, requires more than one conductor. It opens with a percussive refrain that heralds a procession of phrases that slowly reach an intense, increasingly dissonant climax in which “Nearer, My God, Thee” sounds in the low brass. Instead of culminating in a triumphant ending, it dies down, and the hymn is repeated, wordlessly, by the chorus. The flattened seventh scale degree and wordless vocalizations give it a timeless aura that transcends the hymn’s 19th-century American origins. The answer provided here is not really an answer, but rather Ives’ vision of a never-ending, Faustian quest for transcendence and nearness to the divine.

I see a parallel between the Fourth Symphony and the Concord Sonata [16]. The sonata is a musical portrait of four New England authors, all buried in Concord: Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. “Emerson,” which ends on a note of uncertainty, asks the question posed by the first movement of the symphony. “Hawthorne,” a scherzo, represents the view of life as a joke, devoid of meaning. “The Alcotts,” a tonal respite from the dissonance of the prior movement (with fugal characteristics, like the third movement of the symphony), represents tradition and conventional religiosity. “Thoreau,” with its translucent harmonies and evocations of the mists over Walden Pond, has a mystical quality and hints at something deeper. The ostinato in the bass calls to mind the percussion ostinato in the final movement of the symphony.

The glimpse of eternity evoked in the final movement of the Fourth Symphony and The Unanswered Question is the starting point for Ives’ unfinished Universe Symphony, his most ambitious project. Ives wanted to create a mammoth symphony that would encompass all of creation and the cosmos, capturing the pulse of the universe. Only 39 pages of the original manuscript remain. There are two realizations of the symphony: one by Larry Austin [17] (whose dense texture and hypnotic interplay of drums and bells is very reminiscent of gamelan) and a longer one, in extended Pythagorean tuning, by Johnny Reinhard [18]. Both naturally fall short of Ives’ grand ambitions, but the results are intriguing and give the listener a glimpse of the scope of Ives’ vision. Had Ives been born a half-century later, he undoubtedly would have been a pioneer of electronic music.

Ives wrote nearly 200 songs throughout his career. His best songs combine a senses of nostalgia with harmonic ingenuity: “Old Home Day” (a parlor song with an Ivesian twist), “The Camp Meeting,” “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” “The Things Our Fathers Loved,” “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” (famous for its comic dissonances). Ives also composed some choral music, including the cantata The Celestial Country [19] and seven psalm settings.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ives is that he was not a full-time composer. He enjoyed a successful career as an insurance agent and is considered the brain behind modern estate planning. His insurance agency, Ives & Myrick, grew to be the largest in the country. Ives penned his greatest works while his business was at its height. Endlessly energetic, he composed for four to five hours after work as well as on the weekends.

Ives’ manic working habits took a toll on his health, and he suffered a breakdown (possibly a heart attack) in 1907. He suffered another breakdown in 1918, after which his productivity declined significantly. After 1927, he did not compose at all. He spent the last three decades of his life revising his works, overseeing their publication, and financially supporting other composers. After decades of being ignored by the classical music establishment, Ives finally began to gain recognition toward the end of his life.

Ives arguably captured the spirit of America better than any other composer before or after him. His music is bold, adventurous, expansive, and imbued with manly vigor (indeed, he was known for deriding his critics as “sissies”). He had a genius for conjuring American landscapes and bringing out the sublime power of quotidian scenes in a manner that is at once playfully irreverent toward authority and deeply reverent toward God and nature.

Despite the forbidding complexity of his music, Ives was essentially a populist. He saw music as a communal event that ought to give expression to the identity of its participants. His music can therefore be interpreted as a tribute to America and her people—white Americans.


  1. I got a kick out of the fact that one of Yale’s cheers was “brekekekèx-koàx-koáx,” the refrain of the chorus of frogs in Aristophanes’ The Frogs. https://www.wisemusicclassical.com/work/29257/Yale-Princeton-Football-Game-Schuller–Charles-Ives/ [20]
  2. Charles E. Ives, Memos, ed. John Kirkpatrick (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1991), p. 104.
  3. Charles E. Ives, Essays Before A Sonata (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1920), p. 12. Essays Before A Sonata is Ives’ extended preface to the Concord Sonata and devotes a chapter to each subject.
  4. Memos, p. 76.
  5. The program note to the 1927 premiere of the first two movements appears to have been written by Ives himself and not Henry Bellamann. https://ives-fourth-symphony.com/articles/bellamanns-program-note-to-the-1927-premiere-of-the-prelude-and-comedy-movements [21]
  6. Kenneth Singleton, review of Charles Ives: A Life with Music by Jan Swafford, The Washington Post, July 28, 1996. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/reviews/ives.htm [22]