Born Oct. 20, 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut
Died May 19, 1954 in New York, NY
Charles Ives is an American original. Music was only an avocation, a weekend hobby. Yale-educated, he was a savvy entrepreneur, becoming a wealthy insurance executive after founding the first Mutual Insurance Company. His musical works showed that same confident drive, independence, and spirit of Yankee ingenuity, but got little recognition during his lifetime. However he used the considerable wealth from his “day job” to help support (often anonymously) and encourage many struggling musicians, including renowned music writer and critic Nicholas Slominsky. (Ives modestly said later these philanthropic acts were his wife’s idea!). As to his personal recognition as a major American composer, for the most part that came after his death. A big exception was the winning of a Pulitzer Prize for his 3rd Symphony in 1947.
Ives’s music was influenced very little by the music of others, but was influential to other modern musicians. His originality stemmed from a childhood curiosity about the natural and manmade sounds all around him. His keen ear absorbed the sounds and everyday music of late 19th-century New England and utilized a range of new techniques to stitch them together into a marvelous “found sound” patchwork, like an Early American quilt. The technical tools he experimented with included polytonality, polyrhythms, tone clusters, quarter tones, aleatory elements, and found sounds (which kids still love today in STOMP), which were harbingers of future 20th century music.
As the son of a Civil War US Army band director, Ives used the music and sounds of a New England village as raw materials in his compositions: hymns, folk songs, ballads, patriotic music, military marches, fiddlers’ tunes, ragtime, the songs of Stephen Foster, etc. were woven into his orchestral, chamber, vocal and solo works. He encountered polytonality and polyrhythms naturally when he sat in the village green awaiting the military parade, listening to the competing bands warming up and practicing along the square.
Hear Ives’s 3 Places in New England, II. Putnam Place
I recommend What Charlie Heard, a charming children’s book and CD to appreciate the refreshing originality of Charles Ives. As a little boy he loved everyday sounds–from train whistles to thunder, horses hooves to crickets—and turned what others called “noise” into great American symphonies. “If only [people] would open their ears,” he said, “they might open their hearts.”
Teaching tip: There is no better way to introduce modern American music than through Charles Ives. All ages respond to the positive, upbeat mood and to the freedom of expression in his eclectic music. The exciting combination of found sounds and familiar American music is transformed with refreshing originality by experimental techniques that foretold the future of 20th century music.