A number of the American modernists developed their art under the aegis of another profession. Poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was a physician. Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) worked in insurance. So did Charles Ives (1874-1954); he made millions as an innovator and executive in the industry. That allowed him to underwrite his own compositional activity, as well as that of other mavericks like Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse. Ives was professionally trained, and he knew what he was about. But as a composer, he often chose an nontraditional approach to musical materials. In my opinion, Ives is not a good model for a composer; his financial independence gave him the freedom to fly in the face of the craft, the profession and the market. But he’s a fine model for an amateur: do want you want; experiment; see how it works; have fun. But don’t expect congratulations, rewards and respect. “That Ives and his music survived it must be counted an extraordinary personal and moral triumph,” write biographer Jan Swafford, “but inescapably, the situation tore at him in ways pervasive and accumulative.” Swafford’s book, Charles Ives: A Life with Music, is worth reading.
Now! Hear the songs!
I know not what are the words
But they sing in my soul of the things our Fathers loved.
At the request of my friend, mezzo-soprano Sahar Hassan, I’ve arranged three Ives songs for the Ladyslipper Ensemble: “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” “The Things Our Fathers Loved” and “The World’s Highway,” amplifying Ives’s piano parts for violin, cello, contrabass and piano. Arranging Ives is pretty natural. He revised his scores throughout his life. “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” also exists in at least two orchestrations. In later years, Ives went as far as changing octaves to sevenths and ninths to make them more dissonant. And Ives’s piano parts always have too much going on for two hands. They cry out for an expanded palette. You can hear the songs this Sunday at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church.
Ives’s 114 Songs was engraved and privately printed in 1922. (View it in the Petrucci Library.) If the fonts look familiar, it’s because Ives paid G. Schirmer to do it. Ives published it without claiming copyright; he believed the songs should be freely distributed. In his Preface, gadfly Ives lets us know what we’re in for:
A song has a few rights the same as other ordinary citizens. If it feels like walking along the left hand side of the street—passing the door of physiology or sitting on the curb, why not let it? If it feels like kicking over an ash can, a poet’s castle, or the prosodic law, will you stop it? Must it always be a polite triad, a “breve gaudium,” a ribbon to match the voice? Should it not be free at times from the dominion of the thorax, the diaphragm the ear and other points of interest? If it wants to beat around in the valley, to throw stones up the pyramids, or to sleep in the park, should it not have some immunity from a Nemesis, a Ramses, or a policeman? Should it not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing? to enjoy itself without making a bow, if it can’t make a bow? to swim around in any ocean, if it can swim, without having to swallow “hook and bait,” or being sunk by an operatic greyhound? If it happens to feel like trying to fly where humans cannot fly, to sing what cannot be sung, to walk in a cave on all fours, or to tighten up its girth in blind hope and faith and try to scale mountains that are not, who shall stop it? In short, must a song always be a song!
Isn’t it time to recognize the spirit of Ives officially? October 20th is Ives’s birthday. Let’s imagine a new holiday to replace the contentious Columbus Day, one that celebrates American abundance, resourcefulness and energy. October 14th should be that holiday. I propose we call it: