Happy Birthday, Charles Ives
Charles Edward Ives, the convention-shattering American modernist composer, was born 142 years ago today, October 20th, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut. Ives would later pen some of the most remarkable music every composed, anticipating many later twentieth-century musical innovations by decades, and establishing himself as one of the first true American master composers.
Ives had early musical training from his father, a creative Civil War bandmaster named George Ives, who was enthralled with musical experimentation. George would eventually teach his young son not only theory, composition, and piano, but also an appreciation of dissonance, spatial music, and the joy of unabashed, passionate, amateur musical expression. Charles participated in George's many musical experiments, including singing simultaneously in different keys, and bands marching at each other, playing completely separate tunes, which seem to have enthralled and inspired the young composer.
Later, after studying music at Yale, Charles decided it would be more prudent to work in the insurance industry, eventually becoming a successful executive in New York. He later justified this choice by stating, "If [a composer] has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances?" Despite this choice of vocation, Ives continued composing during his free evenings for many years.
Ives' compositions, challenging for both musicians and audiences alike, were mostly written before 1920, but constantly edited throughout the rest of his life. For many years, he was disregarded by critics and contemporaries alike, and it was not until late in his life, in the 1930s, that creative musical minds including Nicolas Slonimsky, Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland began advocating for his music. Years later, in 1946, Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his 1904 Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting, forty-two years after its composition, and only eight years before his death.
While most of Ives compositions were written originally for orchestra, keyboard, and avant-garde small collections of a few musicians, the spirit of the wind band seems to permeate his entire compositional catalog. Most obviously in both his Pulitzer Prize-winning Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting and its younger sibling, the New England Holidays Symphony, Ives weaves bands, martial music, and the spirit of his father's Danbury-area ensembles, throughout his compositions, often to striking results. Many of Ives youthful band works, including his Country Band March, Overture and March: "1776," and the now-lost March: Adeste Fideles have found their way into countless other compositions, as well as quotations from his favorite march, David Wallace Reeves' Second Regiment, Connecticut National Guard March, also a favorite of John Philip Sousa's. In many of his compositions, a raucous band breaks through an otherwise serene musical texture, often playing intentionally loud and completely out-of-tune. He also enjoyed including musical "jokes," like scripting out what it sounded like when two cornets accidentally switched shanks, or the tuba player got lost while playing.
Since Ives' death, James B. Sinclair and Jonathan Elkus, both associated with Ives' alma mater, Yale University, have transcribed a number of his compositions for wind band.
Today, Ives is seen as a musical revolutionary, and one of America's most prominent home-grown composers. As can be seen above, he was even honored with a United States Postal Service stamp in 1997.
In honor of his birthday, here are some of our collected Ives resources.
- Ives Biography, from the Charles Ives Society
- PBS "Keeping Score," with Michael Tilson Thomas: "Ives' Holiday Symphony"
- "Charles Ives' America" Album and Resources from "The President's Own" United States Marine Band
- "Ives Plays Ives" Album (Spotify) - a highly recommended look into the composer's interpretations of his own music.
Don't forget to sing "Happy Birthday" in two different keys and three different meters!
Charles Ives, Country Band March, transcribed by James B. Sinclair
"The President's Own" United States Marine Band, Col. Timothy W. Foley, conductor