Charles Ives - Biography

Charles Ives Biography

This photo from around 1913 shows Ives in his "day job": he was the director of a successful insurance firm.
This photo from around 1913 shows Ives in his 'day job': he was the director of a successful insurance firm.

Charles Edward Ives (October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954) was an American composer of classical music. He is widely regarded as one of the first American classical composers of international significance.



The young Charles Ives took music lessons from his father, a  bandmaster.
The young Charles Ives took music lessons from his father, a US Army bandmaster.

Charles was born in Danbury, Connecticut, the son of a US Army bandmaster. He was given music lessons by his father at an early age, and later studied under Horatio Parker at Yale University. After graduating, he decided to pursue a non-musical career, believing that he would be forced to compromise his musical ideals in a musical career. He pursued a career in insurance and was quite successful. In his spare time, he composed music and worked as an organist in Danbury, New Haven, Connecticut, Bloomfield, New Jersey and New York, New York.

After marrying Harmony Twitchell in 1908, Ives moved to New York, and remained there for the rest of his life, making a living directing his own insurance firm, Ives & Myrick. He continued to be a prolific composer until he suffered the first of several heart attacks in 1918, after which he composed very little, writing his very last piece, A Farewell to Land, a song with words by Lord Byron, in 1925.

Charles Ives died in 1954 in New York, New York. Since then his critical stock has risen, and he is now regarded as an important figure by those who study classical music.

Ives' music

Ives was trained at Yale, and his First Symphony shows a grasp for the academic skills required to write in the Sonata Form of the late 19th century, and also an iconoclastic streak, with a second theme that implies different harmonic direction. His father was a band leader, and as with Hector Berlioz, Ives had a fascination with outdoor music, and with instrumentation. His attempts to fuse these two musical pillars, and his devotion to Beethoven, would set the direction for his musical life.

Ives published a large collection of his songs, many of which had piano parts which echoed modern movements begun in Europe, including bitonality and pantonality. He was, himself, an accomplished pianist, capable of improvising in a variety of styles, including those which were then quite new. He composed two string quartets and a other works of chamber music, though he is now best known for his instrumental music. His work as an organist led him to write Variations on 'America' in 1891, which he himself premiered at a recital celebrating the Fourth of July. The piece takes the tune (which is the same one as is used for the national anthem of United Kingdom) through a series of fairly standard, but witty variations. One of the variations is in the style of a flamenco, while another, added some years after the piece had originally been composed, is probably Ives' first use of bitonality. William Schuman would arrange this for orchestra in 1964.

Ives had composed two symphonies but it is with The Unanswered Question (1908), written for the highly unusual combination of trumpet, four flutes, and string quartet, that he established the mature sonic world which would be his signature style. The strings play very slow, chorale-like music throughout the piece, while on several occasions the trumpet plays a short motif, a 'question', that Ives described as 'the eternal question of existence'. Each time the trumpet is answered with a shrill outburst from the flutes — apart from the last: the unanswered question. The piece is typical Ives — it juxtaposes various disparate elements, it appears to be driven by a narrative that we are never made fully aware of, and it is tremendously mysterious. He later made an orchestral version that would become one of his most popular works.

Pieces such as The Unanswered Question were almost certainly influenced by the New England transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These were important influences to Ives, as he acknowledged in his Piano Sonata No. 2: Concord, Mass., 1840–60 (1909–15), which he described as an 'impression of the spirit of transcendentalism that is associated in the minds of many with Concord, Mass., of over a half century ago... undertaken in impressionistic pictures of Emerson and Thoreau, a sketch of the Alcotts, and a scherzo supposed to reflect a lighter quality which is often found in the fantastic side of Hawthorne.' The piece is possibly Ives' best-known piece for solo piano (although it should be noted that there are optional parts for viola and flute). Rhythmically and harmonically it is typically adventurous, and it also demonstrates Ives' fondness for quotation — on several occasions the opening motto from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is quoted. It also contains one of the most striking examples of Ives' experimentalism: in the second movement, he instructs the pianist to use a 14 in (37.5 cm) piece of wood to create a massive cluster chord.

Perhaps the most remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives ever completed was his Symphony No. 4 (1910–16). The list of forces required to perform the work alone is extraordinary; as well as a large symphony orchestra, the piece requires a massive percussion section, two pianos (one tuned a quarter tone apart from the other), an organ, an extra group of distant strings, a full chorus, three optional saxophones and finally an 'ether organ' (it is not clear what Ives meant by this, but a theremin or a synthesizer is usually used). The program of the work echoes that of The Unanswered Question — Ives said the piece was 'a searching question of 'What' and 'Why' which the spirit of man asks of life.' Use of quotation is again rife, especially in the first movement, and there is no shortage of novel effects. In the second movement, for example, a tremolando is heard througout the entire orchestra. In the final movement, there is a sort of musical fight between discordant sounds and more traditional tonal music. Eventually a wordless chorus enters, the mood becomes calmer, and the piece ends quietly with just the percussion playing. The symphony did not have a complete performance until 1965, almost fifty years after the completion of the work, and eleven years after the composer's death.

Ives left behind material for an unfinished 'Universe Symphony', which he was unable to assemble in his lifetime, despite two decades of work. Partially this was because of his health problems, and also because of his shifting conception of the work. There have been several attempts at completion or performing version, however, none has found its way into general performance. The symphony takes the ideas in the Symphony Number 4 to an even higher level, with complex cross rhythms and difficult layered dissonance, along with unusual instrumental combinations.

Ives' chamber works include the String Quartet No. 2, where the parts are often written at extremes of counterpoint, and ranging from spiky dissonance in the movement labelled 'Arguments' to transcendentally slow. This range of extremes is frequent in Ives' music — crushing blare and dissonance contrasted with lyrical quiet — and carried out by the relationship of the parts slipping in and out of phase with each other. Ives's idiom, which, like Mahler's, employed highly independent melodic lines, was regarded as difficult to play, because many of the typical signposts for performers are not present. This work had a clear influence on Carter's First Quartet, among others.


Ives' music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. His tendency to experimentation and his increasing use of dissonance were not well taken by the musical establishment of the time. The difficulties in performing the rhythmic complexities in his major orchestral works made them daunting challenges even decades after they were composed. One of the most damning words one could use to describe music in Ives' view was 'nice', and his famous remark 'use your ears like men!' would seem to indicate that he did not care about his reception. On the contrary, Ives was interested in popular reception, but on his terms, and not the other way around.

Early supporters of his music included Henry Cowell and Elliott Carter. Ives bankrolled a music magazine that published complete scores, but for almost 40 years he had few performances that he did not arrange or back, generally with Nicolas Slonimsky as the conductor.

His obscurity began to lift a little in the 1940s, when he met Lou Harrison, a fan of his music who began to edit and promote it. Most notably he conducted the premiere of the Symphony No. 3 (1904) in 1946. The next year, this piece won Ives the Pulitzer Prize for Music, though Ives gave the prize money away (half of it to Harrison), saying 'prizes are for boys and I'm all grown up.' Leopold Stokowski would take on the Symphony No. 4 not long thereafter, regarding the work as 'the heart of the Ives problem'.

Over time Ives would come to be regarded as one of the 'American Originals', a composer working in a uniquely American style, with American folk tunes woven through his music, and a reaching sense of the possible in music. He would find praise from Arnold Schoenberg who regarded Ives as a monument to artistic integrity and from the New York School of William Schuman. In the present, Michael Tilson Thomas is an enthusiastic exponent of Ives' symphonies, as is musicologist Jan Swafford, and his work is regularly programmed in Europe.

At the same time Ives is not without his critics. Many people still find his music bombastic, pompous and, others, strangely enough, timid, in that the fundamental sound of European traditional music is still present in his works. His onetime supporter Elliot Carter called his work incomplete, though perhaps this is a case of 'killing one's father' artistically.

List of selected works

Note: because Ives often made several different versions of the same piece, and because his work was generally ignored during his lifetime, it is often difficult to put exact dates on his compositions. The dates given here are sometimes best guesses. There have even been indications that Ives purposefully misdated his own pieces earlier than actually written.

  • Variations on America for organ (1891)
  • String Quartet No. 1, From the Salvation Army (1896)
  • Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1896–98)
  • Symphony No. 2 (1897–1901)
  • Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting (1901–04)
  • Central Park in the Dark for chamber orchestra (1898–1907)
  • The Unanswered Question for chamber group (1908)
  • Violin Sonata No. 1 (1903–08)
  • Piano Sonata No. 1 (1902–09)
  • Violin Sonata No. 2 (1902–10)
  • Robert Browning Overture (1911)
  • A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904–13)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1907–13)
  • Trio (c1909–10, rev. c1914–15)
  • Three Places In New England (Orchestral Set No. 1) (1903–14)
  • Violin Sonata No. 3 (1914)
  • Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840–60 (1909–15)
  • Orchestral Set No. 2 (1912–15)
  • Violin Sonata No. 4, Children's Day at the Camp Meeting (1912–15)
  • Symphony No. 4 (1910–16)
  • Universe symphony (uncompleted, 1911–16, worked on symphony until his death in 1954)
  • 114 Songs (composed various years 1887–1921, published 1922)
  • Three Quarter Tone Piano Pieces (1923–24)

Further reading

  • Geoffrey Block, Charles Ives: a bio-bibliography (New York, Greenwood Press, 1988) — comprehensive bibliography
  • J. Peter Burkholder, All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995) — a study of Charles Ives's use of borrowed musical material and modeling
  • J. Peter Burkholder (editor), Charles Ives and his World (Princeton University Press, 1996) — a selection of new essays, Ives' letters and contemporary reviews
  • Henry & Sydney Cowell, Charles Ives and his Music (Oxford University Press, 1969) — the first serious study of Ives's life and works by his friend and fellow composer Cowell
  • John Kirkpatrick (editor), Charles E. Ives: Memos (Calder & Boyars, 1973) — a collection of Ives's writings
  • James B. Sinclair, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Music of Charles Ives (Yale University Press, 1999) — comprehensive catalogue of works
  • Jan Swafford, Charles Ives: A Life with Music (New York, W. W. Norton, 1996) — standard biography and examination of Ives' work

External links

This biography is published under the GNU Licence