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Book Corner

Life, times of composer Charles Ives re-examined

Book Corner: Charles Ives Reconsidered
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In her book “Charles Ives Reconsidered” (UI Press), musicology professor Gayle Sherwood Magee notes that even before his death in 1954, the composer has always had “an unusual, almost cult-like following.”

And he was pleased when his adorers in modernist music circles hailed the anti-establishment, iconoclast composer as “the father of the American avant-garde,” she said.

But the legacy of Ives, the father – perhaps best known for his decidedly dissonant, polytonal compositions – may not, in fact, match completely with the true biography of Ives, the classically trained musician, composer and insurance executive.

“The way he has always been presented since the 1920s,” Magee said, is as “this wild, modernist maverick who has been composing on his own, who turned his back on the institution, on the establishment and who made his own way.

“This version of Ives’ life, with its trajectory of rejection, struggle, acceptance and redemption, remains incredibly attractive, perhaps especially to those of us who feel embattled on behalf of modern American music,” Magee writes in the book’s introduction.

However, the marginalia of Ives’ life – which the musicologist deciphers through her re-examination of past scholarship and introduction of new sources – reveals there’s really much more to the score for this Gilded Age shape-shifter.

“The problem with this story is that, as with all narratives, it is only partially true. Conflicting information has been omitted or downplayed, and other perspectives overemphasized in the process. Gaps – of which there are many – have been filled in using problematic evidence and in keeping with the advocacy role that shapes most scholarship and biography.” Ives himself is responsible for at least some of the revisionist history.

For example, after the composer abandoned more traditional European-influenced compositional forms, such as the sonata or the symphony, and began to experiment with a more modernist, “American” approach to his music, “people thought he didn’t know what he was doing,” Magee said. “They thought he was just putting a bunch of music and dissonance together that didn’t really work just to be new. And people called him a crackpot and assumed he was uneducated, when, in fact, he was extremely educated.

“He had the best possible music education in the 1890s under Horatio Parker at Yale (University). He was willing to admit that in his first publication (of a song collection) in 1920. After that, he covers that fact; he was not dishonest, but was changing the emphasis and hiding it.”

Magee said Ives’ earliest compositions, which he wrote after graduating from Yale, reflected his search for his own voice. That voice had a more traditional accent and combined the stylings of his teacher’s European-music influences and popular amateur-commercial composers of the day. Also evident in some of his other early tunes – hymns, marches and patriotic songs reminiscent of the Civil War era – was the influence of his bandleader father.

When Ives failed to land a job after the premiere of his “Celestial Cantata,” which embodied what Magee called the “unhappy synthesis” of European music traditions and commercially viable music, Ives retreated from the music world to pursue a career in the insurance business.

“That’s been taken as, ‘how brave … how extraordinary … what a maverick,’ ” Magee said. In reality, she believes it was a more practical move, necessitated by Ives’ need to provide for a wife and family.

As he was achieving success in insurance, Ives continued to write music on the side, printing copies and distributing it widely to friends, associates, music critics and others, even paying musicians to perform his work in concert.

“One thing I document in the book is that Ives had been paying people to perform his music all through the teens,” Magee said. “This is something that has gone unrecognized.”

According to the UI professor, scholarly efforts to re-examine the myth and the man and bring more clarity to the Ives narrative began in the 1970s. But in 1987, with the publication of an article by Maynard Solomon in the Journal of the American Musicological Society, a full-fledged controversy erupted when “Solomon suggested that Ives could have falsified the dates of his compositions to appear more modern than he really was.”

In her book, Magee, whose dissertation focused on the controversial dating issue, brings her own scholarship to bear.

“My explanation is that the dates are just a mess because Ives would work on things for decades at a time,” she said. “And he didn’t keep a list saying, in 1914 I came back to this and revised it very carefully and threw out that version in 1917.”

The bottom line for her, she said, is “we’ll never know” definitively.

“And, as my adviser, Bob Morgan said, ’It really didn’t matter if Ives wrote something in 1898 or 1929 because no one else wrote that anyway.’

“If you’re just looking at the music, it’s still extraordinary. It doesn’t matter if it’s 30 years later. It is what it is. And there’s enough documentation that we know he had these ideas on his own.”

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