The double life of Charles Ives

All-American original or proto-modernist fake? In the light of a BBC retrospective, Bayan Northcott reassesses Ives's posthumous reputation
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The Independent Culture
To think of Charles Ives is, of course, to think of gospel hymns and Unanswered Questions and Fourth of July parades through 19th-century New England; of a composer who wrote a Concord Sonata dense with dissonances yet married a wife called Harmony, and whose sagely bearded visage was rarely to be separated from an unspeakable, battered old felt hat.

Whether or not it signified a protest against respectability, the hat was a lasting embarrassment, dating back to Ives's thirties when he was ostensibly a New York businessman, piling up a fortune in life insurance. But the beard only appeared some years after a catastrophic mid-life collapse in his health had more or less put an end not only to his active business career but, more grievously, to his composing. Nor is this the most significant modification more recent scholars have sought to insinuate into the received view of Ives as father of Americana and modern music's Great Anticipator.

It is not that the basics of his biography are in any doubt. He was indeed born in Danbury, Connecticut, on 20 October 1874, son of a town musician who really had been the youngest bandleader in the Civil War and who pursued a genuine interest in sonorous experiments. After a solid musical training at Yale and a brief period as a New York church organist, he did throw himself into a double life, building up a pioneering insurance company by day and composing with wild abandon by night - the stress of which duly brought on the breakdown of his mid-forties in 1918. For the remaining three-and-a-half decades of his life he did seem to act more and more like his own executor, striving to get such hitherto clandestine composition as his Concord Sonata and Three Places in New England into print or performable condition, dictating his memoirs in the early 1930s and funding the work of subsequent editors when the effects of heart trouble, diabetes and inoperable cataracts made it impossible to go on. How fortuitous that the wife he had chosen was, quite exceptionally among well-born girls at the turn of the century, a trained nurse.

Or was it fortuitous? "Every artist's work-life has its strategy," Virgil Thomson has written; "without that, there would be no career." It was long assumed - nor, in old age, did Ives discourage the assumption - that his effort to sustain a divided life was primarily idealistic: that his business income enabled him to compose what he wanted without professional or commercial compromise. Yet, writing in 1971, Thomson interpreted Ives's strategy rather as a calculated risk that his insurance fortune would eventually buy him retirement time enough to get his disorderly musical output into definitive form - which, except that retirement came earlier than expected, was roughly what happened. But Thomson also felt that the output suffered from Ives's divided allegiance, from his attempt both to achieve artistic authenticity and to lead a comfortable life: that, for all its vitality, daring and breadth of references, the music largely lacked focus and depth.

Subsequent commentators have questioned the Ives image from other angles. In Charles Ives and His America, published in 1976, Frank R Rossiter pointed out that in Ives's more youthful years, cultivated music in America was still considered essentially a pursuit for genteel ladies, and that both his business career and his secret, but aggressively experimental composing may have been driven by a fear of being thought effeminate. Yet, according to the psychoanalyst Stuart Feder, the crucial determinant remained Ives's father, George, whose ominously early death at 49 doubtless added urgency to Ives's strivings, and whose Civil War service and musical pioneering assumed ever more heroic stature in his memory.

In reality, George Ives seems to have been regarded as a mere musical eccentric and something of a failure in the family business; worse still, it emerges that his Civil War service had culminated in a court martial for more or less turning tail. In his recent psychoanalytic biography, Charles Ives: "My Father's Song", Feder argues that the double career was an attempt to redeem the image of George Ives both by making good in a worldly sense and through a fantasy of posthumous collaboration with him. So the music, with its often nostalgic content, was really a form of creative mourning, and when Ives could no longer compose, he continued the process in his autobiographical writings. At the same time, Feder suggests, the rage that often bursts out in Ives's scores, and that evidently wracked his later life, expressed an unconscious rebellion against the ever-dominating image of the father who had, in effect, deserted the young composer by dying, as he confessed, "just when I needed him most".

Meanwhile, questions have begun to be asked about the extent to which Ives really did pre-empt the European modernists in the use of polyrhythms, tone-clusters and so on. Proud of his radical reputation, he was latterly apt to deny having heard almost any Debussy, Stravinsky or Schoenberg. But there is some evidence of his consciously "modernising" his earlier things when he came to revise them; indeed once, in the 1920s, Ives quite simply showed the young Elliott Carter how he was jacking up the level of dissonance in Three Places in New England as he made a new edition. And the New York musicologist Maynard Solomon has speculated that he may even have backdated some of his sketches to substantiate his precedence as an innovator.

This seems a little unlikely, not only because Ives was the most principled of personalities, but because his attitude to innovation was ultimately rather different from that of his European peers. To the extent that some of his most complex scores, with their counter-marching bands and massed crowd effects, sought to sound as near as possible like the actual events he was evoking, Ives could be accounted less a 20th-century modernist than a belated 19th-century realist. And even when he extracted some of his more radical sounds and procedures and developed them for the purpose of "ear stretching" in little pieces on their own - such as the ingenious polymetrical scherzo Over the Pavements - he tended rapidly to pass on to some other interest. "It's too easy, any high school student could do it," he later remarked about a song in which he appears to have adumbrated the 12-tone method several years before Schoenberg. The formidable energy, originality and, not least, notational skill of Ives's creative gifts have rarely been doubted. The critical issue has remained rather what he might have done with these gifts had he happened to be born, say, in Austria or even England like his exact contemporaries Schoenberg and Holst.

What then of his posthumous standing? For a creator who worked so much in isolation, it is surprising to what extent he has proved a composers' composer, intriguing and inspiring certain successors in every generation since his music began to be discovered in the 1920s. On the other hand, his more public popularity has fluctuated, periodically fanned by a spectacular performance, such as John Kirkpatrick's premiere of the transcendental Concord Sonata in 1939 or Stokowski's first complete performance in 1965 of the Fourth Symphony in all its polystylistic vastness, then tending to fall away. Apart from Three Places and The Unanswered Question, he could hardly be called standard repertoire even today. Next weekend a well-planned BBC retrospective offers yet another chance to decide whether Charles Ives achieved greatness or was only a great composer in potentia. But it seems likely to remain an unanswerable question.

n Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question, 19-21 Jan, Barbican Centre. Booking: 0171-638 8891