Ives and the Real Thing

June 2, 2009

Why listen to Ives? Slate makes the case, and its a good one:

Except no important composer had a background like Ives’, with its mingling of the traditional and radical, small-town and sophisticated. He reached adulthood as one of the finest organists of his generation, endured a relentlessly conservative music curriculum at Yale, wrote a proper European-Romantic Symphony No. 1 and string quartet…

Ives’ father, George Ives, had been a Civil War band director in his teens. He heard troops singing the sentimental tunes of the day like “Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground” while they actually were tenting on the campground, waiting for battle. Every year on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), George Ives played “Taps” over the graves of soldiers while old men in uniform stood at attention and wept. George Ives told his son Charlie that any music, from the grandest symphony to a sentimental song sung in a parlor to a barroom piano belting out ragtime, if it is earnest and authentic in the doing, is a manifestation of something deeply human. To a parishioner complaining about the local stonemason bleating out a hymn, George Ives said: “Don’t listen to the sounds, look at the exaltation on his face. That’s the real thing, the music of the ages.” In many works of Charles Ives’ maturity, the composer would paint pictures of that kind of exaltation, whether found in church, in a parade, on a train platform, or in a ragtime dive—wherever there was music to touch the heart and soul.

Ives is one of the great heroes of American music and a powerful exemplar of the importance of small-town culture I’ve been harping at over the last few weeks.  Instead of up and leaving to pursue his dreams in the big city, Ives spent much of his life selling insurance in small-town New England, his music being performed only occasionally and to little fanfare. Yet at the same time he remained resolutely local and bound to the labors of everyday, Ives developed some of the most original music this country has ever produced, in the process gaining the respect of those limited few able to appreciate his work.  Its hard to imagine someone living out this course today, but it was not unthinkable even a generation ago. How to make it thinkable again is a project which will require some serious shifts in policy but also a rethinking of the artistic endeavor itself. 

Here’s one of his best pieces, The Unanswered Question, which unfailingly reminds me of the warm darkness of summer nights in central Minnesota. Take a listen:

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