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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

His principles, extravagantly idealistic both in the philosophical and in the ordinary meaning of the word, as well as the social and material conditions in which he grew up, mandated that Ives practice his musical vocation nonprofessionally. In this, his career somewhat resembled those of the Russian composers of his parents’ generation. He was born in Danbury, Connecticut, into the family of George Ives (1845–94), the town bandmaster, who had served as the youngest Union bandleader during the American Civil War. From the age of fourteen, Charles Ives began following in his father’s footsteps as a town musician, serving as Sunday organist in local churches before going off to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1894, for undergraduate studies at Yale University.

In later life Charles Ives tended to idealize the memory of his father both in words and in musical deed: his compositions often nostalgically evoked the nineteenth-century band music his father performed, as well as the congregational hymns he often accompanied in his youth. And he gave his father, an enthusiastic musical tinkerer if an unsuccessful composer, most of the credit for arousing in him an appetite for musical adventure. But George Ives’s musical profession did not earn him much in the way of income or social respect, and he ended up, to his son’s shame, as the family black sheep. That may have been one of the factors that eventually dissuaded Charles Ives, despite strong inclinations and many indications of talent, from pursuing a musical career.

Two American Careers

fig. 5-1 Charles Ives, Yale graduation photo (1898).

He studied at Yale with Horatio Parker (1863–1919), then a dashing young composer (only eleven years older than Ives) who had trained in Munich under the then-famous organist and composer Joseph Rheinberger, and who was widely regarded at the time as the white hope of American music. Parker’s career was modeled on his own teacher’s. It was the very career that Charles Ives had modestly embarked upon in Danbury, but Parker practiced it at the highest possible level of prestige. After returning from Munich, Parker was appointed to successive positions as organist and choirmaster in various New York parishes: first in Brooklyn, next in Harlem (then a fashionable neighborhood), finally at the Church of the Holy Trinity, one of the city’s most affluent congregations. In 1892 he was appointed by Dvořák to the distinguished faculty of the National Conservatory of Music.

In 1893, the year before Ives came to study with him, Parker produced (at the age of thirty) his magnum opus, the oratorio Hora novissima, set to verses from a famous sacred poem by the twelfth-century Benedictine abbot Bernard of Cluny. It made him famous. It was the first American work to be performed at the august Three Choirs Festival in England, a performance that brought with it an honorary doctorate in music from the University of Cambridge. It secured for Parker not only his appointment as Battell Professor of the Theory of Music at Yale (beginning in 1894, Ives’s freshman year), but also the organist-choirmaster’s post at Boston’s Trinity Church. When Ives met him, Horatio Parker was at the very zenith of American musical success. He had won high eminence and a comfortable, socially respectable position by doing the work that Ives had begun to do. He was a natural role model for his pupil.

Two American Careers

fig. 5-2 Horatio Parker, Ives’s composition teacher at Yale.

With Parker, Ives went through a thorough training that culminated in the writing of a traditional symphony (à la Dvorřák), now known as his First Symphony, as a graduation piece. All during his college years he maintained his Sunday church employment, now in New Haven, a larger town than Danbury. Upon leaving Yale in 1898, he continued to seek professional employment in the socially respectable domain of sacred music, finally securing the post of organist and choirmaster at New York’s Central Presbyterian Church, a prominent place of worship with an affluent congregation, where Ives worked from 1900 to 1902.

This was a fairly high-prestige job; and it is clear that until his late twenties, Ives was aiming at a career in Horatio Parker’s footsteps. The impression is more than confirmed by Ives’s first important bid for public recognition as a composer: The Celestial Country, a cantata for soloists, chorus, and instrumental accompaniment, on which he embarked the year after graduating from Parker’s class, and which he performed with his choir at Central Presbyterian Church on 18 April 1902—a performance to which critics were invited, and about which notices were published in the Musical Courier, the leading American professional periodical, and the New York Times, the country’s newspaper of record. Ives proudly identified himself to the reporters as Parker’s former pupil.

And not surprisingly, his debut work was modeled, in every dimension and particular, on Parker’s Hora novissima. Even the text, a long hymn by Henry Alford (1810–71), the dean of Canterbury Cathedral, was chosen because Ives was under the mistaken impression that it was a translation of verses from the same poem by Bernard of Cluny on which his teacher had based his most successful work. The most unusual number in The Celestial Country — a quartet for the four soloists in a meter that alternated bars of with bars of (Ex. 5-1), singled out for admiring comment by Ives’s early (posthumous) biographers after his later maximalist experiments had become legendary — turns out to have been the number most clearly derivative from Parker. The middle section of the bass aria in Hora novissima displays the same rhythmic quirk, made even more “radical” by the occasional interpolation of measures in meter (Ex. 5-2). (Ives copied the interpolations elsewhere in The Celestial Country.)

Two American CareersTwo American Careers

ex. 5-1 Charles Ives, The Celestial Country, no. 3, mm. 50-57

Two American CareersTwo American Careers

ex. 5-2 Horatio Parker, Hora novissima, no. 3, mm. 33-47

A distinctively harmonized descending chromatic scale, which recurs in The Celestial Country as a sort of leitmotif, also has a conspicuous counterpart in Hora novissima (Ex. 5-3). Perhaps significantly, however, Ives’s attempts at contrapuntal virtuosity (like the stretto between soprano and tenor at the beginning of Ex. 5-3a) fall considerably short of Parker’s impressive feats of craft, like the canon by augmentation that crowns Hora novissima’s first choral fugue (Ex. 5-4). It may have been the recognition that he had fallen short of his model that impelled Ives to take the unexpected step of resigning his post at Central Presbyterian a week after the performance and renouncing a professional career in music. Or it may have been the faint praise that his work received in the press, the Times reporting that it “has the elementary merit of being scholarly and well made” and the Courier that it “shows undoubted earnestness of study.”

Two American CareersTwo American Careers

ex. 5-3a Charles Ives, The Celestial Country, no. 7, mm. 107-115

Whatever the reasons, the 1902 performance The Celestial Country was the last public performance an Ives work would receive for more than twenty years. His Second Symphony, on which he worked concurrently with the cantata, and which is now regarded as his first really characteristic work, would not be played until 1951. The twenty years of his creative seclusion, moreover, were the very years during which Ives composed the amazing maximalist scores on which his legendary reputation now rests. That combination of circumstances has given rise to a great deal of interesting speculation about the meaning of his work and its relationship to his environment.

Two American Careers

ex. 5-3b Horatio Parker, Hora novissima, no. 1, mm. 138-146

Two American Careers

ex. 5-4 Horatio Parker, Hora novissima, no. 4, mm. 128-134

Some of that speculation, inevitably, has been psychological. Ives’s beloved father died suddenly during the first year of Ives’s study with Parker, leading (in the opinion of the psychoanalyst Stuart Feder, who wrote a full-scale psychobiography of the composer called Charles Ives, My Father’s Song) to a sorely ambivalent attitude toward the professional success Parker represented, and which his father never achieved. To succeed on Parker’s “high art” terms, Feder argued, would now feel to Ives like a betrayal of his father, the “failed village bandmaster.”

Ives’s autobiographical Memos, dictated to a secretary in old age and posthumously published, are full of gushing, somewhat guilt-ridden praise for George Ives and grudging, somewhat sarcastic comment on Parker’s teaching. Some of it, particularly the remark that “Parker was a bright man, a good technician but perfectly willing to be limited by what Rheinberger had taught him,”9 has led to the conjecture that Ives’s rebellion had a nationalistic or patriotic basis. He withdrew from professional activity, according to some of his early biographers, because (like Glinka, with whom superficial parallels were easily drawn) he found no support in the professional world of “art” music for genuinely indigenous art.

Feder made a different interpretation, a more convincing one. Ives, in his view, was in a double bind. “Even if the performance had been [more] successful in Parker’s terms,” he writes,

Ives would have viewed it as giving in—submitting to Parker and giving up an individuality which he valued and cultivated and had shared with his father. Equally important, success in music, especially the prospect of earning as comfortable a living as Parker did, would declare Charlie once and for all superior to George.10

Under these terms, success in music would have been as intolerable as failure. The only recourse was to “give up music” altogether. Yet there was a peculiarly American dimension to Ives’s dilemma after all, because, according to historians of the period, it was a dilemma that an American would have felt then much more acutely than a European. To Feder’s psychoanalytical interpretation we may add that of the social historian Frank R. Rossiter, who sees Ives as succumbing “to enormous pressures that his society and culture brought to bear upon him, pressures that insisted he be a ‘good American’ in his attitude toward music.”11 These powerful pressures had to do with gender identification and role-playing. In Rossiter’s blunt assessment, the dominant American view during what historians now call the Progressive Era (or, less approvingly, the “gilded age”) was that “classical music was for sissies and women.”12 It was no place for an American man, especially one with Ives’s family background.

Two American Careers

fig. 5-3 Charles Ives in Battery Park, New York, ca. 1917.

The place for an American man was business, and it was there that Ives took refuge from his musical conflicts. Most of the men in his family were in business or in a “respectable profession” like law or medicine. One of them, a cousin of his father’s, was working as a medical examiner for the Mutual Insurance Company, and got Ives a job there as an actuary after college. Ives held on to this “day job” as a fallback during the years in which he was setting his sights on a musical career. Having given up that ambition, he made insurance his career, moving out into the field as a sales agent. In 1906, he and another Mutual agent named Julian Myrick started their own firm. Within a short time Ives & Myrick was the most successful insurance agency in the country. His sacrifice of the one career and success in the other has made of Ives a potent but ambiguous symbol. “Ives, from one point of view, chose integrity over compromise,” the American composer David Schiff has written, adding that “he also chose to become a millionaire rather than an artist.”


(9) Charles E. Ives, Memos, ed. John Kirkpatrick (New York: Norton, 1972), pp. 115–16.

(10) Stuart Feder, Charles Ives: “My Father’s Song” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 174.

(11) Frank R. Rossiter, “Charles Ives: Good American and Isolated Artist,” in An Ives Celebration, eds. H. Wiley Hitchcock and Vivian Perlis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), p. 16.

(12) Ibid., p. 17.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005003.xml