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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

But did he stop being an artist? His business career gave Ives the courage to write music (and write it in quantity) of a kind that fully expressed his idealistic commitments. Yet here, too, a certain amount of gender role-playing seems to have been a factor. His fear of the effeminacy associated in America with classical music fed his maximalistic inclinations, since to his mind a conspicuously “strong” and dissonant style was an assertion of masculinity. The abundant Ives apocrypha is full of stories attesting to this sort of blustery machismo, including one in which he rebuked a protesting member of the audience at a modern music concert by shouting, “Stop being such a goddamn sissy! Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”13 The Memos, too, abound in raillery against “old ladies of both sexes” who patronized “nice” music.14 (Here, as Rossiter points out, Ives the wealthy but conflicted businessman was rebelling against his own social class.) And as the Memos reveal, at least one of Ives’s most stylistically radical scores—the Second String Quartet, composed, like most of the music that followed Ives’s professional withdrawal, over a lengthy span of years (1907-13)—originated in protest against the feminine connotations of its genre. After attending recitals by the Boston-based Kneisel Quartet, one of the most prestigious chamber groups then playing in America, Ives recalled,

It used to come over me…that music had been, and still was, too much of an emasculated art. Too much of what was easy and usual to play and to hear was called beautiful, etc.—the same old even-vibration, Sybaritic apron-strings, keeping music too much tied to the old ladies. The string quartet music got more and more weak, trite, and effeminate. After one of those Kneisel Quartet concerts in the old Mendelssohn Hall, I started a string quartet score, half mad, half in fun, and half to try out, practise, and have some fun with making those men fiddlers get up and do something like men.15

The quartet’s three movements, according to the Memos, were originally called “I. Four Men have Discussions, Conversations, II. Arguments and Fight, III. Contemplation.” (In the published score the titles were replaced by a general note: “String Quartet for four men who converse, discuss, argue (in re ‘politics’), fight, shake hands, shut up, then walk up the mountainside to view the firmament.”) The second movement, actually the first to be composed (1907–11), is the one that most concretely embodies the attitudes and anxieties expressed in the Memos. The implied scenario that it enacts is probably clear enough from the sounds of the music, but it is vividly spelled out in some oft-quoted marginalia found in Ives’s manuscript score.

The second violin is cast there as one “Rollo Finck.” The first name is that of the hero in a series of boys’ books Ives knew from his childhood, a paragon of good behavior. The surname is that of Henry Theophilus Finck (1854–1926), the influential music critic of the New York Evening Post. Rollo is thus the epitome of the good little “feminized” musician against whose smug, limited values Ives spent his years of creative seclusion protesting. In no other work is the programmatic import of his maximalized idiom so explicitly set forth.

Sexual—and Stylistic—Politics

ex. 5-5a Charles Ives, String Quartet no. 2, II, mm. 31-42

Sexual—and Stylistic—Politics

ex. 5-5b Charles Ives, String Quartet no. 2, II, mm. 65-69

Rollo starts out by interrupting the proceedings with some sentimental cadenzas (Ex. 5-5a). The first two are marked “Andante emasculata”; the third time, marked “Largo sweetota,” he briefly gets the rest of the quartet to join him before being swatted down as before (in one case with the marking “Allegro con fisto”). The first little cadenza carries the additional notation, “alla rubato ELMAN (pretty tone, ladies),” in sarcastic allusion to the Russian-born violin prodigy Mischa Elman (1891–1967), who had just made his sensational New York debut at the time when Ives was composing the quartet, and whose “most glorious attribute” (according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians) was “his rich, sensuous and infinitely expressive tone, which became legendary.”16 Ives had little use for it. “My God,” he once exclaimed in print, “what has sound got to do with music!”17 At various points Rollo simply drops out of the doings. “Tut, tut,” Ives notes in the margin, and “Too hard to play—so it just can’t be good music, Rollo.” On returning after one such absence, Rollo plays doggedly on the beat while the rest of the quartet is enjoying a riot of hemiolas and syncopations (Ex. 5-5b). “Beat time, Rollo!” reads the marginal note. Over one last florid but not too difficult passage for the second violin Ives writes “Join in again, Professor, all in the key of C. You can do that nice and pretty.” Motivated so obviously by anxiety and resentment, the humor here has not worn well. In an age when social equality is taken more seriously (and more literally) than it was in Ives’s day, when misogyny and homophobia have become openly identified and debated social issues, and when the sexual politics informing, say, Strauss’s Salome or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring are no longer thought irrelevant to their critical evaluation, the masculinist aspect of Ives’s maximalism has come in for some reproach. While few have been inclined to go as far as Lawrence Kramer, Ives’s severest critic, who reads the second movement of the Second Quartet quite simply as “gay-bashing,”18 the value of his stylistic adventures, in light of what is now often regarded as their questionable social motivation, is no longer taken quite so readily for granted as it once was.

Sexual—and Stylistic—Politics

fig. 5-4 Mischa Elman.

And yet their motivation was no single thing, and the stylistic dichotomy between the “strongly” dissonant (replete with “polytonal” chords and even “clusters” of semitones) and the “nice” can be read, like all dichotomies, in various ways depending on the context. In “Nov. 2, 1920” (sometimes called “An Election”), a song to a meditative prose text by the composer expressing his disgust at the repudiation of Woodrow Wilson’s visionary internationalist policies in the presidential election of 1920, in favor of small-minded “normalcy” (as the successful Republican candidate, Warren G. Harding, famously called it19), the stylistic dichotomy symbolizes the “difficult” politics of idealism vs. the “easy” politics of expediency (Ex. 5-6; note in particular the setting of the words “Now you’re safe, that’s the easy way!”).

Yet while what is “easy” is stigmatized in the song, what is “popular” is not. Ives viewed popular music not as commercial but as “populist”—music expressing “the voice of the people”—and loved to quote it symbolically. He sets the words “over there” to a snatch from George M. Cohan’s rousing World War I morale song of the same name, and he reminds Americans of their patriotic duty in the song’s final measures with an equally brief snatch from the national anthem. Allusions like these to popular and patriotic songs are chiefly responsible for Ives’s reputation as an “Americanist” (or American regionalist) composer.

Sexual—and Stylistic—PoliticsSexual—and Stylistic—Politics

ex. 5-6 Charles Ives, “Nov. 2, 1920” (a.k.a. “An Election”), mm. 12-17

But his repertory of allusions actually ranged much further and wider than that. As this very song confirms, Ives was an “internationalist” rather than an “isolationist,” and his musical idiom was by no means confined to American sources. Indeed, the most “American” thing about “Nov. 2, 1920” is not the source of its quotations, or even its style, but the fact that Ives saw fit to use his art to engage in political debate in the spirit of American participatory democracy. The “Note” appended to the score even seems to equate the song, in its intended effect, with an actual political pamphlet Ives had written in favor of a Constitutional amendment that would substitute direct popular referendums for many of the functions and duties performed by the Congress, especially in the conduct of foreign policy.

And yet that very “Note” falls back on gender stereotyping when Ives complains that “the voice of the people sounding through the mouth of the [political] parties, becomes somewhat emasculated,” and the song makes sneering reference to “all the old women, male and female, [who] had their day today.” It may also be pertinent to recall that the election of 1920 was the first to take place after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed women’s suffrage, and it was widely felt (not only by sore losers) that the women’s vote had helped the handsome Harding win the office he would later disgrace with scandal.

But lest it be thought that Ives’s idealism was always tinged with its opposite, and that consonant traditional harmony was only present in his music to be mocked as effeminate, consider the song from “Paracelsus,” to a text by Robert Browning, in which the dichotomy seems to work precisely the other way round in the expression of a “purer” (that is, less overtly political) strain of transcendentalism. Philippus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus (1493–1541), was a Swiss alchemist and physician who made important contributions to the use of chemical agents in the treatment of disease. Browning’s dramatic poem (1835) is a meditation on pride, in which the brilliant Paracelsus is portrayed as having ultimately failed to do the good that was within his grasp to accomplish because of a lack of empathy toward his less gifted fellow men. The lines Ives set are uttered by Paracelsus in response to the altruistic example of the poet Aprile, who has revealed to him his error in pursuing power to the exclusion of love.

Sexual—and Stylistic—Politics

ex. 5-7a Charles Ives, “From ‘Paracelsus,’ ” mm. 1-6

Sexual—and Stylistic—PoliticsSexual—and Stylistic—Politics

ex. 5-7b Charles Ives, “From ‘Paracelsus,’ ” Andante molto, end

Here the complex and “difficult” idiom—expressed in an introductory piano solo in as overloaded a texture as the mind can conceive or the hand perform—is associated with the futile quest for power (Ex. 5-7a). The lucid and consonant final page (Ex. 5-7b), with its cadence on an unalloyed D major triad that is presented completely without irony, represents the superior force of love, showing the way to the simplicity of a higher truth. The form of the song—progressive clarification, approaching the sublime resolution of all conflict and variety—is as characteristic of Ives as any other.

Sometimes called Ives’s “epiphany” form, it illustrates two important aspects of his maximalism. First, the dissonant and “modern” is not necessarily given preference over the traditional and consonant. Unlike that of many European maximalists, Ives’s idiom is not driven by an ideal of evolutionary stylistic progress. It obeys no mandate of history. Rather, in a manner that is often compared with American ideals of democratic pluralism, all styles coexist in Ives’s music, each with its own expressive and symbolic tasks to perform. And second, it is only for the sake of expression and representation that style is developed, never for its own sake. As Ives liked to put it, it is “substance” that determines (and is therefore prior to) “manner.”20 Thus, when the substance or expressive purpose demanded it, Ives was prepared to compose in a relatively traditional manner or style—a “Parker” style, so to speak—at any time throughout his career. His mature music therefore shows little in the way of stylistic “evolution,” which is one reason why it fits the modernist template so poorly.

Indeed, he despised a great deal of modern music (especially by Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky) that seemed to him to be more concerned with manner—style for its own sake—than with substance. We may deduce from this, perhaps, that his idea of substance, or the proper expressive content for music, was essentially (and conventionally) Germanic. That is, it continued to value “human content,” the representation of emotion and spirituality above all, and passionately to resist the tendency identified in chapter 2 as “dehumanization.”


(13) Henry and Sidney Cowell, Charles Ives and His Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 106. The Cowells’ source was an unpublished typescript, “A Connecticut Yankee in Music,” by Lucille Fletcher, who heard it from Ives himself (see Maynard Solomon, “Charles Ives: Some Questions of Veracity,” JAMS XL [1987]: 466).

(14) Rossiter, p. 18.

(15) Ives, Memos, p. 74.

(16) Boris Schwarz, “Elman, Mischa,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. VIII (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), p. 157.

(17) Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata (1920); in Essays Before a Sonata and Other Writings by Charles Ives, ed. Howard Boatwright (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 84.

(18) Lawrence Kramer, Classical Music and Postmodern Knowledge (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. 184.

(19) Harding coined the term in a campaign speech given on 14 May 1920, in which he announced that the nation needed “not nostrums but normalcy.”

(20) See, for example, Essays Before a Sonata, p. 75.

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 Jul. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005004.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 Jul. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005004.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 Jul. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005004.xml