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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

“From ‘Paracelsus’ ” bears the date 1921, nearly the latest date an Ives score can bear; for in that year his composing career, save only a few exceptional efforts, came effectively to an end. The reason usually given for his creative cessation is a severe heart attack suffered in September 1918, which left him in precarious health for the remaining 35 years of his life. In semiretirement from business, Ives began putting his manuscripts in order and prepared two items—the Second Piano Sonata and 114 Songs—for private publication. They were issued, respectively, in 1920 and 1922. A few other compositions were published, by subscription only, in the New Music Quarterly series edited by Henry Cowell (1897–1965), a California composer devoted to the cause of disseminating what he called “ultramodern music.” And one, an “Orchestral Set” called Three Places in New England, was issued by a commercial firm in 1935. Except for a campaign song for the Republican candidate, William McKinley, in the election of 1896, it was the only conventionally published Ives score to see print before World War II. Very gradually, performers began discovering his music and introducing it to audiences, in most cases long after it was written.

As Robert Crunden, a historian of the Progressive Age who has written perceptively about Ives and his strangely misshapen career, has put it, “prizes and publicity finally poured in as ill health made their enjoyment difficult.”21 Describing Ives’s life, with rueful irony, in terms of the conventional format associated with great composers since Beethoven, Crunden observes “three phases,” which he calls “youthful normality, creative vigor in both music and business, and then decline amidst growing fame.” But as Crunden also suggests, the most telling of Ives’s “periods” has been the fourth—his posthumous reception, which turned him retrospectively, and at the cost of considerable distortion, into a modernist giant.

The height of Ives’s prestige and (somewhat later) his popularity actually crosscut Crunden’s third and fourth phases, lasting from 1939 roughly until his birth centenary in 1974. During this period he was honored as a (or even as the) founding father of American music—its first original master, its Great Emancipator, and the author of its Declaration of Independence from Europe (or, as the conductor Leonard Bernstein put it at the time of the Second Symphony premiere in 1951, “our Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson of music”). The event that triggered the boom was the first public performance of the complete Second Piano Sonata, subtitled Concord, Mass., 1840–60, by the pianist John Kirkpatrick, in a New York recital that took place on 20 January 1939.

Actually it was not so much the performance itself that did the triggering as it was a remarkable review that it elicited from a seasoned and influential critic. Lawrence Gilman (1878–1939), the chief music reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune since 1923, head program annotator for the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, and author of half a dozen widely read books on modern music beginning with Wagner, greeted Kirkpatrick’s performance with a delirium of praise. In words that have been reprinted more frequently, perhaps, than any others in the annals of American music criticism, Gilman pronounced Ives’s Sonata to be “exceptionally great music—it is, indeed, the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in impulse and implication.”22 Kirkpatrick’s performance, he added, “was that of a poet and a master, an unobtrusive minister of genius.”

Gilman’s extraordinary sympathy for the work was the result of a deeper sympathy with Ives’s purposes, which in the case of the Second Piano Sonata was more than ever the translation into music of the spiritual essence and effect of transcendentalist philosophy. No less than Ives’s music, Gilman’s criticism—to quote Wayne Shirley, a music bibliographer and historian of American music—was “rooted in the tradition that holds that music is ideally a vehicle for the expression of philosophical ideas.”23 Gilman provided his readers with a valuable key to those ideas as embodied in Ives’s music.

But Gilman’s review also contained a negative, defensively chauvinistic component that played a major role in the subsequent distortion of Ives’s legacy. Referring acerbically to “the two distinguished composers”—probably the old visitor Dvorřák and the more recent Swiss immigrant Ernest Bloch (1880–1959)—“who are sometimes said to have produced the best music written in America,” Gilman dismissed them with the simple observation that they “cannot be called Americans at all: they were born in Europe, and their music is about as ‘American’ in quality as the Mediterranean or the Quai d’Orsay,” while “Charles Ives is as unchallengeably American as the Yale Fence,” and therefore musically authentic in a way that a Dvorřák or a Bloch could never be. Nor did Gilman stop even there. He capped his eulogy by calling attention to the fact that

Before he was twenty-five, [Ives] had begun those audacious experiments in the organization of sound and the development of scales and counterpoint and rhythms which, for those who have studied their outcome in his later works, make the typical utterances of Schönberg sound like Haydn sonatas. And we are to bear in mind that when Ives was evolving this incredible ultra-modernism of the American nineties, Schönberg, then in his early twenties, had not yet ventured even upon the adolescent Wagnerism of his ‘Verklärte Nacht’; and the youthful Stravinsky was playing marbles in Oranienbaum.

Wittingly or not, Gilman had set the terms of Ives’s assimilation not to the esthetics of transcendentalism or any other expressive tendency, but to that of modernism, the neo-Hegelian historiographical legacy of the New German School, which chiefly values artists in proportion to their technical and formal innovations. It was not the best vantage point from which to view Ives (or, some might argue, any artist). It made for trouble, and his serious devaluing, later; for it turned the Ives boom into a bubble that might easily be pricked. If the Great Emancipator were merely the Great Anticipator (as a skeptical joke of the period had it), then the basis of his reputation would stop being what his work accomplished (in the present) and become simply a matter of when it was written (in the past). Ives became vulnerable to musicological (or pseudomusicological) attack.

The first attacker was Elliott Carter (b. 1908), a famous composer who had known Ives as a boy and whose attitudes toward his former mentor were, as often happens, full of filial conflicts (or “Oedipal” ones, to speak the language of pop psychology). During the Ives centennial year Carter sounded the most jarringly dissonant note when he reminisced to an interviewer about

a visit on a late afternoon to his house on East 74th Street [in Manhattan], when I was directed to a little top-floor room where Ives sat at a little upright piano with score pages strewn around on the floor and on tables—this must have been around 1929. He was working on, I think, Three Places in New England, getting the score ready for performance. A new score was being derived from the older one to which he was adding and changing, turning octaves into sevenths and ninths, and adding dissonant notes. Since then, I have often wondered at exactly what date a lot of the music written early in his life received its last shot of dissonance and polyrhythm. In this case he showed me quite simply how he was improving the score. I got the impression that he might have frequently jacked up the level of dissonance of many works as his tastes changed. While the question no longer seems important, one could wonder whether he was as early a precursor of “modern” music as is sometimes made out. A study of the manuscripts would probably make this clear.24

But Carter certainly knew that the terms of Ives’s reception, and the way in which his achievement was by then described in all the history books, made the question not only supremely important but also very threatening to the composer’s reputation. The sly invitation implied in the last sentence was quickly taken up by a number of scholars—in particular Maynard Solomon, a musicologist with an interest in psychoanalysis who had already published a psychobiography of Beethoven and would later write one about Mozart. The article that ensued from his investigation, “Charles Ives: Some Questions of Veracity,” quickly became a cause célèbre following its publication in 1987.

Relying to a large extent on the work of other scholars, Solomon presented evidence that Ives had deliberately altered some of his manuscripts so as to mislead researchers into accepting earlier dates for some of his works than were in fact the case. Solomon interpreted the composer’s alleged mendacity as an effort generally to protect his precious reputation as an isolated “original” (in keeping with the transcendentalist individualism expressed in the first epigraph at the top of this chapter), and specifically to enhance his idolized father’s role (rather than that of any European contemporary) in the formation of his radical style.

And yet the appearance of image-polishing seemed to cast a troubling reflection on Ives’s personal integrity, and Solomon did suggest that Ives himself had been caught up, following Gilman’s celebrated review, in the modernist (or “historicist”) tendency to “confuse the patent-office with the Pantheon, to regard the invention of a new technique as the most significant measure of creativity.”25 Solomon warned that “it cannot be sufficiently stressed that the value of Ives’s music is wholly independent of issues of priority and modernism.”26 But like Carter’s, his disclaimer rang false. To attribute Ives’s actions to “an obsessive concern over issues of priority,”27 without acknowledging the obvious fact that his own research had been similarly motivated, made the article look like a vendetta. It led to a huge dispute among Ives specialists, tinged with a hostility that belied everyone’s claim to be dispassionately (or “objectively”) seeking the truth.

The row over dating seemed especially unfortunate since the arguments of both sides, whether upholding it or impugning it, were focused on Ives’s reputation as a modernist—a label that, as Crunden and other historians have convincingly argued, is the wrong one to apply. For a while, musicology seemed unable to cope with the idea that a composer could be a radical maximalist without being a modernist—that is, without a primary commitment to technical innovation, and without challenging (let alone revolting against) contemporary social norms.

Ives’s esthetic outlook is far better understood when its connection with the European—and particularly the German—past is acknowledged. Like the transcendentalism to which he professed allegiance, his artistic aims and commitments were neither as radical nor as indigenously American as often claimed. And his radical techniques mostly celebrated the very opposite of progress: their purpose, paradoxically, was to evoke—nostalgically, unironically—a vanished (or imaginary) rural or small-town America. To put Ives’s fundamental expressive concerns in a proper focus, two works in particular (or movements from them) will need a close-up look: the Concord Sonata, the subject of Lawrence Gilman’s excited praise, and Three Places in New England, the subject of Elliott Carter’s equivocal memoir.


(21) Robert M. Crunden, “Review Essay: On Charles Ives,” Modernism/Modernity IV, no. 3 (September 1997): 155.

(22) Lawrence Gilman, “A Masterpiece of American Music Heard Here for the First Time,” New York Herald Tribune, 21 January 1939, p. 9.

(23) Wayne Shirley, “Gilman, Lawrence,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. IX (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), p. 870.

(24) Vivian Perlis, ed., Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 138.

(25) Maynard Solomon, “Charles Ives: Some Questions of Veracity,” JAMS XL (1987): 453.

(26) Ibid., p. 466.

(27) Ibid., p. 470.

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. 16 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005005.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 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005005.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 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005005.xml