We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 5 Containing Multitudes (Transcendentalism, II)
Richard Taruskin

Like most romantics in the tacitly (or passively) German tradition, Ives believed that the highest musical expression transcended all particulars, but that particulars could be an avenue toward that transcendence. The quest for universal transcendence was, for Ives, as effective a spur to stylistic maximalism as the race to the patent office was for others. So it comes as no surprise that Ives’s most maximalistic conception was also his most transcendent: nothing short of a “Universe in Tones.”

Reaching—and Transcending—the Limit

fig. 5-6 Manuscript page from Ives’s Universe Symphony, 1911–1916.

Between 1911 and 1915, Ives accumulated sketches for a symphony with that ambitious name, inspired by the elation he had felt one autumn day while looking out over Keene Valley in the Adirondacks. It would be “a striving,” as he put it in the margins of one of the sketch pages, trying desperately to capture his ineffable conception in words,

to present and to contemplate in tones rather than in music as such, that is—not exactly written in the general term or meaning as it is so understood—to paint the creation, the mysterious beginnings of all things, known through God to man, to trace with tonal imprints the vastness, the evolution of all life, in nature of humanity, from the great roots of life to the spiritual eternities, from the great unknown to the great unknown.45

He never came close to finishing it. All that remained of the project at the time of his death forty years later was a sheaf of verbal descriptions, plans, jottings of chords, scales, rhythms, occasional themelets, but little clue as to continuity. Stuart Feder, Ives’s psychobiographer, has suggested that the work was never meant to be completed—that its conceptual grandiosity was a compensation for the composer’s waning powers of invention. In 1932, aged fifty-eight but creatively enfeebled, Ives dashed off a poignant memo in which he tried to describe the progress he had made and the work that still remained to do, so that “in case I don’t get to finishing this, somebody might like to try to work out the idea, and the sketch that I’ve already done would make more sense to anybody looking at it with this explanation.”46

At least two performing versions of Ives’s “Universe” (or Universe Symphony) have been made by posthumous accomplices (Larry Austin and Johnny Reinhard, both of them composers), much as the “Prefatory Act” to Scriabin’s Mysterium, described in the previous chapter, has been speculatively “completed” by the Russian composer Alexander Nemtin. But given the state of the materials Ives left behind, these arrangements cannot really be called completions or realizations. Ives’s “Universe” is only a concept. But what a concept! According to the Memos, it was to be literally the Story of Everything—or, in Emersonian terms, the revelation of THE ONE. There would be three orchestras, the first consisting of nothing but percussion and representing “the pulse of the universe’s life beat.” The other two would divide the remaining instruments into high and low groups. And there would be three overlapping movements, to be played without pause or significant variation in tempo: “I. (Past) Formation of the waters and mountains. II. (Present) Earth, evolution in nature and humanity. III. (Future) Heaven, the rise of all to the spiritual.”

This does indeed resonate with Scriabin’s Mysterium—and with a whole antecedent line of European symphonic transcendentalism: the line of “Weltanschauungsmusik” that began with the “Representation of Chaos” at the beginning of Haydn’s Creation, reached successive milestones with Beethoven’s Ninth, Wagner’s Ring, and Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” (completed just as Ives was starting his “Universe” sketches), and culminated in the “maximal maximalism” of Scriabin, and now Ives. As if in uncanny sympathy with the Russian composer’s final project (of which he could have known nothing), Ives reached tonal saturation with aggregate chords that marked, for harmonic maximalism, the end of the line.

But the uncanniness is only seeming: both Scriabin’s project and Ives’s were epitomes of mystical philosophies (in Ives’s case Emersonian, in Scriabin’s theosophical). For both of them the aggregate harmony logically symbolized “epitome” itself. Ives’s aggregate chord, built up from low C in the sketch depicted in Fig. 5-6, superimposes perfect fourths and tritones—or, in other words, extends to exhaustion the process of which Stravinsky’s three-note Rite-chord (as defined in chapter 3) was the beginning.

Since a tritone equals a perfect fourth plus a semitone, the series amounts to a circle of fourths (=fifths) alternating (or added to) a “circle of semitones” (=the chromatic scale), synthesizing the two intervallic circles that exhaust the full chromatic spectrum, producing (after Scriabin’s) a second philosophy-driven saturation of musical space. Significantly enough, Ives had previously used the same all-encompassing alternation of fourths (or fifths) and tritones in the outer voices of his Psalm 24 (“The Earth is the Lord’s”), possibly composed as early as 1894, to express the earth’s “fullness”. But what marked the unexceedable limit for Scriabin prompted a new fundamental departure in Ives, who thus showed himself to be, of the two, the more committed maximalist. It set him off in pursuit of microtones.

Usually, though by Ivesian standards overnarrowly, microtones are defined as pitch differences smaller than a semitone, the interval that has functioned in official music theory since the days of the Franks and their “Gregorian” chant, at the dawn of recorded musical history in the West, as the inviolable musical atom, the smallest pitch discrimination that is treated as meaningful in ordinary musical discourse. Once the twelve-tone, equal-tempered chromatic scale had become the standard, the commonest way of conceptually splitting this atom was to imagine it divided evenly by two, into “quarter tones.” One of the earliest experimenters in quarter tones, Ives claimed, was none other than his father George, who (according to an unconfirmable and perhaps apocryphal account in the Memos) rigged up various microtonal contraptions—one of them a box of violin strings with weights attached—to overcome the limitations of arbitrary theory and “enjoy an original relation to the universe,” as Emerson put it in his essay on self-reliance.

As Ives observed, we hear microtones whenever we listen to “nonmusical” sounds, for they exist in unlimited unordered profusion in the untheorized world of nature. A music that incorporated microtones would thus be, in the pantheistic transcendentalist view, a more natural and “universal” music than one circumscribed by stingy official theory. Only such a music would truly give access to the transcendental greening experience at which all of Ives’s music ultimately aimed. Thus, Ives’s “Universe in Tones” would of necessity unfold through a chorus of transcendentally unified microtonal tunings:

some perfectly tuned correct scales, some well-tempered little scales, a scale of overtones with the divisions as near as determinable by acousticon [an imaginary measuring device], scales of smaller division than a semitone, scales of uneven division greater than a whole tone, scales with no octave for several octaves,47

as he put it in his somewhat bewildering memo of 1932. But all of these scales would be tuned to the same fundamental pitch, the A at the rock bottom of the piano keyboard, which would thus assume the holy Emersonian status of THE ONE.

Missing, of course, was any description of the technical means by which these state-of-nature scales would be produced, for such means did not exist in 1932, which is another reason to accept Feder’s idea that the Universe Symphony was never meant to be realized in performance but rather to exist only as a work of inspiring “conceptual art.” Whether he knew it or not, Ives was placing himself in a long tradition of speculative musical thought, one that might even be characterized as Western music’s oldest and most distinguished maximalistic strain.

The earliest “microtonalist” in the modern history of Western art music was Nicola Vicentino (1511–ca. 1576), the Italian humanist musician who invented a keyboard instrument, the arcigravicembalo, with a 53-tone scale that could reproduce the pitches of the “enharmonic genus” described by various ancient Greek theorists. The purpose of the invention was to reproduce the miraculous effects of ethos (emotional and moral influence) that ancient Greek texts attributed to the music of the time.

Ever since the sixteenth century, there have been musicians dedicated to “just intonation”—natural tunings thought to be more capable of producing true emotional catharsis than the corrupted temperaments of modern music, which were invented to satisfy “merely musical” criteria of beauty. In the seventeenth century their ranks included the Dutch scientist and musical amateur Christiaan Huygens (1629–95), who theorized a 31-tone octave; in the eighteenth the French acoustician Joseph Sauveur (1653–1716), who published the first theoretical account of the overtone series (the harmonies of natural resonance) in 1701; and in the nineteenth the English organist Robert Holford Macdowall Bosanquet (1841–1912), who in 1875 built a harmonium tuned according to Vicentino’s specifications. The leading speculative theorist along these lines in the twentieth century was Joseph Yasser (1893–1981), a Russian-American organist and scholar who proposed a division of the octave into nineteen equal intervals.

New composition according to just-intonation principles had to await the advent of twentieth-century maximalism. Just intonation’s most distinctive twentieth-century exponent was Harry Partch (1901–74), a “neohumanistic” musical dramatist whose adaptations of Greek myths were accompanied by a large instrumentarium of his own invention, tuned to a 43-interval octave. He once described himself rather acerbically as a “musician seduced into carpentry,”48 and in so doing pinpointed the gravest problem experimenters with nonstandard tunings have always faced: that of practical hardware. Nevertheless, the just-intonation line lasted throughout the twentieth century, pursued by Eivind Groven (1901–77) in Norway, and by Ben Johnston (b. 1926) and La Monte Young (b. 1935) in the United States, among others.

The omnivorous microtonal apparatus Ives envisaged for his “Universe in Tones” seems to incorporate just-intonation components along with everything else imaginable. But in terms of practical composition, Ives belonged to the other microtonal “school,” the one that split the intervals of the artificially equal-tempered chromatic scale into smaller, equally “artificial” (because equal-tempered) units. It lacked the ancient pedigree and the “greening” impulse, and can be understood only in terms of contemporary maximalism, the late-late-romantic drive to expand the expressive—or just the technical—resources at a composer’s disposal.

Its pre-Ivesian history was very short. Probably the earliest experimenter in the field was Julián Carrillo (1875–1965), a Mexican composer who around 1895 began research into what he called the “sonido trece” (thirteenth sound) system, involving successive splits of the semitone into quarters, eighths, and sixteenths of a tone. His first practical compositions using the system did not appear until 1922, after he had found solutions to the many attendant problems of notation and instrument-construction.

In 1906, Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), a very famous Italian pianist and composer living in Germany, published a pamphlet, Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst, (“Sketch for a New Esthetic of Music”), in which he theorized the possibility of something really new: music based on a tripartite rather than a binary division of the tone (third-tones rather than semitones). He made no move at all toward implementation. The first composers to do so were the exact contemporaries Alois Hába (1893–1973), a Czech, and Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893–1979), a Russian émigré living in Paris, both of whom experimented with sixth- and twelfth-tones that would permit the combination of Busoni’s third tones with Carrillo’s quarter tones. Like Carrillo, they began publishing their work in the 1920s.

Thus Ives’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart may be viewed with seemingly equal justice as Ives’s ultimate nostalgic tribute to his father and to the homespun Yankee-tinker esthetic he loved to affect, or as the one time Ives was acting as a full-fledged member of the current avant-garde, contributing to what was at the time a modest high-tech vogue. Although based to some typically indeterminable extent on old sketches, the pieces were among Ives’s latest. They were composed or completed in 1923–24 at the instigation of E. Robert Schmitz (1889–1949), a French-American pianist who ran a concert organization called the Franco-American Musical Society, which sponsored a New York performance of the second and third pieces in February 1925. Except for a single performance of a violin sonata the year before, this was Ives’s first noteworthy public hearing since The Celestial Country in 1902.


(45) Quoted in Feder, Charles Ives: “My Father’s Song,” p. 294.

(46) Ives, Memos, p. 108.

(47) Ives, Memos, p. 107.

(48) Harry Partch, Introduction to Photographs of Instruments Built by Harry Partch and Heard in His Recorded Music (Champaign, Ill.: Gate 5, 1962), n.p.

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. 25 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005008.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005008.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 25 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-005008.xml