Biography of American Composer Charles Ives Part 1

About the famous American composer Charles Ives, biography and history of his music.

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Charles Ives (1874-1954)

America's first great composer, Ives was born in Danbury, Conn. His father, George Ives, was a music teacher and leader of the town band, who spent most of his spare time working on a series of unconventional musical experiments. Particularly noteworthy was an elaborate machine he invented that produced "quarter tones," those elusive notes found "in the cracks between the piano keys." This invention produced numerous complaints from the neighbors, as did George Ives's "ear-stretching exercises" for his children, such as having them sing "Swanee River" in E-flat while he accompanied them in the key of C.

With this sort of background, it is small wonder that Charles Ives was already a musical rebel by the time he entered Yale in 1894 at the age of 20. In his compositions Ives borrowed regularly from patriotic anthems and popular songs, "Turkey in the Straw" and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" being two of his special favorites. He was also fond of bizarre and complicated rhythmic patterns (which performers often found impossible to follow) and glaring, unresolved dissonance. While working at a part-time job as organist in one of New Haven's churches, young Ives often shocked the worshipers by using the organ to imitate a reveille call or a weighing machine's gong.

By the time Ives graduated from Yale in 1898, he had already completed his first symphony, but because of the work's eccentric character, it was dismissed by his colleagues and teachers and was not performed. It soon became clear to Ives that he would never have a successful career as a musician unless he abandoned his iconoclasm and wrote the sort of conventional music that would please his audiences. Since Ives planned to be married shortly after graduation, his family and friends urged him to change his musical style. As Ives put it: "A free translation of most of the general advice that I always received was: If you want something played, write something you do not want played."

Ives was unwilling to make these compromises; he resolved to go into business as an insurance agent and follow music as an avocation rather than abandon his musical convictions. As Ives wrote some years later: "Father felt that a man could keep his music interest stronger, cleaner, bigger, and freer if he didn't try to make a living out of it. Assuming a man lives by himself and is willing to live as simply as Thoreau, he might write music that no one would play prettily, listen to, or buy. But if he has a nice wife, and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances? So he has to weaken (and if he is a man he should weaken for his children), but his music more than weakens--it goes 'ta-ta' for money! Bad for him, bad for music."

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