This edited article about Charles Ives originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 717 published on 11 October 1975.
Even the least musical reader could probably give the name of a German composer, and probably a Russian or a British one. But how many could name a great American composer? From the world of Jazz, someone might mention George Gershwin, or Scott Joplin, but few know the name of the man whom today’s serious musicians call ‘The Father of American music’.
Twenty years ago he could have been seen in New York, but not in a concert hall or college of music. Instead, you might have discovered him in the office of an important Insurance Company.
For Charles Ives led two quite different lives, and made a brilliant success of each. He became one of America’s top business men, and could have been a multi-millionaire if he had cared enough about making money. At the same time, he was America’s most original composer, a man far ahead of his time, whose music is only now being truly appreciated, fifty years after it was written.
Like many great composers, Charles Ives, born in 1874, had musical parents, who encouraged the rare talent in their son. His father was a Bandmaster in the Brigade Band of the First Connecticut Artillery. He had played before President Lincoln in 1862, during the American Civil War.
Through his father, Charles got his first music lessons. Having shown a great liking for drumming, he was taken, when only eight years old, to the village barber’s shop, for the barber also happened to be a drummer in the band conducted by the boy’s father. The barber sat Charles on a stool in the shop, placed an empty tub upside down in front of him, and gave him a pair of drumsticks, which he taught him to use to good effect, in the spare moments between shaving customers!
Although he left university with a high musical qualification, Charles made a business career his choice. The U.S.A. has never had the range of Social Security benefits that are available in Britain and many other countries, so people have had to make their own arrangements with private Insurance Companies, and pay to be protected against the risk of illness, accident and early death. Charles Ives believed that these companies provided a valuable social service, and that by working for one he was making a useful contribution to the welfare of the community. So there began the other side of his career, that of an Insurance Agent. The early years were hard; he shared an apartment with friends that they called “Poverty Flat”. But he understood the possibilities of the Insurance business, and in the end wrote a book on the subject.
It was fortunate that he had this business ability, because in his own lifetime he would have starved if he had depended on his music for a living. No publisher would risk printing it. For one thing, it was too complicated, because it brought together groups of instruments not usually heard at the same time. For instance, his father’s parade-ground effects were reproduced when in one of Charles Ives’ symphonies, two brass bands sound as if they are approaching from different directions, and are playing entirely different tunes! Snatches of church hymns, army marching songs, folk tunes, and even stranger items all find a place in what seems at times to be a confusion of sound, shot across with passages of great beauty.
By 1920, Charles Ives had used almost every musical novelty and device that composers of the 1970s would later be trying out, but in his day the strange sounds and effects of these were not welcomed.
At first, all he could do was give his music away. In 1922, he published at his own expense a series of over a hundred songs he had written. These he sent as a free gift to libraries and music shops, or to anyone who asked for them. He did not copyright them, nor ask fees for their performance. Not until after the Second World War was the skill and beauty of his music really discovered – and by then he had given up composing it. When, in 1947, he was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his third Symphony (written forty years earlier;) he commented, “Prizes are for boys – I’m grown up!” – and did not even attend the great performance of his work at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Instead, he listened to it in his own kitchen, on his housemaid’s portable radio!
“My work in music helped my business, and my work in business helped my music,” was his verdict on a life’s work so strangely divided between creating music and creating wealth. And there is no doubt that Charles Ives the composer who died in 1954, will be remembered long after Charles Ives, Insurance Agent, is forgotten.
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