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I can think of no composer who has taken a more thorough beating from musicologists in the past few years than Charles Ives, and I was waiting eagerly for Gayle Sherwood Magee's new book, Charles Ives Reconsidered, to set the record straight. At last, I thought, someone was going to speak up for him with the weight of scholarship behind her.
Ives's stock crashed in 1987, when Maynard Solomon published a paper in The Journal of the American Musicological Society, titled "Charles Ives: Some Questions of Veracity," in which he charged that Ives deliberately backdated his scores to appear more of a musical innovator than he actually was. Solomon took as his starting point Elliott Carter's notorious, damning review of the Concord Sonata, which suggested that Ives might not be a true prophet.
"The fuss that critics make about Ives's innovations is, I think, exaggerated," Carter wrote, "for he has rewritten his works so many times, adding dissonances and polyrhythms, that it is probably impossible to tell just at what date the works assumed the surprising form we know now. The accepted dates of publication are most likely those of the compositions in their final state."
In later interviews, Carter recalled visiting Ives in his home in the late 1920s and watching him revise his scores to, in his phrase, jack up the level of dissonance. But Carter never accused Ives of dishonesty. In his review of the Concord, he specifically faults critics. It was up to Solomon to take the next step, convicting Ives of a "systematic pattern of falsification," backdating his scores and lying about just when his innovations appeared.
The cry of protest from Ives specialists was immediate and loud, but like the truth about Sarah Palin and the bridge to nowhere, it could not stamp out the growing narrative. Almost every CD of Ives's music released in the decade after Solomon's article appeared contained, in its program notes, a reference to the chronology scandal, inevitably followed by a lame comment that it really didn't matter. (Carter made the same point in his review, but that part of the controversy seemed to disappear, and in any event, saying that the chronology doesn't matter is just a polite way of admitting that Solomon was right. If he was wrong, we wouldn't need irrelevance as a fallback position.)
Scholars such as Peter Burkholder and Philip Lambert defended Ives's integrity and originality, but only Gayle Sherwood Magee, a doctoral candidate at Yale (now teaching at the University of Illinois), answered Solomon's challenge directly. Focusing on Ives's choral music, she dated the paper he used, analyzed his handwriting, and found, according to Ives's biographer Jan Swafford, that Ives's own dates were more accurate than not, and indeed, some pieces were written later than Ives's dating indicates. Solomon's systematic pattern of falsification, Swafford wrote, was neither systematic, nor a pattern, nor false.
So, when I learned Sherwood Magee was writing a book on Ives, I was excited. Here, at last, would be the definitive story of Ives's career, grounded on the indisputable, revised chronology of his music developed both by Sherwood Magee herself and by James Sinclair at Yale University. It would be a vindication. Well, it's a vindication all right -- mostly of Solomon and Carter.
While Sherwood Magee does not believe that Ives backdated his scores, as Solomon contends, she does acknowledge that many of his major works evolved over a period of years, even decades, and, in the end, he usually gave the years in which he began a piece as the date of composition. Echoing Carter's epistemological doubt, she concludes on the last page of her text that "many of his most important works cut across the arc of his compositional life in complex and probably unknowable ways."
Of course, if the claims for Ives's precedence had never been made, the debunking would not have been necessary, and his honesty would never have been questioned. In Sherwood Magee's telling, the source of the claim -- and of all the subsequent trouble -- is Henry Cowell. It was Cowell who, in his early writing about Ives in the 1930s, concocted what Ives's biographer Frank Rossiter called the Ives Legend, which described a visionary working in isolation, indifferent to success, inventing the language of modernism years ahead of his European contemporaries. Cowell had an agenda, Sherwood Magee writes: he wanted to establish American precedence in 20th century music, and he found a patriarchal figure in Charles Ives. To cleanse the stain of European influence from Ives' résumé, Cowell made George Ives into the central influence of young Charlie's life and expunged from the record the indispensable lessons Ives learned from of Horatio Parker, his genial, German-trained music professor at Yale.
Ives seemed happy to go along with the charade. According to Sherwood Magee, he sensed that throwing in his lot with the up-and-coming modernists would lead to recognition and acceptance in the larger community of musicians, and he fashioned his autobiographical Memos of the early 1930s to suit Cowell's purposes. First, he gives the earliest possible dates to his major compositions. Second, he denigrates Parker's contribution to his development and even concocts a homey little parable to praise his father's open-minded experimentalism at the expense of his professor's myopic conservatism: Parker told him that he there was no excuse for an unresolved dissonance at the end of one of his songs, Ives recalled, and when he related the comment to his father, George replied that not every dissonance has to resolve, any more than every horse should have its tail bobbed in response to the prevailing fashion.
As Sherwood Magee points out, Ives did not begin taking classes with Parker until two years after his father died. The story is impossible.
Ives thus comes off as an ingrate, an opportunist, and yes, a prevaricator. He also appears as a hypochondriac, a misogynist, a xenophobe (though largely by association), and oddly passive. In a concise 180 pages, Sherwood Magee succeeds better than any writer I know in re-creating the musical and social atmosphere Ives breathed, but the composer himself almost disappears under the pressure of his influences. Everything he does seems to be a reaction to something else. One can understand it in the early chapters, when, as a young musician finding his place in the world, Ives emulates his heroes and tries on a succession of professional hats, but his extraordinary burst of creativity in the decade after 1907 remains unaccounted for. During these years, Ives was free to compose the music he wanted. He had given up the life of a professional organist for the security of the insurance business, and he did not have to write for the American market. No younger composers like Cowell were recasting him in their own image.
And yet Sherwood Magee says only that this new phase, which she dubs "nationalist-militarist," was at some level a questioning of the European romantic tradition, and that Ives's renewed interest in quoting hymn tunes might have grown from his wife's religiosity. (Ives married Harmony Twichell in 1908.) Both theories attempt to draw a positive musical progression out of a negative space.
Charles Ives certainly did not spring from the head of his father as a fully formed innovator. It is now clear his most profound, effective work grew from years of searching and revision, and he absorbed many influences along the way. Sherwood Magee names them all as they go by, but none of them wrote the Concord Sonata, and none of them could have. The essence of the Ives phenomenon remains a mystery, as perhaps it must: no biography successfully accounts for genius. It is just there, a given amid the mundane, external details of the subject's time, place, and personal failings. Mozart and Brahms were virtuosos by age ten, master composers in their early twenties. Such rapid blossoming of talent defies social and psychological explanation.
Sherwood Magee winds up this short, depressing ride with a carnival psychic's cold-reading of Ives's character. He was, she says, "a flawed, brilliant, naïve, shrewd, insecure, compassionate, ambitious, deceitful, trusting, earnest human being." In short, a mess, but really not so different from the rest of us. The challenge of Ives studies in the future, she says, will be to appreciate the composer from this "unvarnished perspective."
She can count me out. After years of keeping up with the revisionism, I'm too exhausted to do much more than put on a CD of the Second String Quartet and wonder, yet again, at the miracle of that luminous finale.
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The American composer Charles Ives (1874 -- 1954) has achieved something of an iconic stature. As Gayle Sherwood Magee explains in the Introduction to her recent book, "Reinventing Charles Ives" (2008) the Ives legend runs along the following lines -- to paraphrase Magee. Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut and received an unconventional early music training from his father George, a Civil War bandleader. As a student at Yale, Ives studied with Horatio Parker but was bored with Parker's conservative approach which was based solely upon the German classics. Upon graduating from Yale, Ives created a highly modernistic, advanced body of compositions while pursuing a highly successful career in insurance. Ives's work was virtually unknown and rejected for many years, as Ives lived in musical isolation. Ives virtually stopped composing in 1918. Beginning with his receipt of a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Third Symphony followed by Leonard Bernstein's resurrection of Ives's Second Symphony in the early 1950, this eccentric, reclusive American composer began at last to gain the recognition he deserved for the forward looking, modern compositions of his early years.
Magee takes a fresh look at Ives and the legend. Magee is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagna and the author of a research guide to Ives. Her book is part of an outstanding series of the University of Illinois Press called "Music in American Life".
Magee challenges the Ives legend in a number of ways. Most importantly, she questions the view that Ives stopped composing in 1918. She argues that Ives continued to revise his works continuously through the 1920s. She finds that many works thought to anticipate modernism were in fact revised from earlier more conservative versions to give them a modernistic spirit derived from then-contemporary compositions. In other words, Ives frequently revised his works to follow modernistic trends as opposed to himself pioneering modernism in American music. Some earlier scholars had gone further than Magee by accusing Ives of predating his manuscripts to make his compositions appear earlier than they were. Magee rejects this accusation.
Magee tends to downplay the importance of Ives's father George in Ives's early musical education. And she argues as well that Parker's influence and teaching exerted a much stronger influence on the composer than he was willing to acknowledge. Contrary to Ives's reputation as a recluse devoted solely to his art, Magee shows an Ives who, from his days at Yale, avidly sought to make his music popular and to gain public recognition. Ives, at least in his early years, was a substantially conservative composer. Magee maintains as well that Ives received throughout his life more recognition for his works than the legend of a neglected genius would have it. In her biography of Ives, Magee gives a portrait of a complicated person a "flawed, brilliant, naive, shrewd, insecure, compassionate, ambitious, deceitful, trusting, earnest human being -- who wove his life and his times into some truly remarkable compositions." (p.180)
Magee offers a thorough, provocative portrayal of Ives, his times, and his music. In many respects, her study is not as removed from the traditional view of Ives as may appear at first glance. The standard view of Ives is best expressed in Swafford's biography: "Charles Ives: A Life with Music." Thus Magee recognizes that in Ives's lifetime there were two basic schools of thought regarding American music: some people thought that the United States should produce a distinctively American musical style based upon folksongs, popular culture, gospel hymns and the like. Others thought that American music should develop by following the models of classical art music. Ives was clearly influenced by both schools, as exemplified by the figure of his father on the one hand and Horatio Parker on the other hand and sought to combine them in his work. Further, much of Ives' music was rejected as modernistic and barbarous early in Ives's career, as witnessed by the harsh reception of his violin sonatas which Magee's book discusses at length. And the role of the iconoclastic composer Henry Cowell and the subsequent role of pianist John Kirkpatrik in championing Ives, with the composer's assistance, is also part of prior biographies of Ives.
Magee gives close attention to a small number of Ives's important works rather than attempting to discuss his entire output. Her treatment of the four symphonies,the "Concord" piano sonata, the violin sonatas and of the late quarter-tone works were insightful. I have been listening to Ives's songs recently, and I learned a great deal from Magee's treatment of Ives's varied song output from the beginning of his career to the end. Ives is frequently undervalued as a song composer. Magee's account of Ives draws heavily from the "Memos" he wrote in the 1930's and from his other voluminous writings. Her uses of these sources helped in my understanding of Ives. In the final section of her book, "Ives Today, Ives Tormorrow" Magee offers a useful division of Ives's work into three periods, the first extending from 1886 -- 1902, the second from 1907-1914, and the third from 1919-1929. I learned a great deal about Ives's compositional activities during each of these periods from Magee.
Even though it challenges some of the legends that have been built up around Ives -- legends that Ives himself substantially encouraged and promoted -- Magee's book cannot be viewed as a debunking. For all his self-promotion, Ives emerges as a three-dimensional, complex person in this study. More important, Ives's compositional achievement permeates this study of the details of his life. Magee's study made me want to return to and to revisit the works of this great American composer.