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.