Charles Ives, a successful insurance executive, quietly revolutionized American music by blending snippets of marches and hymn-tunes with surprisingly dissonant harmonies.
In 1911, a 36-year-old insurance executive from Danbury, Conn., reminisced about the Fourth of July holidays of his youth — the marching bands, firecrackers, drum corps, pistols, baseball games, fireworks displays and patriotic songs.
But this was no ordinary insurance man. He was a maverick composer named Charles Ives, who quietly revolutionized American music, fearlessly writing pieces far ahead of their time during his hours away from the office.
Ives gathered all of those disparate Fourth of July sounds in his head, then dumped them into six minutes of music called The Fourth of July, a piece that commentator Robert Greenberg says is "cacophonous, wonderfully crazy and includes everything and the kitchen sink." Greenberg believes part of what fueled Ives' feral musical imagination was his philosophy of life.
"He bought into the New England transcendentalism thoroughly," Greenberg says, "and with that, the idea that all things are related, and all things could stand cheek by jowl. His music has been compared to those wonderful barnyard paintings that were so popular in the 19th century, juxtaposing unlike elements to create unexpected associations."
A Mish-Mash Of Experiences
The Fourth of July is the third section of a four-movement symphonic piece called Holidays. According to Ives, it describes a New England boy's experience of the occasion, beginning quietly at dawn and ending with a colossal bang, as the evening fireworks accidentally set the town hall on fire.
"Hearing the piece, one might say, 'What a cacophonous chunk of noise, how could anyone do that?'" Greenberg says. "Others might say, 'Wow how fabulous. The associations are creating whole new perceptions in my ear.'" In once sense, Greenberg points out, Ives was merely recreating everyday realistic events.
"If you're in a small New England town on the Fourth of July, with all this activity going on around you, you might hear out of one ear the band in the gazebo, in the other ear marching bands approach during the parade. At the same time there are firecrackers going off, and the marchers are not exactly staying in step, so there's no reason the music should keep to its beat. Ives created a sonic environment that is a metaphor and an analog to this rich physical environment that is a boy's Fourth of July."
Stand Up And Take Your Dissonance Like A Man
Ives was an experimenter in the great Thomas Edison sensibility, a Yankee creator who felt compelled to invent a musical syntax of his own, without leaning too heavily on the European tradition.
"He drew from the rich tradition of American music," Greenberg notes, "from spirituals, ragtime, folk, marches, popular and patriotic songs. He had no qualms about plopping any piece of music, at any time, into any other piece of music, and felt the right to maul, spindle or mutilate in order to make the proper expressive point. He combined his own composing with all sorts of pre-existing songs or marches that we recognize to create this multilayer, multimusical environment, each of them having their own say, and their interaction creates the greater expressive meaning."
Ives defended his polyrhythms, clashing harmonies and dissonances. "He had zero tolerance," Greenberg says, "for the wimps and mollycoddles who shuddered, or worse, hissed, at new music. He was famous for standing up at concerts and bellowing at such offenders, 'Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.' There's a lot of machismo in Ives' music, and there's a lot of machismo in this American culture that produced him."
An American Experimenter
Ives was an amateur composer. He never wrote music for a living and refused to take money for his compositions when they became popular. He made his money in the insurance industry and felt free to compose whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, however he wanted. He never had to respond to market issues or the need to make money and please an audience.
Greenberg says it's a bit of a paradox that Ives did not exactly expect his pieces to be performed.
"This was a hobby rather than a practical pursuit on his part, so sometimes there are intractable performance problems. For instance, The Fourth of July requires multiple conductors for some parts of the music, especially the grand march where we hear all of this stuff coming in and out of phase with each other. It needs two conductors. Sometimes three."
"Ives was perhaps the first truly great American composer," Greenberg says. "Drawing from the American tradition of popular music, from the classics, from his New England upbringing. He's the great experimenter and has become an icon of what American music should be."