Postclassic: Ives the Primitive as Straw Man

September 2, 2013

By Kyle Gann

Essays After a Sonata is in publishable form, and I've got six weeks left to think and rewrite, and think and rewrite, and reread other books and think and rewrite, which is just how I wanted it. And now I have to decide how and whether to address what's bothered me about most of what's been written about Charles Ives in the last thirty years. Maybe writing about it here will show me how not to write about it in the book, which is something this blog is sometimes good for.

At some point in the 1980s, all the musicologists started trying to demonstrate that Ives hadn't been so original after all. They compared his piano figurations with (very dissimilar) ones by Chopin and Liszt, showing triumphantly that he was well versed in the European literature. They downplayed the influence of Ives's father, and hinting that Ives learned a lot more from the German-trained Horatio Parker than he admitted. Everything he did in music he actually learned from the Europeans, if you just look at it the right way, and that's why he was a great composer after all. They set out to prove (and here I'm going to start quoting from an article, to be named later, that I find particularly inspiring for its perspective on this) that Ives ". . . was as much a part of the European tradition of art music as were Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg, and the other progressive composers of his time." (p. 99) Their aim, this author said, was "to prove the worthiness of Ives's music, to remove the stigma of its 'outsider' status, and to show that it 'lies squarely within the European tradition, extending and transforming the aesthetic assumptions . . . of late Romantic tonal music. . . .'" (p. 99)

This bugged me. In fact, for many years in the '80s and '90s I refused to read any books about Ives, because everything the musicologists were saying about him made me wince (and after the Maynard Solomon episode it only became worse). It was Jan Swafford's biography of Ives, which was sent to me by the publisher and which I avoided even opening for years after I got it, that I finally grudgingly picked up one day and couldn't put down. Jan - a fine composer himself - got it right, and lured me back into the Ives musicology fold.

And the rationale given was that Henry Cowell had created a false or at least exaggerated picture of Ives, as someone who was a self-made experimentalist, who had no European training, no contact with tradition, who had made up all of his musical ideas out of his own head. This false image of Cowell's had become too widespread, and had to be combatted and corrected! And so, now that I'm finishing my own Ives book, I'm rereading through Cowell's biography of Ives to catch him red-handed in such gross exaggerations. These are from Cowell's book:

As far back as [Ives] can remember a great deal of chamber music was played by his father and his friends - sonatas, trios, and quartets - chosen from the sturdier sorts by Handel, Bach, and Beethoven. (p. 23)

On 12 June, 1890, one of [Ives's] organ recitals began with the Overture to William Tell, and continued with... a Bach Toccata, and Mendelssohn's F-minor Organ Sonata. (p. 27)

[Quoting Ives:] "Besides starting my music lessons when I was five years old, and keeping me at it until he died, with the best teaching that a boy could have in Bach and the best of the classical music, and the study of harmony and counterpoint, [my father] above all this kept my interest, and encouraged open-mindedness..." (p. 30)

[Quoting Ives:] Father had kept me on Bach and taught me harmony and counterpoint from when I was a child until I went to college, and there with Parker I went over the same things even with the same harmony and counterpoint textbooks... (p. 32)

[Quoting Ives:] "I found that listening to music seemed to confuse me in my own work... Hearing the old pieces that I had been familiar with all my life, for instance the Beethoven symphonies, Bach., etc., did not, as I remember, have this effect." (p. 41)

[Quoting Ives:] "It seems to me today as it did 35 or 40 years ago, and ever, that still today Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are among the strongest and greatest..." (p. 89)

WTF!? I read Cowell's book in the late '60s, and never remembered him saying that Ives had no knowledge of European music, but over the years reading the musicologists had finally convinced me that Cowell must have almost mendaciously, for ideological purposes, squelched the facts of any contact Ives had had with the European canon. And this, above, is what I find. And, come to think of it, what I had remembered reading. (In Cowell's own The Nature of Melody, he takes all his examples from Bach. He was hardly anti-European.)

I bought the box set of Ives's symphonies as a teenager, and you would have to be deaf or illiterate or a moron to listen to Ives's First Symphony and think that Ives had no cognizance of European tradition. Peter Burkholder, in his magnificent book All Made of Tunes, has shown at admirable length how Ives carefully studied, and imitated, symphonies by Brahms, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky in a studious attempt to master the traditional forms. But you knew it without the demonstration. Someone who could play the Mendelssohn organ sonatas at age 15 is going to be awfully difficult to paint as an untutored savage. Ives knew as much about European music as a young American composer possibly could have at the time, without actually going to Europe. That much, some of us always knew, and learned some of it from reading Cowell. And then, as corrective to Cowell, we all have to switch to the opposite side of the argument, and pretend that everything Ives ever put in his music turned out to have precedents in the classical repertoire. I'm not even going to dignify that perception by listing counter-examples. You know what they are.

My impulse, in my book, was to just ignore the whole straw-man argument and describe the Concord as I know it to be, from the evidence in the score. But I ran across a very thoughtful, theoretically worded, pitch-perfect article on the topic by John McGinness, called "Has Modernist Criticism Failed Charles Ives?" It's in the Spring, 2006, volume of Music Theory Spectrum, which maybe you read, but I hadn't. You can tell how gentlemanly McGinness is because he couches his title as a question; I would have made it a statement, in all upper-case letters with several exclamation points following, but that's just me. He writes that the Ives scholars missed an opportunity: they could have used Ives's music to bracket or criticize the Euro-modernist assumptions of analyzability and teleological progress, but instead they warped him enough to stuff him in the same bag with Bartok and Schoenberg:

Ives scholarship represents a great trans-century irony. Rather than defending Ives's music based on the notion that modernist critical evaluation, if not inherently faulty, is at least inherently questionable... the reputation of Ives undergoes a thorough modernist elevation. (p. 106)

Schoenberg, self-consciously responding to a strongly held belief in received tradition, wrote music that often seems to be a paradigm for analytic unity, thereby providing the perfect foil for a critical evaluation of the composer's relation to analytic practice. The case for Ives, on purely formal grounds, is decidedly more ambiguous... The tools of analysis are not designed to account for musical "outsiders," and Ives's music is often so idiosyncratic, or sometimes so intentionally iconoclastic, that formal analytic approaches cannot adequately reflect its complexity. (p. 101)

It's a good point, and one I have predictably struggled with in my analysis of the Concord Sonata. McGinness is inspiring me to be not only less apologetic but proud when I come to passages in the piece that I can't parse as making sense analytically. He still seems to think that Cowell had a big thumb on the scale when writing about Ives, and I don't see where that comes from; but he's dead right about the overbalance in the opposite direction:

Their response to Cowell's excessive claims about Ives's distance from the European tradition is a necessary and justified correction... But the interpretation that it resides "squarely within the European tradition" seems almost as excessive as Cowell's. The polemical nationalistic stance put forward by Cowell, that traditional (European-based) criticism could not adequately address the (American) complexities of Ives's music, has been replaced by the polemical aesthetic stance that it can. (p. 101)

Thank goodness someone (polite) finally said it. McGinness also gives me some perspective, since I have so spent my life within the bubble of outsider and experimentalist music that I have little idea, I'm realizing, how that world looks from the outside:

...Henry Cowell's labeling of Ives as an "experimentalist" during the 1930s paved the way for the widespread view that he was an "outsider" (a composer working outside the European tradition). Revisionists have been at pains to squelch this perception, not in small part because of the prejudice, modernist at heart, that experimentalist composers lack refined compositional skills. (p. 100)

I wasn't even aware that musicologists associate experimentalism in music with technical ineptitude. If so, they can kiss my pink, spreading, academic ass. (You can see why I have trouble with peer review.) But McGinness turns the tables on them:

When Ives is defended against charges of compositional incompetence with the argument that the apparently "ill-made" can be shown to "have ample precedent and to be very carefully constructed," his defenders are succumbing to the same prejudices of modernist evaluative criteria that caused the problem in the first place. Analysis is repeatedly used to "prove" that the musical elements once eliciting criticism--for example, the borrowings and stylistic diversity--are really "systematic and logical," and by extension, skilled and valuable. (p. 100)

So musicologists could have used the evident quality of Ives's music to suggest that modernist paradigms of analyzability were overly limited and arbitrary - but instead they bowed to the academics and squeezed Ives, as far as they could, into those modernist paradigms. It explains why there has never been a detailed published analysis of the Concord; instead, as McGinness notes, the smaller, more rigorous and mechanistic pieces by Ives (Tone Roads, Three-Page Sonata) have been analyzed in order to prove that Ives belongs in the Schoenberg/Webern/Bartok club. As I've written in my book, "I think we can infer that perhaps the reason no detailed analysis of the Concord has been published is that the analysts realize that no analysis of it will look complete or fully convincing; thus, 1. the analyst will seem to have been defeated, and 2. the analysis will not vouch, through its logic and completeness, for the excellence that we all feel the Concord exemplifies. But for Ives the ability of the music to defeat analysis was an explicit goal, and if my failure will prove his point, it is a sacrifice worth making."

Henry Cowell (whose every published word I've read) was not a very accomplished writer, and one sometimes strains to imagine what ultimate point he's trying to make. But he was not clumsy with his facts. His details, as I read them against more recent books I've read, mostly check out. He was a little too credulous in taking Ives's memories and stories at face value - as, indeed, he politely should have been, writing during Ives's lifetime and with his and Mrs. Ives's cooperation. No harm done. [I know what it's like to get a book out on a composer, with his help, just before that composer dies. Twice now.] Being a highly experienced ethnomusicologist, he did a fantastic job of describing the role of vernacular music in enlivening Ives's aesthetic. He did not neglect the other side; perhaps he felt, at that time, that he had no reason to emphasize it, either. If Ives's training was split among classical music, church music, theater music, and ragtime, then he looks to me pretty average in that respect among American composers I've been interested in since. If musicologists ever want to deal with American composers of the more eclectic stripe, they'd better just get used to it.

Ives's Essays Before a Sonata, if you read it closely - and perhaps this is why academics have avoided doing so - advances an aesthetic much at odds with classic modernism. In his view, if a piece of music can be analyzed, reduced to a single principle or small set of principles, then it is insufficiently reflective of how we experience the real world. To be true to nature, a piece of music must be messy, incommensurable in its parts, containing shards of truth that suggest but never add up to a whole. A piece that can be fully analyzed is a piece Ives would regard as a failure, or a triviality. I argue in my book that he took this view from the most Romantic of sources - not only Emerson, but John Ruskin, although they can only have confirmed what his artistic intuition already told him. As Jonathan Kramer has shown in his writings on postmodernism, Ives poses a challenge to the modernist paradigms, and will never fit neatly within them. Did Ives master the European musical idiom? Yes. Did he do a lot of things in his music that he had never seen or heard in any previous music? Yes. Is it really such a burden to keep both those facts in one's head at the same time?


Richard Leigh says: I'm looking forward to the book very much. The reference to Ruskin is intriguing, as is your argument that one can see Ives whole rather than having a reductive view of him. I assume that anyone who composes music also hears what others have composed, and Ives is no exception. Surprise, surprise.
Also, you don't use the word "maverick" at all, as far as I can see -a great relief.
KG replies: If all I accomplish in the end is to have blasted the word Maverick out of Americanist musicology, at least I'll have done something.

Cara says: Professor Kyle,
Do you greatly admire the operas of Harrison Birtwistle?
KG replies: I've never heard them. I've kept up with his music a little over the years, ever since enjoying Ring a Dumb Carillon in college, and I have a copy of the Silsbury Air score, but I can't swear I've heard more than four or five pieces, which I have vaguely liked. What would you recommend?

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: Thanks ... very excited about the book. You say above... "
I wasn't even aware that musicologists associate experimentalism in music with technical ineptitude."
Should I take that as exaggeration, as spreading as your academic ass? Having done a lot of experimental work throughout my compositional life, I can assure you that -- right down to a score reluctantly performed in April -- the professional responses reek of dismissiveness ... to the point where I was asked (I paraphrase) what exactly this good little composer was doing with such nonsense.
KG replies: Dennis, you should take it as me trying to be ever-so-slightly more polite than I am natively inclined to be. In reality, dismissiveness and academia are synonyms. I know. But I do expect better behavior from musicologists than I do conductors.

Jan Swafford says: Can't wait for the Essays, Kyle!
KG replies: Thanks, Jan. But the blog's more fun. I have to be polite in the book.

Henry Gwiazda says: Hi Kyle!
I follow your blog daily but I've never commented before. Shame on me!
Because of my multimedia thinking, I think of Ives as a Dada composer. HIs use of collage and found objects (musical quotation) is superior to anything the European composers were doing post WWI, if they were doing anything in sympathy to Max Ernest, Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, at all.
I don't think he knew anything about the Cafe Voltaire but that doesn't matter. Dada and the motivations that led to it were not a European thing but a human thing that any "in touch" artist would feel. And Ives was certainly that. The attempts you mention by previous scholars to compare him to the Schoenberg-Webern school just reveals their ignorance of other modernist movements.
So, he was the only composer at the time working with what some people regard as the most influential artistic movement of Modernism.
Henry Gwiazda
KG replies: Hey, Henry, glad to hear from you. I've been trying to get in touch. The fact that I'm revising one of the First Sonata's scherzos makes your view particularly relevant at the moment.

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says: Kyle, do you approach the Concord from outside of the arts?
The Concord was in progress along with Einstein's work, for example, and ever since reading Shalin's "Art and Physics" I've been interested in how developments in the sciences (vs. politics, the arts, social change, etc.) have influenced significant compositions. It is more evident from the 1950s forward in music where such parallels were often sought (or at least proclaimed), but how about its influence on Ives? His work in business included a large amount of published material coincident with writing the Concord. I've never seen this material, but "Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax" was published (and apparently very well received) about the time of the Concord's completion, if I have that chronology right. Are his dealings with hard numbers and analysis -- and perhaps even the scientific developments exploited in the devastating war -- part of your consideration?
Of course, I can just wait for the book...
KG replies: No, that's OK. I am ranging through other disciplines than music (literature, art, religion, philosophy), but only to research the quotations in Essays Before a Sonata. I'm not really even interested in Ives's life, just the book and the two sonatas. I haven't read anything that made me think Ives had any interest in scientific developments. In fact, he lost a job because he didn't have any talent for actuarial tables.

nac says: This is very left field, but there's a passage in a retelling of Sophocles' "Antigone" by Anne Carson that comes to mind whenever I encounter these situations/debates (which pop up in the social sciences, too):
CHORUS: "How is a Greek chorus like a lawyer? They're both in the business of searching for a precedent, finding an analogy, locating a prior example, so as to be able to say, 'This terrible thing we're witnessing now is not unique, you know it happened before, or something much like it. We're not at a loss how to think about this, we're not without guidance, there's a pattern. We can find an historically parallel case and file it away under, "Antigone, buried alive Friday afternoon: compare case histories 7, 17 and 49." Now I could dig up those case histories, tell you about Danaos and Lykourgos and the sons of Phineas, people locked up in a room, or a cave, or their own dark mind. It wouldn't help you, it didn't help me.'"
Not that Ives' music is "a terrible thing," of course!
KG replies: Great quote, thanks.

Susan Scheid says: Even while abroad, I've been following your posts with interest, though I'm still trying to remain offline more than on. Congratulations on this milestone, and I look forward more than ever to reading the book. Your closing questions, "Did Ives master the European musical idiom? Yes. Did he do a lot of things in his music that he had never seen or heard in any previous music? Yes. Is it really such a burden to keep both those facts in one's head at the same time?" resonate so much. I was discussing with a friend something related to this about a Sibelius biography I recently read. It was an excellent book in so many ways, but I couldn't help but think that at some points the author's theory (on why Sibelius stopped composing) informed the choice of what was presented and why. When I told my friend, who is writing a book on Prokofiev, about this, he commiserated and noted that one of the questions he'd been asked about his book was "what's your angle?" How much better to let the stories reveal themselves inductively through thoughtful research. No, it's not such a burden to keep both facts you name in one's head at the same time-and to do so will make the picture we can get of Ives and the Concord Sonata so much richer.
KG replies: Oh, Susan, you put everything so beautifully it makes me laugh. I've been determined that my "angle" for this book is that I want to understand the Concord and its Essays as well as I possibly can during this lifetime. And that means submitting myself to it without having any idea what my conclusion will be.

Copyright 2014 by Kyle Gann

Return to the PostClassic Blog Archive

Return to the Kyle Gann Home Page

return to the home page