Charles Ives was born in New England. He received a thorough education, including college at Yale where he studied composition and was organist of a New Haven church, in addition to pursuing a regular academic program. But the most profound influences on his personality and political, religious, and aesthetic views were his New England heritage and his father, a village bandmaster and something of a renegade in his musical thinking. After graduation from Yale, Ives came to New York where he began a successful career in the insurance business, believing that “a man could keep his music interest stronger, cleaner, bigger and freer if he didn’t try to make a living out of it.” He composed evenings and weekends, completing hundreds of songs, choral works, piano pieces, and works for a variety of instrumental groupings, from a few players to a full symphony orchestra. The strain of this rigorous routine took its toll and in 1918 Ives suffered his first heart attack, after which he gradually retired to a life of seclusion with his wife, Harmony, at their home in Connecticut. At his death his works, most of which were in manuscript, were just beginning to attract attention outside the small group that had long recognized his originality and importance as a truly American voice.
Ives’s music, with its bold, adventurous experiments with tonal materials and structures, is rooted in the American ideals of rugged independence and freedom of individual expression, which also inspired such observations as the following:
“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair.”
“Down with politicians & Up with the People!”
“Some of these… pieces…were in part made to strengthen the ear muscles, the mind muscles,and perhaps the Soul muscles, too.”
“The great fundamental truths — freedom over slavery; the natural over the artificial; the goodness of man; the Godness of man; God.”
Many of Ives’s works are highly personal recreations of his own experiences, memories, and imagination with such titles as George Washington’s Birthday, Central Park in the Dark, The Circus Band, From the Steeples and the Mountains, Harvest Home Chorales, The Concord Sonata,General William Booth Enters into Heaven. The titles of others —Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos, Chromatimelodtune, Tone Roads, for example — suggest the abstract, purely musical dimension of Ives’s compositional thinking. In both types, he often quotes or imitates marches, ragtime, patriotic, folk, and popular songs within a complex, dissonant, and seemingly discontinuous musical fabric.