Magazine article Gramophone

Charles Ives in the Mirror

Magazine article Gramophone

Charles Ives in the Mirror

Article excerpt

Charles Ives in the Mirror

American Histories of an Iconic Composer

By David C Paul

University of Illinois Press, HB, 312pp, 30 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-0-252-03749-8

And the mirror cracked, not just from side to side, but shattered into a disorderly jumble of ideas, interpretations, assumptions, analyses and politicised agendas: Charles Ives as a proto-modernist who beat Schoenberg and Stravinsky at their own games, Ives as all American hero and Cold War pawn. David C Paul, assistant professor of musicology at the University of California, set himself the task of documenting the changeable kismet of Ives's reputation across the 20th and 21st centuries. Charles Ives in the Mirror is a reception history, not a biography; he wants to investigate how Ives 'has been imagined by the critics, performers and scholars who have been moved to speak or write about him'. As a music writer who has himself been moved to write about Ives, I appreciate Paul's artfully chosen word 'imagine'.

Glimpses of Ives are both vivid and allusive. There he is in that classic W Eugene Smith photograph eyeballing you (dutifully reproduced on page 76); you can hear Ives in those thrusting, bangy recordings he made of Concord Sonata extracts during the 1930s. To say that Ives's larger-than-larger-than-life presence burns through these sepia relics is understating the truth. But because Ives hardly ever gave an interview and spent the last 20 years of his life in sickly isolation, there is no public Ives to draw on. All we can do is imagine.

Paul speculates that this interview-scepticism was part of Ives's trademark instinct for autonomy and independence. Beginning in 1921, as Ives mails out unsolicited promotional copies of his Concord Sonata and accompanying pamphlet Essays Before a Sonata to 'several hundred Americans', an analogy is drawn with the sharp business practices he innovated in his day job as an insurance executive: 'This was a pitch for a product. …

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