Magazine article The Spectator

The Discomposing Composer

Magazine article The Spectator

The Discomposing Composer

Article excerpt

Charles Ives' music can make people uneasy, musicians as well as audiences. In 1982 I watched members of the chorus exchanging embarrassed smirks as Sir John Pritchard conducted the BBC Symphony in a rousing performance of Ives' immense and difficult Fourth Symphony.

I was reminded of that unpleasant scene while reading Jan Swafford's exceptional biography of this enigmatic genius. Swafford tells how Paul Eisler, conductor of the New Symphony, turned down Ives' score of `Decoration Day', then agreed to perform it after hearing Ives' own rendition on piano. (`Why, you play like an artist,' he exclaimed.) He held a reading in Carnegie Hall; by the end of the first section only one violinist remained playing. At each attempt the musicians downed their instruments one by one, forcing pained smiles, until only the same lone brave violin continued. Ives described the musicians smiling with `the same kind of smile a fat lady has when she runs for a trolley, half mad, half embarrassed, half something else'. Eisler handed back the score. `There is a limit to musicianship,' he said.

Ives recognised no such limits. Yet nearly 40 years after his death, and 70 after the effective close of his composing life, he is still viewed ambiguously. Swafford refuses to be dragged down the cul-de-sac of argument over Ives' place as an innovator of modern music, years before Schoenberg. Likewise he avoids typecasting Ives as a regional oddity, the homespun idiot savant. Instead, he celebrates and uses the contradictions of Ives' life to explain his music, and, more impressively, makes the music serve to illuminate the life. Swafford is a music scholar, yet his explanations are not too much for the general reader. His interpretations are so apt they return you to the music immediately.

As a boy Ives drove himself to excel in both sport and music, as a man his musical energies were shared with business. He literally `wrote the book' for insurance salesmen, yet he was far too reserved actually to sell policies himself. He rarely even addressed the salesmen who followed his precepts and made him a millionaire. Yet he could hire pit musicians in theatres to perform his works after hours, at times when no 'serious' musicians would touch them.

Imagine carrying on a double life, distributing self-published scores, and finding your creative half rejected at virtually every turn. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.