Charles Edward Ives ( / v z / ; October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954) was an American modernist composer . He is one of the first American composers of international renown, though his music was largely ignored throughout his life, and a large number of of his works went unperformed for a large number of years. Over time, he came to be regarded as an "American original". [2] He combined the American popular and church-music traditions of his youth with European art music, and was among the first composers to engage in a systematic programme of experimental music , with musical techniques including polytonality , polyrhythm , tone clusters , aleatoric elements, and quarter tones , foreshadowing a large number of musical innovations of the twentieth century.

Sources of Ives' tonal imagery are hymn tunes and traditional songs , the town band at holiday parade, the fiddlers at Saturday night dances, patriotic songs, sentimental parlour ballads, and the melodies of Stephen Foster .


Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874, [3] the son of George Ives, a U.S. Army bandleader in the American Civil War , and his wife, Mary Parmelee. A strong influence of his might have been sitting in the Danbury town square, listening to George's marching band and additional bands on additional sides of the square simultaneously . George's unique music lessons were additionally a strong influence on him; George took an open-minded approach to musical theory , encouraging him to experiment in bitonal and polytonal harmonizations. It was from him that Ives additionally learned the music of Stephen Foster . He became a church organist at the age of 14 and wrote various hymns and songs for church services, including his Variations on "America" , which he wrote for a Fourth of July concert in Brewster, New York . It is considered challenging even by modern concert organists, but he famously spoke of it as being "as much fun as playing baseball ", a commentary on his own organ technique at that age.

Ives moved to New Haven, Connecticut in 1893, enrolling in the Hopkins School , where he captained the baseball team. In September 1894, Ives entered Yale University , studying under Horatio Parker . Here he composed in a choral style similar to his mentor, writing church music and even an 1896 campaign song for William McKinley . On November 4, 1894, his father died, a crushing blow to him, but to a large degree he continued the musical experimentation he had begun with him.

At Yale, Ives was a prominent figure; he was a member of HeBoule, Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi chapter) and Wolf's Head Society , and sat as chairman of the Ivy Committee . He enjoyed sports at Yale and played on the varsity football team. Michael C. Murphy, his coach, once remarked that it was a "crying shame" that he spent so much time at music as otherwise he could have been a champion sprinter. [4] His works Calcium Light Night and Yale-Princeton Football Game show the influence of college and sports on Ives' composition. He wrote his Symphony No. 1 as his senior thesis under Parker's supervision.

Ives continued his work as a church organist until May 1902. Soon after he graduated from Yale, he started work in the actuarial department of the Mutual Life Insurance company of New York. [5] In 1899, Ives moved to employment with the insurance agency Charles H. Raymond & Co., where he stayed until 1906. In 1907, upon the failure of Raymond & Co., he and his friend Julian Myrick formed their own insurance agency Ives & Co., which later became Ives & Myrick, where he remained until he retired. During his career as an insurance executive and actuary, Ives devised creative ways to structure life-insurance packages for people of means, which laid the foundation of the modern practise of estate planning . His Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax , published in 1918, was well received. As a result of this he achieved considerable fame in the insurance industry of his time, with a large number of of his business peers surprised to learn that he was additionally a composer. In his spare time he composed music and, until his marriage, worked as an organist in Danbury and New Haven as well as Bloomfield, New Jersey and New York City .

In 1907, Ives suffered the first of several "heart attacks" (as he and his family called them) that he had throughout his lifetime. These attacks might have been psychological in origin rather than physical. Following his recovery from the 1907 attack, Ives entered into one of the most creative periods of his life as a composer.

After marrying Harmony Twitchell in 1908, they moved into their own flat in New York. He had a remarkably successful career in insurance, and continued to be a prolific composer until he suffered another of several heart attacks in 1918, after which he composed quite little, writing his quite last piece, the song "Sunrise", in August 1926. In 1922, Ives published his 114 Songs , which represents the breadth of his work as a composer—it includes art songs, songs he wrote as a teenager and young man, and highly dissonant songs like "The Majority."

According to his wife, one day in early 1927 Ives came downstairs with tears in his eyes. He could compose no more, he said, "nothing sounds right." There have been numerous theories advanced to explain the silence of his late years, which seems as mysterious as the last several decades of the life of Jean Sibelius , who additionally stopped composing at almost the same time. While he had stopped composing, and was increasingly plagued by health problems, he did continue to revise and refine his earlier work, as well as oversee premieres of his music. After continuing health problems, including diabetes, in 1930 he retired from his insurance business, which gave him more time to devote to his musical work, but he was unable to write any new music. During the 1940s he revised his Concord Sonata , publishing it in 1947 (an earlier version of the sonata and the accompanying prose volume, Essays Before a Sonata were privately printed in 1920).

Ives died of a stroke in 1954 in New York City. His widow, who died in 1969 at age 92, bequeathed the royalties from his music to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the Charles Ives Prize . [7]

Ives' career and dedication towards music was from the time when he started playing drums in his father’s band at a young age. Ives published a large collection of songs, a large number of of which had piano parts. He composed two string quartets and additional works of chamber music, though he's now best known for his orchestral music. His work as an organist led him to write Variations on "America" in 1891, which he premiered at a recital celebrating the Fourth of July.

In 1906, Ives composed the first radical musical work of the twentieth century, "Central Park in the Dark". He composed two symphonies, as well as "The Unanswered Question" (1908), written for the unusual combination of trumpet, four flutes, and string quartet. "The Unanswered Question" was influenced by the New England writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Around 1910, Ives began composing his most accomplished works including the "Holiday Symphony" and "Three Places in New England". "The Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass.", known as the "Concord Sonata" was one of his most remarkable pieces. He started work on this in 1911 and completed most of it in 1915. Notwithstanding it wasn’t until 1920 that the piece was published and the revised version appeared only in 1947. This piece contains one of the most striking examples of his experimentalism. In the second movement, he instructed the pianist to use a 14¾ in (37.5 cm) piece of wood to create a massive cluster chord.

Another remarkable piece of orchestral music Ives completed was his "Fourth Symphony". He worked on this from 1910 to 1916. This symphony is notable for its complexity and over sized orchestra. It has four movements and a complete performance of it wasn't given until 1965, i.e. half a century after it was completed.

Ives left behind material for an unfinished "Universe Symphony", which he was unable to assemble in his lifetime notwithstanding two decades of work. This was due to his health problems as well as his shifting idea of the work.


Ives' music was largely ignored throughout his lifetime, particularly throughout the years in which he actively composed. Many of his published works went unperformed even a large number of years after his death in 1954. Notwithstanding his reputation in more recent years has greatly increased. Juilliard commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of his death by performing his music over six days in 2004. His musical experiments, including his increasing use of dissonance, weren't well received by his contemporaries. Furthermore, the difficulties in performing the rhythmic complexities in his major orchestral works made them daunting challenges even decades after they were composed.

Early supporters of Ives' music included Henry Cowell , Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland . Cowell's periodical New Music published a substantial number of Ives' scores (with his approval), but for almost 40 years he had few performances that he didn't arrange or back, generally with Nicolas Slonimsky as the conductor. After seeing a copy of his self-published 114 Songs throughout the 1930s, Copland published a newspaper article praising the collection.

Ives began to acquire a few public recognition throughout the 1930s, with performances of a chamber orchestra version of his Three Places in New England both in the U.S. and on tour in Europe by conductor Nicolas Slonimsky and the New York Town Hall premiere of his Concord Sonata by pianist John Kirkpatrick in 1939, which led to favourable commentary in the major New York newspapers. Later, around the time of Ives' death in 1954, Kirkpatrick teamed with soprano Helen Boatwright for the first extended recorded recital of Ives' songs for the obscure Overtone label (Overtone Records catalogue number 7). They recorded a new selection of songs for the Ives Centennial Collection that Columbia Records published in 1974.

Ives' obscurity lifted a bit in the 1940s, when he met Lou Harrison , a fan of his music who began to edit and promote it. Most notably, Harrison conducted the premiere of the Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting (1904) in 1946. The next year, it won him the Pulitzer Prize for Music . He gave the prize money away (half of it to Harrison), saying "prizes are for boys, and I'm all grown up". He himself was a great financial supporter of twentieth century music, most often supporting works that were written by additional composers. This he did in secret, telling his beneficiaries it was really his wife who wanted him to do so. Nicolas Slonimsky said in 1971, "He financed my entire career."

At this time, Ives was additionally promoted by Bernard Herrmann , who worked as a conductor at CBS and in 1940 became principal conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra . While there, he championed his music. When they met, Herrmann confessed that he had tried his hand at performing the Concord Sonata . Remarkably, Ives, who actually avoided the radio and the phonograph, agreed to make a series of piano recordings from 1933 to 1943 that were later issued by Columbia Records on a special LP set issued for his centenary in 1974. New World Records issued 42 tracks of his recordings on CD on April 1, 2006. One of the more unusual recordings, made in New York City in 1943, features him playing the piano and singing the words to his popular World War I song They Are There! , which he composed in 1917, then revised in 1942–43 for World War II .

Also in Canada, the expatriate English pianist Lloyd Powell played a series of concerts including all of Ives' piano works, at the University of British Columbia in the 1950s. [8]

Recognition of Ives' music steadily increased. He received praise from Arnold Schoenberg , who regarded him as a monument to artistic integrity, and from the New York School of William Schuman . Shortly after Schoenberg's death (three years before Ives died), his widow found a note written by her husband. The note had originally been written in 1944 when Schoenberg was living in Los Angeles and teaching at UCLA. It stated:

There is a great Man living in this Country – a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one's self-esteem and to learn [ sic ]. He responds to negligence by contempt. He isn't forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives. [9]

There is a report that Ives additionally won the admiration of Gustav Mahler , who said that he was a true musical revolutionary. Reportedly, Mahler talked of premiering Ives' Third Symphony with the New York Philharmonic , but he soon died (in 1911) thus preventing the premiere. Notwithstanding the source of this storey is Ives himself; after Mahler died, there was no way to verify whether he had seen the score of the symphony or decided to perform it in the 1911–12 season. [11] Nonetheless, it is known that Ives regularly attended New York Philharmonic concerts and probably heard Mahler conduct the Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall .

In 1951, Leonard Bernstein conducted the world premiere of Ives' Second Symphony in a broadcast concert by the New York Philharmonic . The Iveses heard the performance on their cook's radio and were amazed at the audience's warm reception to the music. Bernstein continued to conduct Ives' music and made a number of recordings with the Philharmonic for Columbia Records. He even honoured him on one of his televised youth concerts and in a special disc included with the reissue of the 1960 recording of the Second Symphony and the Fourth of July movement from Ives' Holiday Symphony .

Another pioneering Ives recording, undertaken throughout the 1950s, was the first complete set of the four violin sonatas, performed by Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster Rafael Druian and John Simms. Leopold Stokowski took on Symphony No. 4 in 1965, regarding the work as "the heart of the Ives problem". The Carnegie Hall world premiere by the American Symphony Orchestra led to the first recording of the music. An Additional promoter of his was choral conductor Gregg Smith, who made a series of recordings of his shorter works throughout the 1960s, including first stereo recordings of the psalm settings and arrangements of a large number of short pieces for theatre orchestra. The Juilliard String Quartet recorded the two string quartets throughout the 1960s.

Today, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is an enthusiastic exponent of Ives' symphonies as is composer and biographer Jan Swafford . Ives' work is regularly programmed in Europe. He has additionally inspired pictorial artists, most notably Eduardo Paolozzi , who entitled one of his 1970s sets of prints Calcium Light Night , each print being named for an Ives piece (including Central Park in the Dark ). In 1991, Connecticut 's legislature designated him as that state's official composer. [12]

The Scottish baritone Henry Herford began a survey of Ives' songs in 1990, but this remains incomplete because the record company involved ( Unicorn-Kanchana ) collapsed. Pianist-composer and Wesleyan University professor Neely Bruce has made a life's study of Ives. To date, he has staged seven parts of a concert series devoted to the complete songs of Ives. Musicologist David Gray Porter reconstructed a piano concerto, the "Emerson" Concerto , from Ives' sketches. A recording of the work was released by Naxos Records .

Ives continues to be quite influential on contemporary composers and arrangers as shown by the most recent Planet Arts Records release Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra .


Note: Because Ives most often made several different versions of the same piece, and because his work was generally ignored throughout his lifetime, it is most often difficult to put exact dates on his compositions. The dates given here are at times best guesses. There have additionally been controversial speculations that he purposely misdated his own pieces earlier or later than actually written.

  • Variations on "America" for organ (1892)
  • The Circus Band (a march describing the Circus coming to town)
  • Psalm settings (14, 42, 54, 67, 90 , 135, 150) (1890s)
  • String Quartet No. 1 , From the Salvation Army (1897–1900)
  • Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1898–1901)
  • Symphony No. 2 (Ives gave dates of 1899–1902; analysis of handwriting and manuscript paper suggests 1907–1909)
  • Symphony No. 3 , The Camp Meeting (1908–10)
  • Central Park in the Dark for chamber orchestra (1906, 1909)
  • The Unanswered Question for chamber group (1906; rev. 1934)
  • Piano Sonata No. 1 (1909–16)
  • Emerson Concerto (1913–19)
  • The Gong on the Hook & Ladder (Firemen's Parade on Main Street) for orchestra, Kv 28
  • Tone Roads for orchestra No. 1, 'All Roads Lead To the Center' KkV38
  • A set of 3 Short Pieces, A, Kk W15, No 1 'Largo Cantabile – Hymn' for string quartet & double-bass
  • Halloween for string quartet, piano, & bass drum, Kw11
  • Piano Trio (c. 1909–10, rev. c. 1914–15)
  • Violin Sonata No. 1 (1910–14; rev. c. 1924)
  • Violin Sonata No. 4, Children's Day at the Camp Meeting (1911–16)
  • A Symphony: New England Holidays (1904–13)
  • "Robert Browning" Overture (1911–14)
  • Symphony No. 4 (1912–18; rev. 1924–26)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1913–15)
  • Pieces for chamber ensemble grouped as "Sets," a few called Cartoons or Take-Offs or Songs Without Voices (1906–18); includes Calcium Light Night
  • Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No. 1) (1910–14; rev. 1929)
  • Violin Sonata No. 2 (1914–17)
  • Violin Sonata No. 3 (1914–17)
  • Orchestral Set No. 2 (1915–19)
  • Piano Sonata No. 2 , Concord, Mass., 1840–60 (1916–19) (revised a large number of times by Ives)
  • Universe Symphony (incomplete, 1915–28, worked on symphony until his death in 1954)
  • 114 Songs (composed various years 1887–1921, published 1922.)
  • Three Quarter Tone Piano Pieces (1923–24)
  • Orchestral Set No. 3 (incomplete, 1919–26, notes added after 1934)


Ives proposed in 1920 that there be a twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would authorise citizens to submit legislative proposals to Congress. Members of Congress would then cull the proposals, selecting 10 each year as referendums for popular vote by the nation's electorate. He even had printed at his own expense several thousand copies of a pamphlet on behalf of his proposed amendment. The pamphlet proclaimed the need to curtail "THE EFFECTS OF TOO MUCH POLITICS IN OUR representative DEMOCRACY." His proposal joined his music in being ignored throughout his lifetime. [13]

It is claimed in the biographical film A Good Dissonance Like a Man that the first of Ives' crippling heart attacks occurred as a result of a World War I era argument with a young Franklin D. Roosevelt over his idea of issuing of war bonds in amounts as low as $50 each. Roosevelt was chairman of a war bonds committee on which Ives served, and he "scorned the idea of anything so useless as a $50 bond." Roosevelt changed his mind about small contributions as seen a large number of years later when he endorsed the March of Dimes to combat poliomyelitis.