Q&A with Charles Ives in the Mirror author David C. Paul

David C. Paul is an assistant professor of musicology and theory at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Charles Ives in the Mirror: American Histories of an Iconic Composer. We asked him some questions about Ives and the composer’s place in American history.

Q: Ives’s music was largely ignored during his lifetime. Who were among the first wave of composers to discover and promote his work?

Paul: The first wave of composers who engaged with Ives were American modernists like Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, and Elliott Carter.  Ives was actually still alive when they discovered him (in the late twenties and early thirties), but his compositional activities had tapered off due to ill-health. 

What attracted Cowell, in particular, and to a lesser extent, Copland and Carter, were the unusual musical techniques that Ives deployed: dissonant, atonal passages are juxtaposed with sentimental tonal passages; familiar tunes drift in and out of focus; melodies in different keys are superimposed. This was the sort of thing that European modernists were experimenting with at the time, and Ives seemed to have done it first.

Priority is always a major concern with modernists, who, as Ezra Pound famously put it, wanted to “make it new.”

Q: Why was Ives “at the fringe” of the musical world during most of his lifetime?

Paul: There are two principle reasons. The first has to do with Ives’s own decision to pursue a very successful career in the insurance industry instead of making music his vocation. This was a decision in part dictated by the gender values of turn-of-the-century America: men from upper middle class families (like Ives’s) were expected to go into business; the arts were the province of women. So in part, Ives moved himself to the fringes of the musical world. The second reason has to do with his music. It was extraordinarily unusual sounding-all the traits I mentioned in response to your previous question made the music inaccessible to the typical American music-lover. Those same traits, would, of course, be the very thing that attracted American composers who inhabited the modernist world.

Q: Does the influence of Ives have a distinctly “American” flavor?

Paul: Ives has had comparatively little influence on the kind of music American composers write, with a few notable exceptions (Henry Brant and John Adams come to mind). But he has been enormously influential on people who have attempted to reconstruct the history American music. That’s the main subject of my book—how people have portrayed Ives over the years. As I mention in the introduction, Ives has been the subject of mythologies as varied as those that have accumulated about our founding fathers and best-remembered presidents. Just to give you an idea of the range, he has, at one extreme, been venerated as the patriarch of American music; at the other, he has been vilified as the greatest musical snake-oil salesman of all time.

Q: Did his work writing advertising copy in the insurance industry bleed into the “scene setting” he provided for his compositions?

Paul: Yes! Though Ives could be a ruthless businessman, insisting that the men who worked for him aggressively pursue any opening to secure a sale, he also had an idealistic side. He claimed that the insurance business was a progressive one—almost a communitarian enterprise whereby the safety of the individual plan-holder was secured by his or her membership in a larger whole, a community of plan-holders. Something of that idea exists in his music, which celebrates the communitarian ethos of small-town America (it goes without saying that this was a mythologized small-town America, bearing only some resemblance to the real small-town in which Ives grew up). In the thirties, when Ives had secured a cohort of devotees, he rationalized his business career by claiming it brought him into contact with more kinds of people than a music career would have done and that his music benefited as a result.  Moreover, he maintained that the people he encountered in business were more open-minded than the typical musician.

Whether this was true or not is hard to determine—by the thirties, Ives was already being influenced by the stories others were telling about him.

Q: Why was there a new attention paid to Ives’s work during the Cold War?

Paul: The oddities of his biography combined with the way modernists viewed his music made him a compelling figure in the “battle for hearts and minds.”

Ives had avoided the normal career path for American musicians (which typically meant traveling to Europe to finish one’s education, and then returning to concertize or teach in the United States). He had, in other words, followed an independent path. And, as it happens, that path involved making a great deal of money as a businessman overseeing his own insurance company. So, biographically speaking, he seemed an individualist who owed his success to capitalism. Moreover, the idiosyncrasies of his music, as viewed by his modernist advocates, seem to have anticipated every major development of music in the twentieth century. To them, Ives was the first to explore techniques that Schoenberg and Stravinsky, European modernists, would later claim as their own. In short, Ives was the ideal figure to be deployed in the cultural Cold War: an independent-minded man who demonstrated the artistic and financial possibilities of the American way. This is how he was portrayed by Leonard Bernstein, when Bernstein performed Ives’s music on tour in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the fifties. It was also the way Ives was portrayed in the concerts and materials provided by the United States Information Agency to countries around the world.

Q: It would seem (as the book’s title suggests) that Ives’s advocates reveal as much about themselves as they do Ives. Is this also the case of his critics?

Paul: It depends on the critic. There are those who have just dismissed his music outright and never really engaged with it any substantial way. I suppose one could read something into their disregard, but really, to get a sense of who they are, you would have to look at the music they do like.

The more interesting cases are those of Ives devotees who are critical of some aspects of his life or music. Take Elliott Carter, who knew Ives early on but, after studying composition rigorously with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, struggled to come to terms with what he viewed as the un-disciplined structure of Ives’s music.

Another good example is the historian Frank Rossiter, who wrote an important revisionist biography of Ives in the seventies, at once sympathetic and critical. Rossiter actually viewed Ives as being a prisoner of American culture-of having fallen victim to the gender stereotypes of the Gilded Age that made a career in music not a viable option for a man of Ives’s pedigree. As I argue in Charles Ives in the Mirror, Rossiter was actually projecting onto Ives a bit of his own experiences as a gay man living in the early Stonewall Era. Rossiter felt himself imprisoned by American views about sexual identity and in Ives he saw a something of his own struggles. So even for critics of Ives, or at least people who are ambivalent about Ives, the composer can sometimes serve as a mirror reflecting their own American histories.

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