Author Topic: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review  (Read 18393 times)

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Joe Barron

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"Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« on: September 15, 2008, 04:19:09 PM »
Unsettling portrait of an American not-so-original

Charles Ives Reconsidered by Gayle Sherwood Magee. U. of Illinois Press, 2008. 238 pp. $35.

I can think of no composer who has been damaged by musicologists in the past few years as much as Charles Ives, and I was waiting eagerly for Gayle Sherwood Magee's new book, Charles Ives Reconsidered, to set the record straight. At last, I thought, someone was going to speak up for him with the weight of scholarship behind her.

Ives's stock crashed in 1987, when Maynard Solomon published a paper in The Journal of the American Musicological Society, titled "Charles Ives: Some Questions of Veracity," in which he charged that Ives deliberately backdated his scores to appear more of a musical innovator than he actually was. Solomon took as his starting point Elliott Carter's notorious, damning review of the Concord Sonata, which suggested that Ives might not be a true prophet.

"The fuss that critics make about Ives's innovations is, I think, exaggerated," Carter wrote, "for he has rewritten his works so many times, adding dissonances and polyrhythms, that it is probably impossible to tell just at what date the works assumed the surprising form we know now. The accepted dates of publication are most likely those of the compositions in their final state."

In later interviews, Carter recalled visiting Ives in his home in the late 1920s and watching him revise his scores to, in his phrase, jack up the level of dissonance. But Carter never accused Ives of dishonesty. In his review of the Concord, he specifically faults critics. It was up to Solomon to take the next step. He accused Ives of a "systematic pattern of falsification," backdating his scores and lying about just when certain of his were written.

The cry of protest from Ives specialists was immediate and loud, but like the truth about Sarah Palin and the bridge to nowhere, it could not stamp out the growing narrative. Almost every CD of Ives's music released in the decade after Solomon's article appeared contained, in its program notes, a reference to the chronology scandal, inevitably followed by a lame comment that is really didn't matter. (Carter made the same point in his review, but that part of the controversy seemed to disappear, and in any event, saying that the chronology doesn't matter is just a polite was of admitting that Solomon was right. If he was wrong, we wouldn't need irrelevance as a fallback position.)

Scholars such as Peter Burkholder and Philip Lambert defended Ives's integrity and originality, but only Gayle Sherwood Magee, a doctoral candidate at Yale (now teaching at the University of Illinois), answered Solomon's challenge directly. Focusing on his choral music, she dated the paper he used, analyzed his handwriting, and found, according to Ives's biographer Jan Swafford, that Ives's own dates were more accurate than not, and indeed, some pieces were written later than Ives's dates indicates. Solomon's systematic pattern of falsification, Swafford wrote, was neither systematic, or a pattern, nor false.

So, when I learned Sherwood Magee was writing a book on Ives, I was excited. Here, at last, would be the definitive story of Ives's career, grounded on the indisputable, revised chronology of his music developed both by Sherwood Magee herself and by James Sinclair at Yale University. It would be a vindication. Well, it's a vindication all right -- mostly of of Solomon and Carter.

While Sherwood Magee does not believe that Ives backdated his scores, as Solomon contends, she does acknowledge that many of his major works evolved over a period of years, even decades, and, in the end, he usually gave the years in which he began a piece as the date of composition. Echoing Carter's epistemological doubt, she concludes on the last page of her text that "many of his most important works cut across the arc of his compositional life in complex and probably unknowable ways."

Of course, if the claims for Ives's precedence had never been made, the debunking would not have been necessary, and his honesty would never have been questioned. In Sherwood Magee's telling, the source of the claim -- and of all the subsequent trouble -- is Henry Cowell. It was Cowell who, in his early writing about Ives in the 1930s, concocted what Ives's biographer Frank Rossiter called the Ives Legend, which described a visionary working in isolation, indifferent to success, inventing the language of modernism years ahead of his European contemporaries. Cowell had an agenda, Sherwood Magee writes: he wanted to establish American precedence in 20th century music, and he found a patriarchal figure in Charles Ives. To cleanse the stain of European influence from Ives' résumé, Cowell made George Ives into the central influence of young Charlie's life and expunged from the record the indispensable lessons Ives learned from of Horatio Parker, his genial, German-trained music professor at Yale.

Ives seemed happy to go along with the charade. According to Sherwood Magee, he sensed that throwing in his lot with the up-and-coming modernists would lead to recognition and acceptance in the larger community of musicians, and he fashioned his autobiographical Memos of the early 1930s to suit Cowell's purposes. First, he gives the earliest possible dates to his major compositions. Second, he denigrates Parker's contribution to his development and even concocts a homey little parable to praise his father's open-minded experimentalism at the expense of his professor's myopic conservatism: Parker told him that he there was no excuse for an unresolved dissonance at the end of one of his songs, Ives recalled, and when he related the comment to his father, George replied that not every dissonance has to resolve, any more than every horse should have its tale bobbed in response to the prevailing  fashion.

As Sherwood Magee points out, Ives did not begin taking classes with Parker until two years after his father died. The story is impossible.

Ives thus comes off as an ingrate, an opportunist, and yes, a prevaricator. He also appears as a hypochondriac, a misogynist, a xenophobe (though largely by association), and oddly passive. In a concise 180 pages, Sherwood Magee succeeds better than any other writer I know in re-creating the musical and social atmosphere that Ives breathed, but the composer himself almost disappears under the pressure of his influences. Everything he does seems to be a reaction to something else. One can understand it in the early chapters, when, as a young musician trying to find his place in the world, Ives finds his heroes and tries on a succession of professional hats, but his extraordinary burst of creativity in the decade after 1907 remains unaccounted for. During these years, Ives was free to compose the music he wanted. He had given up the life of a professional organist for the security of the insurance business, and he did not have to write for the American market. No younger composers like Henry Cowell were recasting him in their own image.
And yet Sherwood Magee says only that this new phase, which she dubs "nationalist-militarist," was at some level a questioning of the European romantic tradition, and that his renewed interest in quoting hymn tunes might have grown from his wife's religiosity. (Ives married Harmony Twichell in 1908.) Both theories draw a positive musical progression out of a negative space.

Charles Ives certainly did not spring from the head of his father as a fully formed innovator. It is now clear his deepest, most effective work grew from years of searching and revision. The composer absorbed many influences along the way. Sherwood Magee names them all as they go by, but none of them wrote the Concord Sonata, and one of them could have. The essence the Ives phenomenon remains a mystery. Perhaps it must: no biography I have read successfully accounts for the genius of Mozart are Brahms. They are just there, virtuosos by age ten, polished composers in their early twenties. Such a rapid blossoming of talent defies social and psychological explanation.

At the end of this short but depressing ride, Sherwood Magee gives us a carnival psychic's cold-reading of Ives's character. He was, she says, "a flawed, brilliant, naïve, shrewd, insecure, compassionate, ambitious, deceitful, trusting human being" In short, a mess, but really not that much difference from any one of the rest of us.  The challenge of Ives studies in the future, she says, will be to appreciate the composers from this "unvarnished perspective."

She can count me out. After years of keeping up with the revisionism, I'm too exhausted to do much more than put on a CD of the Second String Quartet and wonder, yet again, at the miracle of the sound.
« Last Edit: September 19, 2008, 07:23:42 AM by Joe Barron »

Offline Guido

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #1 on: September 15, 2008, 05:05:18 PM »
Thanks for the in depth review, Joe. When you say that it was depressing do you mean by her style and her own analysis and conclusions, or has she convinced you at least partially about the falseness of some of the dates that Ives names?
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Joe Barron

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #2 on: September 15, 2008, 05:27:30 PM »
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the book wasn't the disappointment. Ives was. It's upsetting to read that after all that effort, I wasn't being clear.

My fear now is that, given the anti-modernist tendency of contemporary musical politics, some misguided musicologiusts are going to start calling for a return to the real, original, premodernist Ives, much the way some theologians think they can reconstruct some pristine, pre-Pauline Christianity, and they'll use Gayle's book as a justification. It might be only a matter of time before we start seeing so-called original versions of Ives's major pieces, with the Ives's own arbitrarily stripped away. The rationale will be that he had fallen under the Svengali-like influence of a group of self-interested modernists, and he really didn't mean it. It's already happened in the Naxos recording of Three Paces in New England, even though I point out, in my review at Amazon, the final revised version is superior. I can't imagine what might lie beneath the playful dissonances of The Fourth of July, but we might soon be forced to find out.

I'm just tired of the fighting over Ives's corpse. I might be through with him for a while.

Offline Guido

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #3 on: September 15, 2008, 05:48:25 PM »
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the book wasn't the disappointment. Ives was. It's upsetting to read that after all that effort, I wasn't being clear.

My fear now is that, given the anti-modernist tendency of contemporary musical politics, some misguided musicologiusts are going to start calling for a return to the real, original, premodernist Ives, much the way some theologians think they can reconstruct some pristine, pre-Pauline Christianity, and they'll use Gayle's book as a justification. It might be only a matter of time before we start seeing so-called original versions of Ives's major pieces, with the Ives's own arbitrarily stripped away. The rationale will be that he had fallen under the Svengali-like influence of a group of self-interested modernists, and he really didn't mean it. It's already happened in the Naxos recording of Three Paces in New England, even though I point out, in my review at Amazon, the final revised version is superior. I can't imagine what might lie beneath the playful dissonances of The Fourth of July, but we might soon be forced to find out.

I'm just tired of the fighting over Ives's corpse. I might be through with him for a while.

The fault is all mine Joe... It's 3 in the morning here and I am no doubt not reading clearly. Reading it again it is obvious what you meant, and may I also say that it is heartbreaking to hear you say these things.
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Joe Barron

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #4 on: September 16, 2008, 05:55:52 AM »
I no longer think about it's authenticity regarding dates.

Well, it can't be, since that battle has been lost.

Privately, Gayle has said that Carter's observations are irrelevant, since Ives established his modernist bona fides in two works published in the early 1920s, before Carter knew him: The Concord Sonata and the 114 Songs. These two volumes, whose dates are not in dispute, contain all of the techniques and experiments Ives later incorporated into other, earlier scores. She has also said that Ives's originality is not an issue, either, since no one has written like him before or since. Unfortunately, she makes neither of these points in the book.

One point she does try to make, though, is that Ives's adoption of the modernist outlook in the 1920s led to greater and genuine creativity on his part. It was not just the absorption of a random new influence by a desperate hack who needed someone else's ideas to make his music work. In other words, it would be unfair to expect Ives to be exposed to new ideas and not be inspired by them. All great artists are open to the world around them and grow from what other have to teach them. But this seems to contradict her private statements that his mature techniques were in place by 1920. If he was a fully formed as a composer by  then, what more did he have to learn?

And please don't presume to tell me what I need to accept. I never said I wanted Ives scholarship to move in any direction. I certainly don't want to deny any evidence. All I'm saying is that I'm sick of the arguments. Gayle's book might not be the last word, but I am not looking forward to the next one.

Joe Barron

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #5 on: September 16, 2008, 06:09:03 AM »
... and may I also say that it is heartbreaking to hear you say these things.

Well, maybe I'm not feeling as hopeless was all that. Truth is, since picking up Gayle's book I've been listening to Ives quite a bit. No amount of scholarship, it would seem, can erase  his achievement completely. After our ssussion about the Second Quartet on the other thread, I listened three different versions of that piece in two days. (And yes, the Juilliard is much better than I remembered). I also listened to that band CD you didn't like, and this morning I played a recording of the First Quartet as I was getting reasdy for work. And I've strted reading Peter Burkholder's book, All Made of Tunes, which promises to be a fun look at what Ives actually did, not what his attitudes or influences might have been.
« Last Edit: September 16, 2008, 07:57:29 AM by Joe Barron »

karlhenning

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #6 on: September 16, 2008, 06:14:09 AM »
No amount of scholarship, it would seem, can erase his achievement completely.

'At's a strange expression, Bruce.

Joe Barron

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #7 on: September 16, 2008, 07:16:27 AM »
'At's a strange expression, Bruce.

Well, Bruce, I heard the prime minister use it. "No amount of scholarship can erase his achievement completely, your majesty," he said, and she smiled quietly to herself.

It is a strange expression, now that I think about it. One would expect the net effect of scholarship would be to enhance appreciation. In Ives's case, the tendency seems to be in the opposite direction.
« Last Edit: September 16, 2008, 07:20:05 AM by Joe Barron »

Offline Brewski

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #8 on: September 16, 2008, 07:30:54 AM »
No amount of scholarship, it would seem, can erase his achievement completely.

So there you go!  Whatever the dates involved, I still would never want to be without the results, i.e., his music.  And if over time his sheen as an innovator is lost--and that's "if"--the scores remain to speak for themselves.  Thanks for the interesting comments, Joe.

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Offline Guido

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #9 on: September 16, 2008, 07:55:49 AM »
Thanks for your comments Joe - very interesting thoughts as always.
Geologist.

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Joe Barron

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #10 on: September 16, 2008, 06:11:13 PM »
The review now includes a couple of corrections: Solomon's article appeared in 1987, not 1989. Gayle was a graduate student at Yale when she began researching the dates of Ives's work. She now teaches at the U. of Illinois, not Indiana. We regret the errors.
« Last Edit: September 17, 2008, 06:52:58 AM by Joe Barron »

Joe Barron

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #11 on: September 16, 2008, 06:27:57 PM »
Joe,

Not that I agree with the following from  Jbuck  but it always makes me chuckle:

"I find Ives dismissable and know many other musicians who feel the same way, though every time one expresses such an opinion about a composer on this site one must be prepared to receive a verbal stoning.  Frankly, if he came from New Zealand instead of the USA, no one would take him seriously..."

And of course, slapping it gratuitously onto this thread is calculated to further the discusson and make everyone feel good about their lives and opinions.

Am I right in thinking The Ardent Pederast is actually the esteemed Eric?
« Last Edit: September 16, 2008, 06:31:56 PM by Joe Barron »

karlhenning

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #12 on: September 17, 2008, 05:03:12 AM »
Am I right in thinking The Ardent Pederast is actually the esteemed Eric?

How could you doubt?

Can there be two people in the universe with a tag declaring their "worship [of] Debussy's gentle revolution"?

karlhenning

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #13 on: September 17, 2008, 05:18:32 AM »
Is the book an overview of his career, Joe?  (I need to read the Swafford, don't I?)

Oh, just one thing . . .

At the end of this short but depressing ride, Sherwood Magee gives us a carnival psychic’s cold-reading of Ives’s character. He was, she says, “a flawed, brilliant, naïve, shrewd, insecure, compassionate, ambitious, deceitful, trusting human being” In short, a mess, but really not that much difference from any one of the rest of us.

You mean, we're all brilliant?  8)

Edit :: image managed
« Last Edit: September 17, 2008, 06:09:18 AM by karlhenning »

Homo Aestheticus

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #14 on: September 17, 2008, 05:57:41 AM »
Karl wrote:

"Can there be two people in the universe with a tag declaring their "worship [of] Debussy's gentle revolution"?

-----

Why not Karl ?

Just remember that it's a SEMINAL masterpiece.

karlhenning

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #15 on: September 17, 2008, 06:23:25 AM »
Quote
Product Description

Charles Ives Reconsidered reexamines a number of critical assumptions about the life and works of this significant American composer, drawing on many new sources to explore Ives's creative activities within broader historical, social, cultural, and musical perspectives. Gayle Sherwood Magee offers the first large-scale rethinking of Ives's musical development based on the controversial revised chronology of his music. Using as a guide Ives's own dictum that "the fabric of existence weaves itself whole," Charles Ives Reconsidered offers several new paths to understanding all of Ives's music as the integrated and cohesive work of a controversial composer who was very much a product of his time and place. Magee portrays Ives's life, career and posthumous legacy against the backdrop of his musical and social environments from the Gilded Age to the present. The book includes contemporary portraits of the composer, his peers, and his teachers, as seen through archival materials, published reviews, and both historical and modern critical assessments.

"The fabric of existence weaves itself whole."  Give me a week, and maybe I'll work that one out.

Two weeks.

Curious to call Ives a composer "very much a product of his time and place";  whatever truth there is underneath that, it's also the fact that his time and place had little use for his composition.

Offline Brewski

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #16 on: September 17, 2008, 06:29:21 AM »
Is the book an overview of his career, Joe?  (I need to read the Swafford, don't I?)

(I'm not Joe, but... :D)  The Swafford is very good--definitely recommended if you're inclined.

--Bruce
"Do you realize that we're meteorites; almost as soon as we're born, we have to disappear?"

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karlhenning

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #17 on: September 17, 2008, 06:43:50 AM »
(I'm not Joe, but... :D)  The Swafford is very good--definitely recommended if you're inclined.

Must be a copy at the BPL . . . that will be my treat to myself when the ballet is at last done.

Joe Barron

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #18 on: September 17, 2008, 07:40:47 AM »
You mean, we're all brilliant?  8)

And shrewd and naive, and insecure and ambitious.  We seek friendship but cherish our solitude. We are generous and nurturing but sometimes feel we don't take care of ourselves as much as we should. 

I loved Swafford's book when I read it, but I wouldn't say it's a necessary propadeutic for Charles Ives Reconsidered. Swafford and Gayle cover much the same ground --- how could they not? --- but each has a different emphases. You'll learn things from one that you won't from the other. It's been a long time since I've read Swafford, but Gayle is better, I think, on the musical atmosphere of Ives's youth, his professional ambitions, and on the musical legacies of George Ives and Horatio Parker. Swafford gets more into Ives's personal life and offers more detailed descriptions of some of the major pieces. At times he seems more of an apologist.

Both are must reads. The point of my review is that one should be prepared for Gayle's conclusions.

Her revised chronology of Ives's music casts doubt onto one of my most cherished stories about him. It has become clear that with Ives, most dates are and always will be provisional, but Gayle states he most likely began his Third Symphony in 1910 or 1911. If this is true, it unlikely, and probably impossible, that Mahler discovered the work at the office of Ives's copyist and took the score back to Europe with him, intending to conduct it. Mahler died in May 1911. The symphony would not have been finished in time for him to see it. The story first appears in Ives's Memos. Cowell mentions it in a footnote in Charles Ives and his Music, and both Swafford and David Wooldridge elaborate on it. Wooldridge even goes so far as to contend that Mahler managed to read through the work at an orchestral rehearsal in Germany. (He says he found and spoke with one of the musicians who took part.) According to the descriptive catalog of Ives's music, however, "there exists no corroborating evidence that Ives ever met Mahler or gave a score of this work c1911 to any conductor other than Walter Damrosch."

The king is dead.
« Last Edit: September 17, 2008, 07:44:28 AM by Joe Barron »

karlhenning

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Re: "Charles Ives Reconsidered": A book review
« Reply #19 on: September 17, 2008, 07:44:55 AM »
We're here for you, Joe.