Childhood & Early Life
Charles Edward Ives was born on October 20, 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut, into a well-to-do business family, who made their initial money by manufacturing and selling hats. Later they branched out into other businesses, earning distinction in life. All of them were highly educated, socially very conscious, and little eccentric.
Charles’ father, George Edward Ives, was an exception. During the Civil War, he became the youngest bandleader in the US Army. Thereafter, he returned to Danbury to become the town’s bandmaster even though the vocation was then looked upon with little respect.
Subsequently, he also became a theater orchestra leader, choir director, and teacher. Trained in classical music, he loved to experiment with tone clusters, polytonality, quartertones, and acoustics. It was clashes of rhythm and tone, which interested him the most and he passed down this trait to his son.
Charles’ mother, Mary Parmelee, was also a unique woman. She used to whistle as she went about doing the household chores. The couple had two sons. While Charles inherited his father’s musical talent, his younger brother, Joseph Moss Ives, became a lawyer.
Charles had his first lesson in music from his father. As the story goes, he was introduced to the art through an interesting incident. One day, when he was five years old, his father came home to find him banging the piano keys with drum parts, using his fists.
George must have sensed some kind of innovative skill in this. Therefore, instead of scolding him, he told him encouragingly, "It's all right to do that, Charles, if you know what you're doing” and then sent him to have his first lessons in drum.
Some time now, he began to receive piano lessons from his father and soon became proficient in it. Later as he was introduced to organ, he became more interested in that. By the age of twelve, he began to play the organ for church services at Danbury Baptist Church.
George had a unique style of teaching. He would often make Charles sit at the town square as he and other bandmasters played the band there. Listening to different bands being played simultaneously, Charles soon developed a unique musical sense, which helped him to experiment in bi-tonal and polytonal harmonization.
Charles started composing hymns and songs for church services from the age of thirteen. At fourteen, he was appointed as a church organist on salary. At seventeen, he composed ‘Variation on America’, an arrangement of traditional “My Country, 'Tis of Thee” for Fourth of July celebration in the following year.
Such intense involvement with music also had its cons. He soon began to feel isolated from his friends and to counter that, he threw himself into sports. He was a great baseball player and found composing a difficult piece like ‘Variation on America’ “as much fun as playing baseball”.
In 1893, the family moved to New Haven, Connecticut. Here, he was enrolled at Hopkins Grammar School, a college preparatory day institution. Here too he continued playing baseball along with studying music and captained the school’s baseball team.
In September 1894, Charles Ives entered the Yale University. Here he studied organ with Dudley Buck and composition with Horatio Parker, learning the basics of composition such as form, orchestration, counterpoint, and harmony from him.
Initially he wrote church music in a choral style similar to Parker. But when his father passed away on November 4 he restarted experimenting with harmony and counterpoint, something which Parker did not appreciate. Although disgruntled, he therefore toned down his music and followed the traditional rules for his teacher.
Sometime in his freshman year, he became the organist of Center Church in New Haven. Concurrently, he took equal interest in games and played on the varsity American football team. Later, he also became a member of HeBoule, Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi chapter), Wolf's Head Society and Ivy Committee.
In 1898, Ives wrote his Symphony No. 1 in D minor as his senior thesis under Parker's supervision. In the same year, he graduated from Yale and moved to New York. ‘March No. 6’ and ‘The Bells of Yale’ are some of his popular works of this period.
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On graduating from Yale, Charles Ives first thought of pursuing a career in composition. But remembering Parker’s reaction to his innovations, he realized that he could not make a living by writing the kind of music he wanted to. Moreover, there were fewer opening for composers than for performers.
He then joined the Mutual Life Insurance Company as a clerk, earning $5 a week. Simultaneously, he took up employment as a part-time organist and choir director at the First Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield New Jersey, moving to Central Presbyterian Church in New York in the following year.
In 1899, Ives left MLI Company to join Charles H. Raymond & Co., where he remained employed until 1906. In private, he continued to work on music, writing new scores as well as improving on his existing works such as ‘String Quartet No. 1’ (1897 – 1902) and ‘Symphony No 1 (1898 -1901).
Among his fresh works, ‘Symphony No 2’ (1899 -1902), ‘Central Park in Dark’ (1906) and ‘The Unanswered Question’ (1906) are most significant. Like many of Ives’ works, the last two pieces remained unknown until they were performed much later in 1946.
When Charles H. Raymond & Co closed down in 1906, Charles teamed up with his friend Julian Myrick to form their own insurance agency. In 1907, they established Ives & Co, which was later renamed as Ives & Myrick. Within a short period it became very successful.
As an insurance executive and actuary, Ives showed his acumen by structuring life-insurance packages for his well-to-do clients. From this evolved the modern practice of estate planning. Their agency was also the first to open a school for insurance agents and for that purpose he wrote a number of books and pamphlets.
‘The Amount to Carry and How to Carry It’, published in 1912 is possibly the first of the lot. It has been revised and reprinted several times. His ‘Life Insurance with Relation to Inheritance Tax’, published in 1918, was another milestone in his insurance career.
From the point of view of music too, the period between 1910 and 1918 had been very productive. ‘The Piano Sonata No. 2, Concord, Mass., 1840–60’, ‘Holiday Symphony’, ‘Three Places in New England’ , ‘Robert Browning Overture’, ‘Symphony No 4’ etc are some of the more popular works of this period.
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Illness & Later Years
Working in the office during the day and writing music at night or over the weekend affected his health. In 1918, he became seriously ill and sustained cardiac damage. Slowly he began to reduce his business activities.
He also began composing less and less, but kept on revising his existing works. In 1919, he started working on ‘Orchestra Set No 3’, but in 1926 left it incomplete. According to his wife, one day in 1927, he came down with tears in his eyes, saying that he could not compose anymore.
Indeed, he tried to work on ‘Universal Symphony’, but abandoned it in 1928 because he could not complete it. In 1930, he retired from his insurance business so that he could devote more time to his music; but it did not help.
Although he could not create anything new, the 1930s was important from another aspect. It was during this decade that Nicolas Slonimsky first performed Ives’ ‘Three Places in New England’, both in USA and Europe. It kindled an interest in his work, which were so far largely neglected.
His reputation was further established when in 1939, pianist John Kirkpatrick premiered his ‘Concord Sonata’ at the New York Town Hall. It led to favorable commentary in the major New York newspapers.
Ives gained the final recognition when in 1946 Lou Silver Harrison conducted the premiere of the ‘Symphony No. 3, The Camp Meeting’. It earned Charles Ives the Pulitzer Prize for Music and the accompanying felicitation.
Personal Life & Legacy
On June 9, 1908, Charles Ives married Harmony Twichell. She was the sister of one of his friends and was a trained nurse. The couple had an adopted daughter named Edith (Osborne).
Ives died on May 19, 1954 from a stroke in New York City. He was then seventy-nine years old and was survived by his wife and daughter.
Charles Ives was independently rich, and on her death, Harmony Ives bequeathed the royalties from his music to the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the Charles Ives Prize. Initially it consisted of six scholarships of $7,500, and two fellowships of $15,000, awarded annually to young composers.
Later the American Academy of Arts and Letters established the Charles Ives Living of $200,000 and Charles Ives Opera Prize of $50,000 in his memory.
The house that he was born in Danbury was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Today Ives’ Birthplace is owned by the Danbury Museum and Historical Society.
When in 1947, Ives received Pulitzer Prize for Music, he gave away the prize money, saying "prizes are for boys, and I'm all grown up". Conductor Lou Harrison received half of it. It is not known who received the other half.
Ives had also financed many other struggling composers in secret. For example, Nicolas Slonimsky later said that Ives had supported him throughout his career.
Although music was his first love, he was equally good at sports. According to one of his coaches in Yule, it was a ‘crying shame’ that he spent so much time on music; otherwise he would have become a champion sprinter.