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PORTRAIT OF IVES


Much of the appreciation for Charles Ives (1875-1954) has survived through received wisdom. On many levels, Ives is a great success story. He amassed a personal fortune in life insurance, while leading a determined, non-commercial musical life. He enjoyed a loving marriage, and adopted a daughter. He was a very generous philanthropist.

As with any bright light, Ives was smeared by younger stars on the horizon. Aaron Copland, for example, questioned Ives’s ability to edit his compositions. Elliott Carter thought there should be a squelching of any hoopla for the “supposed” Ives innovations. Worse still, the innovator of life insurance’s actuarial tables was described as a cheat by famed Beethoven biographer Maynard Solomon, professionally questioning Ives’s reputation.

Ives altered the dates of his compositions, according to Solomon, and these intentional actions drew into question the composer’s seminal position in the American music pantheon (“Charles Ives: Some Questions of Veracity,” JAMS, Autumn 1987). The motivation accrued to Ives was dishonesty.

Former music critic Donal Henahan of The New York Times subsequently revoked the name of Charles Ives from his imagined position of ideal American composer, a role model for the nation (“Did Ives Fiddle with the Truth?” February 21, 1988). Soon after, Ives was called in turn a crank, a homophobe, and a sexist. But for musicians who hear a biography in the music composed, there is an evident disconnect between his accomplishments and the accusations levied against him.

Pertaining to re-dating, Ives scholar Carol K. Baron has sufficiently dismissed them, along with any nefarious motives by Ives regarding his amending dates on his compositions (Baron, “Dating Charles Ives’s Music: Facts and Fiction,” Perspectives of New Music, 1990). I have nothing to add regarding this fully exposed misunderstanding with any new reasons or issues since those published by Carol K. Baron.

Elliott Carter claimed to have witnessed Ives adding dissonances to his music during a visit to the Ives home as a teenager, but waited until 1939 to announce his accusation that this was an evident form of dishonesty, and published several times, and as recently as 1969 for the Vivian Perlis oral history project.

Rather than jacking up the dissonance, Ives added a whole new dimension to his music by removing temperament altogether for the majority of his music. For example, a harmonic interval notated A-C# is considered dissonant as practiced in Pythagorean tuning during the Middle Ages, and called a ditone of 408 cents, constructed by ratio 81/64. Perhaps counter-intuitive to many, a notated A-Db on the piano sounds as “just” as a major third at 384 cents (although 2 cents flat to just intonation).

Ives indeed did evolve his notation, but purposely to adequately reflect an extended Pythagorean tuning aesthetic (and not to impress outsiders as once foolishly surmised). Ives indeed changed his accidentals to permit greater clarity of his materials as demonstrable through these results. Apparently, looks can be deceiving.

Ives employed an “acoustical plan” to allow for a whole new transcendental dimension to his music. People invariably ask, “but did Ives really want this change in tuning?!” May I suggest a response at least in part with this Memo of 1923, or soon after, by Ives:

The twelve notes in a nice well-tuned piano are ‘twelve notes’ – machine-made almost – but at present the best instrument, that is, the widest sound implement we have, for only one of many to use. But the mind, ear, and thought don’t always have to be limited by the ‘twelve’ – for a B# and a C natural are not then the same – a B# may help the ear-mind get higher up the mountain that a C natural always…

Some of the chords in this…. I copied out and had played by six violins at Tams, playing in a kind of chord-system made – that is, assuming that a Db was nearer down to C, and that C# was nearer up to D. After the players had sensed this difference in playing the passage – say B B# C, D Db C … to me they usually sounded nearer to each other than a quarter-tone (Ives, Memos, W.W. Norton, New York 1972, pp. 190).

credits

from CONCORD SONATA by Charles Ives "transcendentally" played by Gabriel Zucker & Erica Dohi, pianists in extended Pythagorean tuning, String Quartet #2 by FLUX Quartet, THREE PAGE SONATA played by Joshua Pierce in Moscow: AMERICAN FESTIVAL OF MICROTONAL MUSIC, released September 23, 2018
Gabriel Zucker & Erica Dohi, pianists on 2 pianos
Johnny Reinhard, director producer

American Festival of Microtonal Music concert at Queens College
April 13, 2016

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