A New Biography of Charles Ives

Don't miss this new bio of Charles Ives by Stephen Budiansky(Photo: ForeEdge)
Don't miss this new bio of Charles Ives by Stephen Budiansky(Photo: ForeEdge)

My graduating class at Lexington (MA) High School in 1974 has members born great, who became great and who greatness thrust upon them. The only thing I tend to thrust then and now is an extra fudge brownie. Not so classmate Stephen Budiansky — a good kid as I recall back in the day, whose latest book Mad Music is a biography of Charles Ives.

Stephen was paying attention in Mr. D’s Music theory class when some of us were, well, not. Mad Music: Charles Ives the Nostalgic Rebel is a superbly written narrative or a life and a calling. The musical analyses of these complicated works are presented with an accessible tone. How not to love a bio of this iconoclastic composer using a term like ‘highfalutin’

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was a flinty New Englander who made money as an executive with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. Mutual’s Tower used to loom over Union Square in New York, a beacon to some of us trying to grope home after late night revels in Manhattan (when Budiansky was obviously studying, hence his present success). Ives was aware of the rules of compositions: no parallel fifths, voice leading must proceed thus and so, no dissonant chords, und so weiter.
Ives knew the rules and he was unimpressed. Robert Gartside, my beloved mentor at Boston University told me that many of Ives’s scores made no intellectual sense, “but he didn’t care. If two bands were playing four against five, too bad. He just liked it.”

Budiansky balances perfectly the man Charlie Ives and the musician Charles Ives.  Not for nothing is one of his previous books is a study of code breaking in World  War II.  Ives the musician did not hear a lot of performances of his music.   The Variations on America, with its off kilter sororities are either teasing or nasty. I always thought much of Ives’s music was an FU to the musical establishment.

The greatest recognition of Ives’s music took place near the end of his life. Leonard Bernstein conducted Ives’s Second Symphony in 1951. Lenny was young and Charlie was old. One of the performances was broadcast and the wrold heard Charles Ives’s music.  Budiansky makes the point that such recognition came nearly too late. Ives’s suffered  ill-health and “increasing senility” prior to his death in 1954.

This writer remembers Ives as a mainstream composer. The Boston Symphony often programmed Central Park in the Dark and Three Places in New England.  The Friday afternoon ladies may have endured, but the Harvard and MIT kids took up the rush seats on Saturday nights to cheer and holler. They celebrated Ives’s dissonances, his flirtation with the mainstream and the irony of this son of a New England band master introducing the 20th century to American music.  Mad Music is a thoughtful study of a musician and a fetching read. Budiansky dude, you did good.

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