WQXR asked Leon Botstein what work one should listen to as a follow-up to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “New World.” Here’s his answer.
Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera by Bryan Gilliam
A seminal study of the 15 operas by one of the leading scholars of Strauss.
Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs by Graham Johnson
What an achievement!
Wagner’s Melodies by David Trippett
Here is a very fine book, an original take on Wagner’s compositional style and the idea of melody. (Great cover illustration.)
Absolute Music by Mark Evan Bonds
An excellent study of the history and concept of “absolute music.” Highly recommended.
The Oxford History of Western Music by Richard Taruskin and Christopher Gibbs
Richard Taruskin’s seminal 6-volume history, expertly edited in a useful, compact format.
Two New Books on Charles Ives
A Review by Leon Botstein
By Stephen Budiansky
ForeEdge, 306 pages, $40
Charles Ives in the Mirror
By David C. Paul
University of Illinois, 288 pages, $4
Since the mid-19th century, music lovers have looked to composers’ biographies to help discern what the music they are listening to might mean. Music, particularly music written for instruments alone, can be difficult to connect to ideas, events or politics—to aspects of culture and society considered beyond the confines of the art form. Rightly or wrongly, we use the writings of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville to understand 19th-century America, just as we project larger meanings about the American experience in the 20th onto the canvases of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. Their work seems to tell us something about the world they lived in. Music, we might feel, should do the same. But a composer’s creations are more obscure, and so making inferences about personal motives and confessional intent becomes a convenient way to proceed.
Probably there is no figure in the history of music who highlights the limits and perils of biography more starkly than Charles Ives (1874-1954). In part this is because his music is especially obscure: He jolts the listener out of complacency, disrupting moments of evident eloquence, beauty and symmetry with jarring angular rhythms and piercing, otherwise incompatible harmonic intervals. The most memorable works of Ives—”The Unanswered Question” (1906), “Three Places in New England” (1908-14), “General William Booth Enters Heaven” (1914) and the sonatas for violin—become perplexing and unsettling as Ives integrates unexpected and clashing sonorities in otherwise innocent and conventional musical forms.
Ives’s music was, at one and the same time, old-fashioned and acutely modern. His source materials were New England hymn tunes, popular songs, marches and ragtime. What he did with them was extraordinary. In his orchestral music, he used musical time to create a dense fabric of nostalgia and memory; recognizable fragments of the vanished past were juxtaposed, resulting in a landscape of sound that was dissonant, provocative—alternatively sparse and simple and (without preparation for the listener) wild, chaotic and theatrically brilliant. His songs and chamber music are dreamlike evocations of the landscape and culture of an invented America.
Ives stands apart and above in the history of American music. He is America’s Mahler —like Mahler, he integrated snatches of popular tunes into his compositions and challenged smug expectations of continuity and beauty in music. But Ives is also this country’s Schoenberg —an enfant terrible with new ideas, who marked the beginning of a distinctive American modernism. Yet despite periods of advocacy and enthusiasm for his music, little of it has become truly popular or canonical. Even though he was America’s first truly original and important composer of classical music—and everyone agrees that there is something uniquely American about Ives—the music seems not to speak for itself but to demand explanation.
Listeners and critics turn to Ives’s life for clues, and Stephen Budiansky’s “Mad Music” is a first-rate introduction geared to the general public. It may not have the detail and scope of Jan Swafford’s admirable 1996 biography, “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” or the scholarly and analytic scope and of J. Peter Burkholder’s 1995 study of Ives’s aesthetic and compositional process, “All Made of Tunes,” but Mr. Budiansky lures the reader into the mystery of Ives’s life, and the eccentric power of his music, in prose free from jargon and pretense. “His music was American and modern,” Mr. Budiansky writes, “but it was at the same time so intensely entwined with his own nostalgic exploration of the memory of music making in a world gone by as to be his and his alone, then and forever.”
The son of a Civil War veteran and bandmaster, Charles Ives went to Yale, where he studied with Horatio Parker, who like his contemporaries had gone to Europe to learn the art of music. But Ives proudly did not. After a brief attempt to make a career as a church musician in New York City, he switched to business and became a leading figure in the insurance industry, where he amassed considerable wealth. While he made a career as a man of business, Ives continued to compose.
Ives had sharp opinions—primarily against European sentimentality, (including the lush late romanticism of Richard Strauss ) and the decline of a muscular “manliness” in musical culture. He paid for the publication of his music himself and subsequently subsidized performances of modernist American music (not just his own). Ives wrote a set of essays to accompany one of his major works—the Concord Sonata for piano (1910-15)—and linked his music to the writings of the Transcendentalists. (” Thoreau, ” he wrote, “was a great musician, not because he played the flute but because he did not have to go to Boston to hear ‘the Symphony.’ “) Although a recluse in his later years, Ives penned “memos” on politics and culture that offer a glimpse into his vision of a unique democratic American culture rooted in the New England spirit of individualism and self-reliance. This eccentric, middle-aged, semiretired iconoclast became a seer and icon to a generation of younger American composers—including Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison and Bernard Herrmann.
It was only in the 1920s that Ives’s music began to attract attention, but he seems to have mostly stopped composing around the same time. Indeed, he withdrew from business as well, becoming ambivalent toward public attention and prone to harsh outbursts, even toward his small band of devoted acolytes. Ives’s early decline has been subject to psychobiographical probing, primarily by Stuart Feder, who in an elegant 1999 book, “The Life of Charles Ives,” explained the composer’s personality and difficulties through the prism of the composer’s relationship to his father. But Mr. Budiansky makes a persuasive case for a more mundane, though no less traumatic, explanation: Charles Ives suffered from diabetes before the discovery of insulin.
Ives is now known to have been diagnosed with diabetes in 1918, and in his biography Jan Swafford considered this illness as one factor in the decline, alongside heart disease, depression and possibly even bipolar disorder. Mr. Budiansky’s novel contribution is to argue that diabetes alone can explain almost all his behavior, without any need for psychological diagnosis. He documents that at the turn of the century diabetes, unlike heart disease and consumption, appears to have been socially taboo, an embarrassment for a conventionally “masculine” man such as Ives.
These circumstances readily account for the lengths Ives went to in order to conceal the true nature of his medical troubles. Before insulin, a patient could do little more than starve himself and restrict his diet to cope, and Mr. Budiansky points out that Ives did indeed lose weight. By the time proper treatment was available, his spirit and body were irrevocably compromised (though he lived to the ripe age of 80). Mr. Budiansky’s simple, beautiful insight demolishes a plethora of ugly and tortured hypotheses about Ives’s character and life.
Ives has long been a subject of fascination and study among music scholars. So why is it that it has taken an outsider like Mr. Budiansky—not a professional historian of music—to produce a book on Ives enjoyable enough to persuade the general reader to sit down and listen to his music? The answer can be found in David Paul’s volume “Ives and the Mirror,” a perfect counterpoint and corrective to even the most satisfying biography. The subject of this collection of essays is not so much Ives as how Ives has been understood and woven into the fabric of commentary about America since the 1920s. Mr. Paul offers, in often excruciating detail, subtle accounts of the many controversies that have surrounded scholarship about Ives and his music.
The irony in this is that Ives was a staunch advocate of a democratic culture. He wrote music he believed evoked a universal musicality among our citizenry. He was not interested in simply i
mpressing other musicians. He believed that music matters—that it influences our sense of past and present and can shape our sense of community and existential purpose. “Ives and the Mirror” is a deft account of the various ideologies that have dominated the field of musicology within the university, and Ives serves as the foil with which Mr. Paul punctures the claims and purposes of academic writing on music.
From the beginning of his emergence from obscurity in the 1920s, Ives confronted disdain and skepticism. More than a few critics called him a crackpot, little more than an amateur and tinkerer, someone who simply did not know how to write music—to develop themes, transform them, handle forms and employ counterpoint. In the many waves of reinterpretation of his achievement, Ives’s status as a businessman and part-time composer has been held against him. As Mr. Paul tells it, early advocates and critics saw him as something of a polemical ethnographer of the history and virtues of his native New England—and it was in this context that, in the 1930s, his music began to be played internationally. Here it is worth noting that, judging from my own experience, Ives travels poorly. Chinese and Russian audiences—indeed most European audiences—seem unable to make heads or tails of it. So he has never achieved the world-wide status even of Edward Elgar or Isaac Albéniz, both of whose music is all too reductively viewed as emblematic of a national sensibility (England and Spain, respectively).
As he charts the ebbs and flows of Ives’s reputation, Mr. Paul explores how recent decades have chipped away at his cherished image as a pathbreaking maverick and rugged individualist. Since the 1970s, the charm of this pose has come to seem tarnished by his quite blatant political incorrectness—notably his views on women and homosexuals. His status as a musical innovator has also been challenged. In the 1980s, Maynard Solomon alleged that Ives falsified the dates on various pieces in order to show his priority over Schoenberg and Stravinsky and to justify his self-proclaimed independence from European influences. Meticulous subsequent research, particularly by musicologist Gayle Sherwood, has confirmed that Ives’s ideas were his own—though he likely did tamper with the dating of his works.
Mr. Paul unravels such controversies, keeping in proper perspective what might otherwise be viewed as hothouse academic feuds. For he is concerned about the fragile hold that musical culture has on the attention of the general public, and on the academy. Mr. Paul frequently rues the failure of many scholars in the humanities to capture the minds of students in colleges and universities with the liberal arts, especially music. The impression of the insularity of academic discourse that emerges from Mr. Paul’s painstaking account of the history of Ives’s reception is depressing indeed.
Stephen Budiansky has written a book that should make David Paul happy, acknowledging but sidestepping much of the complexity that has been probed by musicologists. Yet without a healthy store of serious research and persuasive scholarly writing, Mr. Budiansky would have been unable to produce his engaging portrait. If there is to be an audience for the music of Ives, and a more widespread recognition of the wonders of American classical music from the 20th century, we need not only fine writers like Mr. Budiansky but committed scholars like Mr. Paul, who work and teach in a manner that protects the traditions of concert music from their own defenders within the proverbial ivory tower.
A version of this review was printed in the Wall Street Journal on August 1, 2014