The Ives Double Standard

My posts on Charles Ives brought a response from one of the Ives-haters who takes seriously Maynard Solomon’s claims that Ives covertly back-dated his scores to establish his priority as an innovator. I issued him a challenge, and I’ll issue it to the world.

The charge that Ives was trying to establish his priority as an innovator does not square with the picture we get of him from his writings. In all of Ives’s writings that I’ve ever read, which by my count is 100 percent some four or five times at least, Ives presents himself as generally insecure and self-effacing about his “good or bad music,” as he calls it, admitting that his “ears may be on wrong,” and that he likes all these discordant sounds that no one else seems to like. He disparages some of his greatest works, calling his own Third Symphony “technically suppressed,” and saying little more in defense of his own compositions than, “last time I heard it, it seemed like a good piece.” In short, in both his public and private communications, he strikes one as remarkably modest. He was, however, publicly accused by music critics of having “learned Schoenberg’s lessons well,” and of having been influenced by Stravinsky, and, when falsely described, he could get angry; he defended himself in his Memos by saying he had never heard Schoenberg’s or Stravinsky’s music during the years he was composing. That, of course, was his right, as it would be anyone’s. If you accuse me of having been influenced by Michael Dougherty’s Metropolis Symphony and I’ve never heard the work, I have a right to say so; if the work of mine being referred to predates the Metropolis Symphony, I have the right to mention the fact as supporting my statement – but to therefore accuse me of trying to buttress my claim as a historical innovator is a leap of logic that can only seem to indicate some underlying malicious intent.

So if Ives’s detractors are right, that he secretly conspired to shore up his historical reputation by deceiving the world into thinking he had used certain innovations earlier than he did, then there ought to be, somewhere in his writings, some claim of precedence advanced. Certainly such claims of precedence are not uncommon among 20th-century composers – Hauer vociferously claimed credit for the 12-tone row, Cowell for tone clusters (before he learned that Ives had beat him to them, whereupon he dropped his claim), Julian Carrillo claimed credit for “the thirteenth tone,” i.e. for having extended the scale beyond 12 steps to the octave. The day in 1921 when Schoenberg wrote his first 12-tone row, he wrote in his diary, “What I have discovered today will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” So, similarly, someone quote for me, please, a passage in Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata, his Memos, his Postlude to 114 Songs, his letters, his remembered conversations, or anywhere else where he declared, “I was the first to use tone clusters,” “I came up with the 12-tone idea before Schoenberg,” “I was the first to have different tempos going at the same time!” Find us the passage that proves Ives’s modesty was a calculating facade, lay this issue to rest, and I’ll stop defending his character.

Of course, my correspondent admits that he doesn’t like Ives’s music, finds it undeveloped and unfinished sounding. And I have yet to find anyone who believes the Maynard Solomon charges who does like Ives’s music. Some people who find Ives not to their taste use Solomon’s false controversy as a vehicle for Schadenfreude, and don’t seem to see anything wrong with impugning a man’s moral character as a way to get his music out of the concert hall; either that, or they imagine that we don’t play Ives’s music because we love it, but simply because he did everything first. There are certainly composers whose music I don’t care for – Shostakovich, for instance – but I don’t go around trying to prove that Shostakovich was somehow less than human, not a legitimate composer, that his music was a kind of fraud. Even if someone figured out that some of Shostakovich’s music was ghostwritten, I wouldn’t write articles shouting, “AHA! I KNEW it! The swine, his music should never be played again!” Many composers whose music I love – Wagner and Stravinsky, for instance – have accurately been accused of mendacity and worse, but I don’t love their music any less for it. Stravinsky’s book The Poetics of Music is still reverently read despite the well-documented fact that it was ghostwritten; and he tried to cover up Le Sacre‘s indebtedness to Russian folksongs, which was later exposed. By the analogous logic of the Ives case, shouldn’t we retire Le Sacre to the ash-heap of history? If not, doesn’t that prove that there is something more, or perhaps less, than objective scholarly judgement involved in the treatment of Ives’s reputation?

For those of us who love Ives’s music, the Solomon charges do not ring true (and have, in fact, been discredited by a small army of Ives scholars that no one seems to listen to). Even were they true, they seem incredibly irrelevant. Maybe Ives added dissonances to the Concord Sonata his entire life (and if he did, how would you prove mendacious intent?), but its amount of dissonance is not why I love the piece (and if it was, so what?). I love the piece for its interplay of themes and its amazing stream-of-consciousness form – and no one has ever charged that Ives added those in decades later, nor would such a charge make any sense. For that matter, if musicological reconstruction managed to prove that the Concord Sonata was written in 1949 by John Kirkpatrick, with Schoenberg sitting by his shoulder giving him advice about the harmony, I would still love the piece and listen to it, still prefer it to anything Schoenberg ever wrote, still consider it amazing and visionary and original. What power do musicologists possess to affect our perception of the music we love?