“One who did no harm to our poor earth…”

One last post on Charles Ives (previous ones here and here), and if you’re tired of the subject, read no further. I got a bug up my ass about his reputation after running across a reference to him on the internet by a composer who casually referred to him as politically rightwing, as though that were something everyone knew about Ives. Of course, Ives was actually a Wilsonian Democrat whose ideas were too radical even for 1930s Democrats, let alone today’s: he favored a world government to prevent wars (the League of Nations being a first step), a cap on annual salaries of executives, national phone voting for national issues to more directly register the national will, and a prohibition on any rich person having the right to interfere in government. Today we would have to call him a socialist or worse, because there is no major political party with ideas remotely as democratic, liberal, and left-leaning as Ives’s. A self-made millionaire who funded liberal causes and voted against his pocketbook, he was kind of a minor George Soros of his day. And yet, ludicrously, his reputation, now based more on innuendo than fact, has become such that musicians routinely bring him up as a parallel to Wagner, as someone whose music one can only like despite his personal failings.

Antonio Celaya writes to remind me that when Lou Harrison had a nervous breakdown and needed several months’ hospitalization, John Cage applied to Ives, who paid Lou’s expenses; and that he did this knowing Harrison was gay, which Lou was never secretive about. The biography Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer, by Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, confirms this. In 1942 Harrison frankly told the draft board that he was gay, yet Ives’s relationship with Harrison in the late 1940s was affectionate, writing him humorous letters to “Lew Harry Son,” and treating him much as a son. Lou spent years editing Ives’ manuscripts, and I remember him referring to his sponsor reverently as “Mr. Ives.” Does this sound to you like Charles Ives was a homophobe? Do you know of someone whose information on the subject would be better than Harrison’s?

And let me repeat, because it may have gone out of currency, a story about Ives told by one Charles J. Buesing, who worked for Ives at the Ives & Myrick Agency, and who was interviewed by Vivian Perlis for her splendid oral history project. In 1969, Buesing said,

We worked a half-day on Saturdays. We would rarely see Mr. Myrick, but Mr. Ives would be there many Saturdays. One man came by me one Saturday afternoon, and he had tears in his eyes. As Mr. Ives went out the door, this fellow said, “There is a great man.” And he told me this story. He had had the experience for the past few months of not making any sales at all. Since we were wholly on a commission basis, if you didn’t sell, you just didn’t eat. Charles Ives walked up to this man’s desk and he thought he looked rather dejected so he said, “Charlie (his name was Charlie too), do me a personal favor. Will you take out your wallet?” And he did. “Now,” he said, “you open it.” Then he said, “Will you point it toward me?” The wallet was empty. Charles Ives said, “I thought so. No one can ever make a sale of anything with an empty wallet. Now, I want you to take this as a business loan. I know you’ll have so much confidence with what I am going to put in that wallet that you will pay me back, and I don’t want any I.O.U. or anything else.” And he put fifty dollars in there. It was after the [1929 stock market] crash, and this man had fifty dollars in his pocket. He hadn’t seen that much income in the past couple of months. It made a big difference with him. This is the kind of man that Ives was.

And this is the kind of story that people used to tell about Ives before Maynard Solomon (author of a passable Mozart biography and a really sucky Beethoven biography) wrote a nasty article accusing him of trying to pump up his reputation, an article whose assertions have been completely discredited by subsequent scholars. Yet ever since that article people have practically broken their legs trying to climb on the bandwagon of the Ives-despisers. Yet there are many laudatory comments in Perlis’s Charles Ives Remembered, by friends and coworkers and musicians remembering what a kind, generous, unpretentious man he was. He volunteered as an ambulence driver during World War I, but was turned down on account of his heart condition. His family had been fervent abolitionists, and his parents adopted a poor Black boy. Unlike so many musicians, Ives was devoted to his wife, and she to him. He bankrolled musical projects by Cowell, Slonimsky, and others, and almost single-handedly kept new experimental American music alive during the Depression. He won a Pulitzer Prize, the country’s most distinguished music award, and replied, “Prizes are for boys,” giving half the money to Harrison and the other half to Cowell’s New Music Edition. Truly we can say of Ives as W.H. Auden said of Mozart,

How seemly, then, to celebrate the birth

Of one who did no harm to our poor earth,

Created masterpieces by the dozen….

And yet, unfathomably, Ives has become one of those composers that people can hardly speak about now without reference to his alleged failures as a human being. It’s shameful, an example of Wagnerphobia missaplied and run amok. Did Ives have faults? Sure – he seems to have been a little strait-laced, and went into business partly because he couldn’t handle the Bohemian lifestyle that many musicians lived. I think less of him for that, but I keep up a rather middle-class lifestyle myself, and am perhaps more like him than I like admitting. He’d get choleric and fire off nasty insults at music critics and orchestra conductors who he thought didn’t know their jobs. Let’s see, have I ever done anything that awful? Are these sufficient basis to hang a permanent cloud of moral suspicion over him? As one correspondent noted, Ives was such a great man and such an incredibly innovative composer that people can’t deal with him, and they have to whittle him down to size to digest him.

Why do I get so exercised about it? For three reasons:

1. Because I’m a music historian, and I prefer that people believe things about music that are true (the reason for which I am similarly always defending Mozart against that wretched Amadeus film);

2. Because Ives is my favorite composer, and more than anyone else the source of my musical ideas and aesthetic attitudes, and I feel a personal stake in his reputation; and,

3. Because if someone as selfless, generous, well-intentioned, and full of integrity as Ives can be saddled with a scandalous reputation after his death by an evil cabal, or perhaps by just an ignorant bunch of musicians who don’t read much, then not one of us is safe from the machinations of hate-mongering slanderers. I don’t flatter myself that I have as many excellent qualities as Ives did, and I shudder to think what 22nd-century Maynard Solomon will lie in ambush to attach to my name unfounded charges of racism, wife-beating, or whatever post-postmodern thought-crime for which no word has yet even been coined.


  1. Stephen Hillyer says

    Post is old, but I just stumbled over it (again) and this time had to forward it to my four Ives-loving friends. Hear, hear! As one who prefers boys myself, I was (and remain) delighted to have the “homophobia” accusation cleared up at long last. Keep up your uniquely fine work (as expressed in words AND music).

  2. Mark says

    For the past two years I’ve always listened to Ives on the July 4th and read these posts again (along with his own Essays). It’s always great to be reminded.
    KG replies: Thanks, Mark. Nice to be part of a holiday ritual. I listen to Ives’s Thanksgiving on all holidays.