Reeling from a Masterpiece

In anticipation of a seminar I’m teaching on the Concord Sonata next spring, I’m finally reading through the selected Ives correspondence published a few years ago by Tom C. Owens (U. of California Press). I feel a little guilty reading the sweetie-pie letters between Ives and Harmony during their engagement, never meant for my prying eyes, but I’m fascinated by the responses he received to the Concord itself when he mailed out privately published copies to total strangers in 1921. This one was from John Spencer Camp, a Hartford music critic:

…You have evidently aimed at impressionistic word pictures, striving to avoid the commonplace and trivial. Whether your musical inspiration has been able to meet the demands you have placed upon it is an open question, and one I should like to defer until I hear your sonata adequately performed. My present impression is that, in spite of the great amount of work you have put into this composition, the fundamental inspiration and glow are lacking. It is, however, a very interesting work. I question whether in the interest of musical beauty such an effect as you call for in page 25 [clusters played with a stick of wood] is good. A “strip of board” does not appeal to my sense of artistic piano music….

From the composer Charles Wakefield Cadman he received:

…As for the “music,” I confess with thousands of others who have seen it, that it is incomprehensible to me. I do not ridicule you, I do not criticize you, philistine-like, because it would do no good anyway, so all I venture to say at this time is that I hope you will find pleasure in the satisfaction of understanding what you yourself have set down in the seventy pages of your work! No doubt it took a great deal of time to prepare all that notation… Were you not, perhaps, trying to put into “form,” expressions that were entirely (to use a term of our Theosophical friends) ASTRAL – with a modus operandi that granted only PHYSICAL possibilities? This is not sarcasm because I do not mean it as that….

The eminent theorist Percy Goetschius wrote:

I wish you to know that I do not take your work lightly. I say, frankly, that I do not like this manner of sound-association, for I am too fully grounded in the habits (I admit that they are, to some extent “habits”) of the classic methods. To my mind, these classic methods are correct ones for I find them, in every detail, confirming the eternal physical laws which govern tone as well as stone. But I am not, in conviction, a heartless and brainless conservative, who recognizes the “Last Word” in anything that Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms have said in tone – no, nor Ives. And therefore these newer methods, or experiments, interest me keenly. And, since I am absolutely convinced of your sincerity, and see many admirable evidences of that logic, which is a part of my pet physical law, in your work – note that I hesitate to call it “music,” for I believe in accurate definition – I declare that these experiments of yours interest me particularly….

As for the accompanying book Essays Before a Sonata, composer Henry F. Gilbert commented:

I was very surprised to receive such a book from a musical composer. I showed it to a friend of mine (one of the Boston critics) and called his attention to certain striking passages. He was most interested and enthusiastic but said: “Depend upon it, this fellow is a bad composer – good composers are usually non compos mentis on every other subject.”

I wonder how widespread that prejudice is.


  1. mclaren says

    The old old old prejudice: people love to pigeonhole ya. If you write well, you can’t possibly be a good composer…and if you compose well, you can’t possibly be a good writer.
    It gets worse for those of us who combine live abstract video with music, because this shows that the composer isn’t really a composer at all, but an artist.
    And those poor schmucks unlucky enough to be able to do it all, like Wagner?
    Why, we can’t even discuss those people. They’re just out of bounds.

  2. says

    Thanks for posting these letter fragments. We tend to think of Ives as independent and self-contained, but like any musician he must have been stung by these responses. I have a new-found sympathy… These days we have the Internet and can usually cultivate a receptive audience for almost any category of work. But in Ive’s day the institutional barriers must have been insurmountable.
    KG replies: I’m rather astounded by the generosity of these responses – given that I’ve been listening to and playing the piece for 42 years and don’t *really* understand parts of it yet myself.

  3. says

    Can you imagine getting such correspondence in response to an unsolicited score nowadays?
    KG replies: That’s kind of the amazing thing about it.

  4. Richard says

    Their are a lot of parts I don’t “understand” either so I just let them wash over my soul like holy unction. (insert winking smiley here).

  5. says

    “Depend upon it, this fellow is a bad composer – good composers are usually non compos mentis on every other subject.”
    Perhaps the Boston critic had read too much Wagner, particularly the bits about the vegetarian panthers of Canada.
    I am struck by Goestschius’ response. He is honest enough with himself to admit that he has come face to face with something quite extraordinary that he simply doesn’t understand, yet he can’t help a little jab or two at the piece’s quality as “I hesitate to call it music.” It’s both refreshing AND disheartening!

  6. Ernest says

    I had a good laugh at Goetschius’ quote.
    “I don’t want to give up too much of my authority, but I don’t what the hell’s going on. Sounds cool, though.”

  7. Joseph says

    [re the correspondence about the Concord Sonata]
    Reading these excerpts, I wonder one more time whether this country ever needed to import European modernism. Even people unsympathetic to Ives’ methods were willing to make room for them. We were on our way.

  8. Robert Bonotto says

    I make part of my living as an actor, part of it as an illustrator, and also compose (Johnny Reinhard premieres a microtonal piece of mine in NY in May).

    I had lunch twenty years ago with the critic Stanley Kauffmann (whose writing I admire), and he warned me off a career in all three areas, that they wouldn’t get ‘traction’ in a country more prone to specialists than generalists.

    He was right, of course; but I can’t say it’s been a totally unhappy journey all the same.

    I think Cadman’s response is particularly interesting; despite his interest in American Indian music, he was a conservative composer and the score was clearly beyond him. But he clearly isn’t intent on beating the cr*p out of Ives about it.

    Doubtless he was remembering that even his conservative music was anathema to many staid Bostonians as well.