…alias, Musicology as Schadenfreude.
Poor Charles Ives. He never got over his father’s death, and kept trying to fill in the gap. He was driven to keep using certain tunes and instruments in his music because they reminded him of George. He kept pretending that he’d learned more from his father than from his college teacher Horatio Parker. Unlike most composers, Ives couldn’t make up his own tunes anyway, so he’d find one and rearrange it until no one could recognize it. He never knew what he really wanted. He claimed that he didn’t need any public recognition for his music, but he mailed it out into the world anyway. He was clearly really conflicted. He was laden with a lot of gender issues that made him express himself inappropriately, and he tried to write about Transcendentalism, though he didn’t really understand it. He wrote crackpot letters to the president about crazy schemes involving political referendums, and he really didn’t understand the issues involved. He took all those dissonances out of his music for fear people wouldn’t take his music seriously, and then when he made friends with other composers who wrote dissonant music, he piled dissonances back in, with the competitiveness of a former athlete, so he could seem to be more modern than they were.
Sounds pathetic, doesn’t it?
But wait a minute: As a teenager Ives was the youngest professional organist in Connecticut, and a precocious virtuoso playing music well beyond his years. He was lucky to have a father who could give him a thorough music education. He was an impressive baseball player as well as an incredible musician, and he went to Yale where he made dozens of friends and impressed some of his teachers enough to stay in touch with them for life. He got really lucky in the insurance business, and made about eight million dollars over the course of his career, which would be over a hundred million today; he was way up in the one percent. And yet, instead of becoming a stingy, conservative CEO, he modestly said that he hadn’t really provided enough social value to be worth all that, and he gave money away freely, especially to fellow composers who didn’t have any. His employees spoke glowingly of him for his kindness, generosity, and sense of justice; called him “a great man.” Other insurance men considered him so important that they thought you’d be fortunate to get a half-hour of his time. And unbelievably, over the already full course of this same life, he wrote an incredible, visionary, prolific body of music, being able to hear these complex symphonic structures in his head without getting any aural feedback from actual performance, which is a lot more than I could have done. Meanwhile, he kept sending his orchestra scores to conductors and getting rebuffed, but, being rich, finally took matters into his own hands and mailed out the Concord Sonata himself. And it worked! And to help, he even wrote his own book about his view of musical creativity, eruditely quoting dozens of authors and basing his ideas on those of some important 19th-century philosophers.
Gee! All this is true too. So why, if you read twelve books in a row about Charles Ives, as I’ve basically done recently, is the picture at the top the one you get? Why do my Ives research writings make me depressed for the poor old sap?
Psychobiography, gender studies, deconstructionism, intellectual history, social history – these all have important roles to play in musicology. Music history became greatly enlivened when it burst in all these separate directions in the 1980s. It had been pretty dull when it was just the hagiography of dead white composers. But all of these tendencies coincidentally reduce the agency of the subject you’re writing about. The individual is seen as driven by unconscious forces, hemmed in by his social background, unable to transcend the limitations of his upbringing. The artist’s intentions can never be taken at face value. His every perception is, of course, subjective. His actions can be endlessly mined for evidence of unacknowledged desires. Contradictions in his behavior (which we all have) are fertile ground for psychological speculation.
And the great thing is, it’s all true. We’re all basket cases. Except for the musicologist. Because what strikes me as a little unseemly is the implicit power differential between the musicologist and poor dead Ives who can’t defend himself. Unlike Ives, the musicologist is completely objective. His methods are scientific and rule out subjectivity. He’s not trying to get a teaching job, or tenure. He doesn’t have to worry whether his conference paper is perceived by the older professors as being in line with current research. He is already enlightened (it comes with the Ph.D.), and has ordered his own life much more rationally than Ives did. That he is financially secure goes without saying. And at, I dunno, 25, 40, 55, he gets the heady pleasure of magisterially looking down his scientific nose at this poor multi-millionaire, this visionary composer and captain of industry, and diagnosing which of Ives’s actions were secretly responses to his father fixation, which came from his adolescent athletic competitiveness, and which from his Victorian sexual repression.
You know, it was fun when the late Stuart Feder wrote a psychobiography of Ives, because he was an actual, trained psychologist, and everyone appreciated him weighing in from that standpoint. But I think I can safely say, to almost the entire musicological profession with possibly a couple of exceptions, you are not qualified to psychoanalyze Ives. Yet every dissertation candidate, whether he or she has dealt with his or her own father fixation or not, now gets to look for where George Ives is in an Ives score like a psycho-musicological game of “Where’s Waldo?” It’s the totally speculative character of it that makes it boring, because you can say whatever you want about Ives’s unconscious impulses without fear of contradiction – or confirmation. We don’t need to regiment ourselves to 100% facts, because I love a good narrative, but less than 85% starts to wear. I am eternally grateful to the musicologists who correlated every sketch on Ives’s manuscripts to the piece it came from – their relentless hard work has astonished me. But I’m getting programmed such that if I read the words “Ives’s father,” a little voice in my head says, “Somebody’s about to jerk off.”
I’m not arguing: the heroifying great composer biographies of old were one-sided if not marginally mendacious, hardly readable today, and it was time to take a different tack, apply some different methods. But let me throw out a warning sign that the pendulum has swung far enough in the other direction. We need to find an in-between position. In particular, we need to restore a sense of the artists’s agency, and treat his or her conscious actions and deliberate statements, that are there for all to see, as at least as important as the unconscious ones we’re so condescendingly attributing. Because – why would I want to read about the composer described in my first paragraph above? He sounds dismal. This is not good PR for the music or the profession. This will not inspire anyone to buy Three Places in New England. It’s a partial truth, and misleading. And you, Mr. or Ms. musicologist – how would one regard Ives’s life compared to yours? Would we all be better off if you had written the music? Too bad you weren’t his therapist, you obviously had all the answers needed to straighten him out. Now, how about a little humility, and, with it, a little infectious enthusiasm for the music you’re writing about, and maybe some admiration for the composer? Or is that just too, too pre-Derrida?
Personally, I think Charles Ives was one of the most phenomenal human beings who ever walked the planet, and I kneel in awe at his achievements. But if I were a young musicologist trying to make a career in the current academic environment, worried about how my paper would be taken at conferences, I would be leery about saying so. Luckily, I’m not.