Birthplace of Another Sonata

In the earliest years of the 20th century, Charles Ives was working for Charles H. Raymond & Co. insurance company in Wall Street. On weekends he would escape the city to Pine Mountain, a beautiful nature reserve south of Danbury where the Ives family owned land, in order to compose there. Some of his early works are marked with the notation “Pine Mountain,” including the First Piano Sonata, whose earliest sketch is dated Aug. 4, 1901. And today there is a long trail through the Pine Mountain nature reserve called the Ives Trail, running from Ridgefield to Bethel. And so as the end of our book-buying Concord, Mass., vacation (the only kind I let my wife take, but she claims she doesn’t mind), Nancy and I came back and took in some of the Ives Trail. (Among other things I bought The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, $120, as well as a used copy of Glenn Watkin’s The Gesualdo Hex, which I unaccountably hadn’t known about, plus the new Murakami novel. I passed up a first edition of Bronson Alcott’s sonnets for $150. Oh well.)

The Ives Trail runs for several miles, but I only wanted to see Lookout Point where Ives and his brother Moss built a cabin. The trail is a hell of a lot more rustic and rocky than I anticipated, and pretty stiff climbing:
Rocky Trail

You know, I grew up in Texas, and I rather thought all the East Coast states had been paved over decades ago. It’s way out of the way, on a narrow little road outside Ridgefield, CT, and it’s marked all along with little Ives Trail signs with treble clefs on them:

Ives Trail Sign

I didn’t get the impression that any of the hikers we ran into had the slightest idea who Charles Ives was. (I kept expecting to run into musicologists.) I would have been happy to conduct a tour. And the spot where Ives and Moss built their cabin in 1903 was at Lookout point, which I would have to think is the most exquisite panoramic view in the state of Connecticut:

KG at Lookout Point

We couldn’t take a photo that would do the cliff behind me justice. Had I fallen backward here, I would have hit a rock about eight feet below, and if I bounced off that, the next plunge would have been forty feet or so. But this rock was apparently the site of Ives’s cabin. Here’s another photo:

KG at Ives Trail

(Please click for better focus; my legs are well worth it.) It was all Nancy and I and our tiny little dog Gita could do to get the mile and a half to this point. I’ve been realizing more and more how wrapped up Ives’s philosophy of music was with the aesthetics of nature, and that he conceived so many early pieces here made perfect sense.

Trees at Ives Trail

So now I’ve been to the places both piano sonatas were conceived. And I’m just a few hours of work away from having the manuscript ready to turn in. Seeing Pine Mountain was one of my last check-off points.

[UPDATE] A couple more:


And the size of the dog we brought. Gita is a seven-pound shih-tzu/yorkie mix, but she scrambled up those rocks like a labrador:





  1. says

    Great holiday snaps, Kyle! I love the geography of history and I wasn’t aware of the Pine Mountain cabin (or hadn’t remembered it). That picture, after the cliff one: is that dirt/rock patch to your right the remains of the floor plan/foundations of the cabin? And do you know when it was demolished? I take it that this is all public land now.

    And yes, on the other point, me too. As an old Californian gal I assumed the East Coast looked like scenes from Serpico (Barney Childs once told me that he was reliably informed that New Jersey looked like the back of an old radio set). When I first went to Long Island to do grad school. I thought I’d take the subway to Stony Brook, fighting muggers all the way. Imagine my surprise when it looked like an album cover for Three Places in New England.

    KG replies: There were a lot of places (like this one) where the ground is flat rock, and I couldn’t see any sign of a former cabin. Another half-mile on there’s the remains of a huge chimney someone built, but no evidence of the rest of the cabin there either. When and how the ownership changed, no one in the Ives literature has said, I don’t think. I was proud of our little shih-tzu/yorkie dog for making it up there with us.

  2. says

    Beautiful! I look forward to listening to the sonata with this scenery in mind. I note that Ives has inspired you to take up rowing and hiking. Is southpaw pitching next?

    KG replies: It’s more like I got them out of the way, rather than took them up.

  3. says

    (I kept expecting to run into musicologists.) This is a really funny remark. Did you run into any insurance salespersons?

    KG replies: I wouldn’t have recognized any of them.

    • says

      On a more serious note, are there any conceptual parallels between Charles Ive’s innovations in the field of insurance and music? (The nature of his music is more commonly known than the specifics of his business creativity, or is the latter a myth?)

      KG replies: Depends on who you read. Swafford downplays his importance as a historical insurance figure, citing histories that don’t refer to him. Budiansky quotes some interesting Ives insurance documents at length. Ives seems to have come up with some ideas that others would have thought of anyway, and he was very good at teaching and motivating salesmen – and generating profits through stratagems that would later be made illegal.

      • says

        “…he was very good at teaching and motivating salesmen…”

        Did Charles Ives have the technical skills required to conduct one of his symphonies? Did he ever actually do this (sorry, I don’t know), or have the desire to do this?

        “…and generating profits through stratagems that would later be made illegal.”

        Interesting. Certainly the music world of his time found his music – what they knew of it! – aesthetically “illegal”, and, possibly, many still feel this way about much of his music. My sense is that the symphonies of Ives are rarely performed by major orchestras. If true, is this more due to an aesthetic response, or a practical one?

        My understanding is that musicologist Leonard Altman played a role in helping to bring more attention to the music of Charles Ives – does this ring a bell? Leonard once marveled to me about how Seiji Ozawa conducted a particularly complex symphony of Ives (again, sorry I don’t know which one) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, seemingly doing the work of several conductors at once; a technical feat he had never witnessed before or since.

        Altman also said that publishing some scores by Ives were especially challenging because with their extreme complexity it was almost impossible to prevent errors from being made by the copyists. Are the currently available scores free from such errors?

        KG replies: I doubt that Ives ever conducted even the occasional runthrough he paid musicians to do for him. And that would have been the Fourth Symphony. The others are not very impractical. And I’m not acquainted with the name Leonard Altman, he may have been better known on the west coast.

        • says

          Thanks for this, Kyle, and I look forward to your new book. Here is some more specific information about Altman’s connection to Ives. I suspect there is much more, but this is what I can offer at the moment:

          It is my understanding that Altman had much to do with bringing Ive’s Fourth Symphony to the attention of Seiji Ozawa, who subsequently performed and recorded the symphony with the BSO in 1970, five years after its world premiere with Leopold Stokowski and the ASO. I have not yet heard the recording, but found this 2007 comment online by Todd E. Winkels: “I’ve heard a lot of readings of Ives’s 4th, and each has it’s merits. I personally prefer Ozawa’s account over the Michael Tilson Thomas release. Although I enjoy MTT’s version very much (and it is a reference recording no doubt) I also feel MTT is a little too controlling or too articulated for Ives…his account is more “user friendly” than other accounts. Ozawa, on the other hand, is a more mystical reading. With Ozawa, Ives is more than “americana”…Ives is a transcendentalist above all and this recording reflects this aspect of Ives more than other accounts.”

          Altman had a special interest in living composers, and while I don’t know what that complete list is, I do know he played an important role in the careers of Ralph Shapey, Steve Reich, and myself too. Tim Page cites Altman as his most significant mentor.

          But all this is just a small part of Altman’s prodigious work in the realm of classical music; past, present and future. Most well known is how he directed the successful campaign to save Carnegie Hall from demolition, but again, this is just one of his many accomplishments.

          For those interested, here is a tribute I wrote about Altman earlier this year:

          I took particular interest in your most beautiful post about hiking to the site that inspired Ive’s First Piano Sonata because my most recent composition, Hummingbird Canyon, was inspired, in part, by coming upon a congregation of hummingbirds while out hiking myself; if walking the streets of Los Angeles may be termed hiking, that is! (Click on my name for link.)

  4. says

    I just love this, every bit of it. It’s just the kind of thing I might do in pursuit of a passion. The Ives Trail signs are the best. I wonder, too, for those who take the route, how many know what the trail signs are about. But perhaps it doesn’t matter, the walkers are in his patch of nature, and perhaps the woods sing to them, too.

  5. mjy says

    I grew up in Danbury and still live nearby- every year, to celebrate Ives’ birthday, a group of community orchestra members lead a hike along the exact path you walked, and then conclude with a performance of Ives music somewhere in Danbury. Maybe next year they could hire you to talk about the book or something! This event is always a joy- half the city of Danbury’s infrastructure is named after Ives, yet there’s little to none of his actual music in the city’s consciousness- even the public library has no more than a few recordings. I think the powers that be like the idea of Ives more than his actual music.

    KG replies: I’ve gotten the same impression.