All that is currently clear is that Essays After a Sonata: Charles Ives’s Concord will be delayed, as musicologists argue over whether I’ve flattered them enough. But they can’t silence me, and as I’ve been chary of posting excerpts of the book for fear of getting scooped on some of my ideas, it is perhaps time to spring some of those ideas out into the world. This way you can judge the book, piecemeal, for yourselves, and savor the naughty thrill of reading a book someone doesn’t want you to read. Of course, it may be – who knows? – that my blog readers will quickly tire of my personal insights and demand that I add in more and more quotations from other Ives books already in print. In that case I will be humbled, and forced to concede that the musicologists were right after all.
So I start here with the passages explaining why I think Ives’s opposition between substance and manner may have had its source in the art critic John Ruskin. In an early review of my book proposal, an anonymous prof sternly warned me that the subject of Ives’s intellectual inheritance had been exhaustively mined by Peter Burkholder in his Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music, and that I would find nothing new to report. Peter’s book is indeed excellent, but Ruskin is not mentioned in it (nor is Tolstoy, Hegel, or Henry Sturt, all of whom I discuss in terms of their appearances in Essays Before a Sonata). Peter had his priorities and I have mine. My book does not render his superfluous, nor vice versa. It would be as ludicrous to fault him for not doing what I did as it would to fault me for not duplicating him. There is room in Ives’s world for at least two people to frame complementary narratives of his mental development.
One recurring idea in my book is that when one traces the quotations in Ives’s Essays to their source, the original context often tells us more about what Ives was thinking than the specific quote does. (All pages numbers within the text refer to Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata.)
From Chapter 4: Emerson: The Essay
…A sentence from the 19th-century art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) at this point seems almost like a non-sequitur, but carries an unsuspected weight once one is aware of its original context: “Suppose I like the finite curves best, who shall say I’m right or wrong? No one. It is simply a question of experience [p. 23].” This is from a chapter in Modern Painters11 in which Ruskin is discussing the geometry of forms which imitate nature. He demonstrates, first, that curves such as a circle or oval are less pleasing than more gradually expanding curves that reach out to infinity (the spiral of a nautilus shell, for example), because we can perceive their (the former’s) endpoint and necessary repetitiveness; and, secondly, that the curves of a landscape tend toward the spiraling and infinite because of the natural forces which created them (for instance, a river flowing downhill gains more momentum as it descends, and gradually increases the angle at which it cuts into a hill; Ruskin was a natural historian before painting became his passion).
And so, contrary to what one might think on reading Ives’s isolated quotation of him, Ruskin is not acquiescing to the subjectivity of the perception of beauty, but indeed grounding it in a kind of geometrically natural objectivity. Ruskin continues: “[W]hen we find on examination that every form which… has been received as lovely,… is composed of these infinite curves, and that Nature uses them for every important contour, small or large, which she desires to recommend to human observance, we shall not, I think, doubt that the preference of such lines is a sign of healthy taste, and true instinct.”12 In other words, those with little experience might find the simpler, more self-contained forms more pleasing, but a more developed perception will learn to recognize that the curves that point to infinity, if more challenging to perceive, are closer to nature and therefore more profound. Thus Ives uses Ruskin, if you’re aware what Ruskin was really saying, to justify the more complex curves of the Concord Sonata as more analogous to nature, thus more satisfying to comprehend in the long run, than the quickly-apprehended outlines of a simple sonata form. And we can cite, though Ives doesn’t, this explicit example of Emerson’s agreement on this point: “A beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.”13 (We will have much more to say about Ruskin in Chapter 12 where we discuss Ives’s Epilogue.)
11 Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. 4, IV. Banks, Chapter XVII (London: George Allen, 1902), p. 283.
12 Ibid, pp. 283-84.
13 Emerson, “The Poet,” in Essays, p. 212.
From Chapter 12: A Harmony of Imperfections: The Epilogue
…Let us address more directly, then, before going further, the aspects of substance and manner. We know of no precedent for Ives’s use of these specific terms to indicate higher and lower artistic values, but 19th-century criticism is rife with such categorical oppositions.7 David B. Robinson notes in this connection Emerson’s distinction between genius and talent in his essay on “The Poet”: “Talent may frolic and juggle; Genius realizes and adds.”8 Ives’s demotion of the composer Max Reger from “genius” to “man of ‘talent’” on page 88 is perhaps an echo. But there seems to me to be a striking parallel between Ives’s project here and that of John Ruskin in Volume 2 of Modern Painters (1846). Ives quotes Ruskin only three times, but the contexts from which those quotes are taken are so apposite as to make me think Ruskin’s influence on Ives was more pervasive than has been noticed. The Emerson essay mentions Ruskin’s “imagination penetrative”; the “Imagination Penetrative” chapter of Modern Painters is preceded by one on the “Imagination Associative,” which Ives certainly also must have read. Here Ruskin draws a distinction between fancy and imagination parallel to Ives’s manner and substance, though referring to the artist’s process rather than the quality of the art. He describes the painter of mere fancy:
When an unimaginative painter is about to draw a tree… he probably lays on his paper such a general form as he knows to be characteristic of the tree to be drawn, and such as he believes will fall in agreeably with the other masses of his picture, which we will suppose partly prepared. When this form is set down, he assuredly finds it has done something he did not intend it to do. It has mimicked some prominent line, or overpowered some necessary mass. He begins pruning and changing, and, after several experiments, succeeds in obtaining a form that does no material mischief….
Where the powers of fancy are very brilliant, the picture becomes highly interesting; if her images are systematically and rightly combined, and truthfully rendered, it will become even impressive and instructive; if wittily and curiously combined, it will be captivating and entertaining.9
Sounds like manner to me. Ruskin then describes the process of an artist who is capable of imagination:
If… the combination made is to be harmonious, the artist must induce in each of its component parts (suppose two only, for simplicity’s sake,) such imperfection as that the other shall put it right. If one of them be perfect by itself, the other will be an excrescence. Both must be faulty when separate, and each corrected by the presence of the other. If he can accomplish this, the result will be beautiful; it will be a whole, an organized body with dependent members;—he is an inventor. If not, let his separate features be as beautiful, as apposite, or as resemblant as they may, they form no whole. They are two members glued together. He is only a carpenter and joiner.10
The one painter composes a painting from images of nature stored in his memory, each one of them perfect independently; the other imagines the painting as a whole, full of imperfections in the individual forms which harmoniously balance each other and create a texture reflecting nature in its complexity and underlying emotive expression. (Ruskin’s visual examples, too lengthy to cite here, are impressive and worth looking up.) Though Ruskin is difficult to quote succinctly, here he is again on the fanciful painter:
Now, I suppose that through the whole of this process, he has been able to refer to his definite memory or conception of nature for every one of the fragments he has successfully added… But, as far as the process of combination is concerned, it is evident that, from beginning to end, his laws have been his safety, and his plague has been his liberty. He has been compelled to work at random or under the guidance of feeling only, whenever there was anything left to his own decision… He has walked as a drunken man man on a broad road; his guides are the hedges; and, between these limits, the broader the way, the more difficult his progress.11
Now, imagine how much Ives may have recognized himself in the subsequent contrasting portrait of the imaginative painter, and what a heady compliment it must have felt:
The advance of the imaginative artist is precisely the reverse of this. He owns no laws. He defies all restraint, and cuts down all hedges. There is nothing within the limits of natural possibility that he dares not do, or that he allows the necessity of doing. The laws of nature he knows; these are to him no restraint. They are his own nature. All other laws or limits he sets at utter defiance; his journey is over an untrodden and pathless plain… He saw his tree, trunk, boughs, foliage, and all, from the first moment; not only the tree, but the sky behind it….12
Ruskin’s division is more severe than Ives’s: a painter is capable of either fancy or imagination, but the processes are mutually exclusive. And, like Ives (with his Beethoven/Strauss pairing), he draws this line not between good art and bad, but between sublime, permanently relevant art – and pretty good art that people like, but which does not manifest eternal values and will probably go out of fashion. In the “Imagination Penetrative” chapter, Ruskin takes Dante as an Imagination example in poetry, and Milton (no minor poetaster) as the poet of mere Fancy, whose description of Satan “is too far detailed, and deales too much with externals; we feel rather the form of the fire-waves than their fury, we walk upon them too securely….”13
Now the reader has in mind the very clear distinction (possibly too speciously clear to be true, once one contemplates it) that Ives had in mind before writing, and that he was going to recreate in the sphere of music; this juxtaposition may throw the entire essay into relief. The word fancy was not going to retain any intellectual heft by 1919. In using substance and manner, he focuses on not the creative faculty of the artist but qualities of the artwork, which already reduces the rhetorical dynamism a notch, and is going to be harder to make stick in a medium as immaterial as music. He does not possess Ruskin’s phenomenal powers of description. The aspects that make music transcendent are not as easy to pinpoint as those of poetry and painting. A Ruskin-like analysis of why the “Archduke” Trio is an objectively better piece than Also Sprach Zarathustra might serve his purpose, but would mire him in endless details. In 1846 Ruskin was straining to preserve an Enlightenment tradition that landscape painting was a scientific branch of natural philosophy, and that, rightly done, it imparted true scientific knowledge of natural forms14; by 1919, artistic perception had come to be understood as more subjective, and Ives has Henry Sturt on his other shoulder lamenting the impossibility of objective criteria. But as part of his philosophical and moral (but not artistic) conservatism, he feels the force of Ruskin’s dichotomy.
I would venture that by not making more of his Ruskin quotes, Ives is soft-pedaling his indebtedness; possibly recognizing that in the 19-teens Ruskin’s reputation was at the bottom of a slump, and would not aid his case.15 In a sense, Ives himself was in the position of the great Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), whom Ruskin began writing Modern Painters in 1843 to defend: pursuing goals outside the boundaries of the art form as currently understood, but which Ruskin could justify as embodying “a more essential truth than is seen at the surface of things.”16 Ives, too retiring to even bring up his own music, is hamstrung trying to do for himself what Ruskin did for Turner. It’s fascinating, though, that Ruskin pointed to imagination as a harmony of imperfections conceived as a unity, as opposed to a collection of self-sufficient types. I think we could recognize the Concord Sonata in that characterization.
And so Ives Ruskinizes as best he can. Substance (to collect Ives’s scattered near-synonyms) has to do with reality, quality, spirit, character, spiritual consciousness, inspiration, affection, a divine spark, and truth. To return to his Emerson essay, “It gives the sincerity to the constant spiritual hopefulness we are always conscious of, and… a note of exultation in the victories of ‘the innate virtues’ of man [p. 31].” Paraphrasing one of Ives’s quotations of Thoreau (p. 32), it “satisfies hunger” rather than merely “gratifies the palate.” If an artist’s work lacks substance, it may, in a sense, be not his own fault (or at least not from lack of hard work), except insofar as every person is responsible for his or her own spiritual development. An artist needs to cultivate a kind of radical honesty, a larger insight into the workings of the human mind not based on his own education or prejudices, but in a universal sympathy, let us say even a love of one’s fellow man that makes him or her want to reach out through art to share with the world. As Ives states it most clearly,
Substance in a human-art-quality suggests the body of a conviction which has its birth in the spiritual consciousness, whose youth is nourished in the moral consciousness, and whose maturity as a result of all this growth is then represented in a mental image. This is appreciated by the intuition, and somehow translated into expression by “manner” – a process always less important than it seems…. (p. 75)
The superior artist is, then, a superior person, or at least one who has overcome his or her own psychic limitations. “The finer the sense of justice, the better poet,” writes Emerson.17 A mean, petty, limited, and/or unevolved person could not produce art of surpassing substance.18 Ives seems to have been quite serious about this. In an insert intended for a possible second edition of the Essays (included by Boatwright as a footnote, since Ives didn’t specify where it should be placed), Ives hypothesizes about an artist who pretends to value freedom when he really means selfishness: “He must be free to express his great soul but forgets, that unfair & impatient, or even indecent treatment of his wife – means that he hasn’t got a great soul to start with… [p. 253]” And thus we must displace Charles Dickens, who treated his wife shamefully (and who was, incidentally, one of Ives’s favorite authors), from among the novelists of substance based on his biography, for the sake of whatever supposed traces it may have left in his fiction. (Likewise, forget about Ernest Hemingway.) Ives goes on to describe a composer who left his family to fend for themselves: “Look into this man’s or any similar character’s (art) music – live with it long enough – & you will gradually feel the decadent part of the man’s soul – making a strenuous perhaps beautiful sound, – but you can’t live with it long – any more than he could live with his family….”19
Such a belief in the necessary morality of great artists, which seems to arise in history periodically, is one of Ives’s affinities with Ruskin, who wrote that “no supreme power of art can be attained by impious men,”20 and, “It is, of course, true that many of the strong masters had deep faults of character, but their faults always show in their work.”21 The German Idealists (of whom we can take Sturt as a neo-Hegelian) separated knowledge and morality into independent spheres, and believed that art transcended its social context; Ruskin, coming from another tradition, fused art with morality, locating truth outside art and insisting that art be judged according to knowledge.22 There are, in the literature, innumerable anecdotes of famous artists and composers acting selfishly or vindictively, and occasionally someone will cite a munificent and generous human being who was, nevertheless, a mediocre artist (in fact, Ives had a good friend who he was forced to admit was just such an example: the composer John Becker23). Still, the correlation Ives posits here is a perennially attractive one. We run into a different strain of the same conviction among those who suspect T.S. Eliot’s poetry on the basis of his antisemitism, or Ezra Pound’s poetry due to his public advocacy for Italian fascism.
7 Burkholder notes that Ives’s mentor John Cornelius Griggs uses the words content and manner to discuss Debussy in Griggs, “Claude Debussy,” in Wilbur L. Cross, ed., Yale Review, Vol. 1 (New Haven: Yale Publishing Association, Inc., 1912), pp. 484-494. But they are not used as oppositional categories. Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music, p. 71.
8 David B. Robinson, “Charles Ives on Emerson and Art,” in Cody & Budd, On Emerson, p. 186.
9 Ruskin, Modern Painters (edited and abridged by David Barrie), (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), pp. 249, 247.
10 Ibid., p. 247.
11 Ibid., p. 250.
12 Ibid., pp. 250-51.
13 Ibid., p. 255.
14 Teukolsky, The Literate Eye, p. 36.
15 As a book on Ruskin would note in 1932, Ruskin’s reputation had fallen because he “invariably introduced a social, moral, or religious interest into the brilliant but dictatorial criticism of pictures.” Henry Ladd, The Victorian Morality of Art: an Analysis of Ruskin’s Esthetic (New York: Ray Long and Richard Smith, 1932); quoted in Teukolsky, The Literate Eye, p. 26. Plus, of course, the painter Whistler’s 1878 libel suit against Ruskin had made the latter look stodgy and a little ridiculous to the younger generation at the time.
16 Ruskin, Modern Painters (edited and abridged by David Barrie), (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), p. 266.
17 Emerson, “The Sovereignty of Ethics,” p. 179.
18 Hegel, though, with respect to musicians, provides a dissenting observation: “we often enough see very great expertness in musical composition, as also in execution, subsist along with remarkable barrenness of mind and character.” Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, p. 32.
19 Ives, Essays, p. 253.
20 Ruskin, Modern Painters (edited and abridged by David Barrie), (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987), p. 238.
21 Ruskin, Lectures on Art: III: The Relation of Art to Morals, §72.
22 Mary Ann Stankiewicz, “The Eye Is a Nobler Organ,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Summer, 1984), pp. 55-56.
23 Budiansky, Mad Music, p. 232.
All material copyright © Kyle Gann 2014
Had some previous book or article alerted me to this Ruskin-Ives connection, I would quote and footnote it with an obsequiousness that would make your head spin. But I had to come up with this myself.
Stay tuned, if interested, for more soon.