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Ives the Man

The central premise of Post-Classical Ensemble’s three-day “Ives Project” at the Strathmore Music Center last week was that Charles Ives the composer was not a curmudgeonly modernist, but a wholesome and uplifting product of fin-de-siecle America.

The central presentation, “Charles Ives: A Life in Music,” applied letters and other writings to an array of Ives songs (peerlessly enacted by William Sharp) and chamber-orchestra works, plus “The Alcotts” from the Concord Piano Sonata (an exalted performance by Jeremy Denk).

The central document was the “Dear Daddy” letter Edie Ives gave her father on his sixty-eighth birthday, reading in part:

“You have fire and imagination that is truly a divine spark, but to me the great thing is that never once have you tried to turn your gift to your own ends. Instead you have continually given to humanity right from your heart, asking nothing in return; — and all too often getting nothing. The thing that makes me happiest about your recognition today is to see the bread you have so generously cast upon most ungrateful waters, finally beginning to return to you. All that great love is flowing back to you at last. Don’t refuse it because it comes so late, Daddy.”

When the evening was done, an audience member asked how our presentation could be reconciled with popular imagery of Ives the man: irascible, cranky, difficult.
That Ives’ music cannot be fully appreciated outside the context of 19th century gentility, and the genteel notion that art is morally empowering, has long seemed obvious to me. Moral fire is what Ives found and cherished in Emerson — and also in Beethoven, whom he considered “in the history of this youthful world the best product that human beings can boast of.” But I hadn’t sufficiently appreciated the implications for Ives the man.

When Ives was belatedly discovered in the thirties, forties, and fifties, modernists seized on the bravery of Ives the composer – his experiments with tonality, rhythm, and sound. Concomitantly, they seized on his tirades against “pansies” and “sissies” to paint Ives the man. That Ives was confrontational suited the modernist template for genius.

But in what others had to say about him, I can find no evidence of Ives being remotely cruel or selfish. In fact, it seems he was singularly benign. At the Ives & Myrick insurance office, he may have been considered eccentric, but he was beloved.

Many are the stories memorably limning Ives the man. One of my favorites was told by Charles Buesing, an Ives & Myrick employee. Buesing remembered Ives as “a very shy, retiring man.” He was “very kindly,” never harsh or angry. He “would talk to anyone.” He “made everyone feel important.” The first time Buesing entered Ives’s office – which was “out of sight,” “around a corner” — he thought Ives asleep. His eyes were shut, his feet rested on a desk drawer, his desk was a mass of papers. “Come in and sit down,” Ives said, his eyes still closed. He asked Buesing about his family, his work, his future plans. He encouraged him to stick with the life insurance business.

One day, an Ives & Myrick salesman named Charlie came to Buesing with tears in his eyes. Charlie had gone months without a sale: he had no income. Ives had just paid him a visit. “Charlie,” Ives had said, “will you take out your wallet?” Charlie did. “Now, you open it,” said Ives. The wallet was empty. “I thought so,” said Ives. “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 an I.O.U. or anything else.” And Ives put fifty dollars in Charlie’s wallet. As Ives left the office, Charlie said to Buesing, “There is a great man.” Politically, Ives was an extreme populist who advocated direct democracy. He believed in people.

In Beethoven, writes Ives in Essays before a Sonata, “the moral and the intellectual” are one. “It is told, and the story is so well known that we hesitate to repeat it here, that [Beethoven and Goethe] were standing in the street one day when the Emperor drove by – Goethe, like the rest of the crowd, bowed and uncovered – but Beethoven stood bolt upright, and refused even to salute, saying; : “Let him bow to us, for ours is a nobler empire.” Goethe’s mind knew this was true, but his moral courage was not instinctive.”

Like Ives, like Emerson, Beethoven embodies ideals of uplift and equality – and yet will not pander. His language grows arcane. Ives knows this paradox and solves it: Beethoven writes symphonies “to the people,” not “for the people”; he composes “for the human-soul,” not for the “human-ear.” In fact, with their Beethoven encomiums, the Concord Sonata and Ives’ accompanying Essays Before a Sonata mutually testify that Ives saw himself striding alongside Emerson and Beethoven in a common high endeavor — that the human, morally empowered, might become divine.

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