Charles Ives: Expressions of an American Ideal

July 4, 2018, 9:23 AM · “I have so many fair dreams and hopes about music in these days. It is a gospel whereof the people are in great need.” Charles Ives (1874-1954)

The perception of music as a gospel, an undeniable truth, a cleansing for our souls, and an exercise for our minds, is the perception Charles Ives brought to life in his compositions. He took the music that represents the fabric of our everyday lives and wove it into his own unique form of expression. In doing so, Ives created music that is American to the core.

Here, for example, is his "Variations on 'America'":

During my years in music school, I studied not only Ives’ compositions, but also various aspects of his life. Ives stood out in my mind as ‘the composer who worked for an insurance company.’ In his case, it was The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (MONY).

I worked at MONY as well when my career at New York City Opera was derailed by a financial shutdown in the early 80s. (In another coincidence, Ives had been the organist at Central Presbyterian Church in New York, where I was a vocalist for many years. I seemed to be following him around Manhattan, albeit decades later.)

My MONY career began as secretary to the head of Corporate Communications. It turned out to be a fortuitous job for me, as my boss quickly figured out I could write and assigned me numerous fascinating assignments, including writing about Ives.

As a young musician, it was incongruous to me that a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer was, in fact, an extremely successful businessman. Insurance, not composition, was the way he made a living and supported his family. This was difficult for an idealistic young musician to come to terms with. How could Ives, who was considered a musical pioneer, have pursued composition on a part-time basis? Why was he not consumed with a passion for music that transcended any desire for stability and personal wealth? Where was the starving composer who sacrificed everything in pursuit of his art? His life didn’t seem romantic. It was downright dull.

Charles Ives
Charles Ives.

Certainly, it was a disappointment to discover that the man behind the music I so dearly loved was a mere mortal who worked for an insurance company.

And yet, as I later approached the life of Charles Ives, no longer a student, but a person who contributes to the support of a family, a musician who strives to find a balance between business and art, and another mere mortal who worked for an insurance company, I am aware of the profound statement Ives’ life was. He epitomized American creativity, not only in the sound of his music, but in the quality and nature of his ideals.

Father Knows Best

These ideals were instilled in Charles from an early age by his father, George Ives. A highly-skilled musician himself, George had the rare distinction of being the youngest bandmaster in the Union Army. There is record that General Ulysses S. Grant remarked to President Lincoln, “It’s the best band in the Army, they tell me.”

George Ives laid the foundation for the musical road Charles would travel. When working with his son on musical matters, George continually devised exercises to stretch his son’s musical abilities. He believed that “not every dissonance needs to be resolved.” He developed in Charles an awareness not only for the music that permeates our daily lives, but an appreciation for the inner expression that music is. When George was once asked, “How can you stand to hear old John, the stonemason, bellow off-key the way he does at camp meetings?” His answer was, “Old John is a supreme musician. Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music.”

Charles developed an accepting ear that welcomed dissonance and cacophony. He cultivated an ability to hear beauty and harmony in conflicting sounds and tonalities. “Beauty in music,” Ives wrote, “is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us and, for that reason, we are inclined to call them beautiful.”

Musical training aside, George Ives also influenced his son in his career choices and felt that a man “could keep his music interest stronger, cleaner, bigger, and freer if he didn’t try to make a living out of it.” This philosophy was accepted by Charles, who later said, “If a man has a certain ideal he’s aiming at in his art, and has a wife and children whom he can’t support, should he let his family starve and keep his ideals? No, I say, for if he did, his ‘art’ would be dishonestly weakened and his ideals would be vanity.” So Ives pursued a business path and reserved composing for evenings and weekends.

Ives & Company

Providentially, a relative of Ives’ was a medical examiner for MONY, where Ives was welcomed into the Actuarial Department. It was soon clear that Ives was not a born actuary, though he remained grateful for this firsthand experience in insurance fundamentals. He transferred to a local agency and his first assignment was to stand in for a young clerk named Julian Myrick.

Ives and Myrick clicked and prospered right from the start. They quickly established their own agency, initially called Ives and Company, then later changed to Ives & Myrick. They had such high ideals that fiasco was predicted, but soon they were outpacing all their competitors.

Ives approached selling life insurance with creativity and zeal. It was a perfect challenge for his creative imagination. He believed the sale of insurance should be patterned to the needs of the individual, considering the total personal and financial picture — a concept that to this day brings him recognition as the father of “estate planning.”

He set up a school for underwriters and taught his agents that there’s “too often more stress on the psychology of a sale than on the science of it. There is an over-appeal to the weakness of the average personality and an under-appeal to the strength of the average mind.”

Ives felt strongly about life insurance and considered his profession one that made a profound difference. He said, “The great majority of men today know that a life insurance policy is one of the definite ways of society for toughening its moral muscles, for equalizing its misfortunes, and hence, supplying a fundamental instinctive want. Because this is now appreciated, the normal mind today knows that to carry life insurance is a duty.”

Victim of His Culture

Ives is often criticized as being a victim of his culture, philosophies, and beliefs. Some feel his attachment to certain American values and institutions was so complete and literal as to narrow and stifle his career as a creative artist. Many Ives scholars maintain that he rejected his role as an artist and was thus a man hopelessly divided against himself — divided between the demands of his business and the demands of his craft.

I choose to believe that Ives approached both music and business with the same creative spirit and moral conscience. I do not envision Ives as a man divided, but rather, as a man whose actions were aligned with his ideals. His efforts as a composer and as a businessman were equally fundamental to his pursuit of an American way of life.

During his lifetime, Charles Ives experimented with virtually every significant technique of “modern” composition many years before its use by even the most advanced European composers. In the field of insurance, his idea of integrating a person’s life insurance with his financial and family needs, his training school for agents, and his concept of estate planning, remain cornerstones of the insurance industry.

When I think on Charles Ives, I think of a man who is the essence of America — a freedom to pursue and express one’s creativity and ideals in diverse forums. This is a man who famously said, “In ‘thinking up’ music, I usually have some kind of brass band with wings on it in back of my mind.” Oh, what an image!

As we celebrate America’s independence, it is appropriate to reflect on the lives of those individuals who have made a profound impact on the heritage of our country. Charles Ives is one such individual. His life is wonderfully summed up in the words of composer Arnold Schoenberg:

“There is a great man living in this country — a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Charles Ives.”


July 4, 2018 at 05:56 PM · What a fine article. More than 60 years after his death Ives's music still isn't to everyone's taste (and I have to admit that some of his music isn't to my taste) but he is a composer I often go to when I feel I need a musical cold shower, or a kick up the butt. Another thing - Diana doesn't use the word but Ives's posthumous reputation is a great testimony to the importance of musical amateurism which I believe today is often sadly underrated.

July 4, 2018 at 09:21 PM · Ultimately the greatness of art is dependent on the character embodied by the artist and/or his creation. Your wonderful article depicts a man who reminds us to hold fast to our ideals. Whether we’re paid for our musical endeavors or not, we have the freedom and choice to stick to our highest ideals. Ives inspires each of us also to make sure our family is protected by life insurance. Thank you for this special article on Independence Day.

July 5, 2018 at 05:15 AM · Thank you for your lovely and thoughtful comment, Steve! You make a great point about the importance of amateurs! Your own bio is impressive and certainly speaks to having a varied and fascinating life. I will look for your work on IMSLP. And to "150," thank you for a great comment about the character embodied by the artist. Well put!

July 5, 2018 at 05:26 PM · I love your use of this quotation from Charles’ father regarding Old John: “Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music.” Wonderful, informative article, Diana! ~Christina

July 5, 2018 at 06:12 PM · So there's hope for all those amateurs out there. Good to know.

July 5, 2018 at 06:38 PM · All of this is great if you have a job that doesn't leave you exhausted, and beaten down to a pulp at the end of the day, as so many Americans are going through now. So, why not just get another one? I don't know if that's even possible in the modern workplace. American productivity has come at a price. Sick, tired, permanently frazzled people who can barely say hi to their spouse at the end of a day, much less create anything. And that workday, thanks to the gutting of unions, goes on into the night, weekends, and holidays. And that's if your lucky enough to have one job. I don't know how much Ives would be able to create in today's world after he got off his third Uber shift after putting in a full day trying to get his business going.

July 5, 2018 at 08:02 PM · Thanks, Christina! That is my favorite quote as well. To 62, I do believe there is hope for amateurs! And, 195, you raise many wonderful points. There are days when it's hard enough to listen to music, let alone try and create something. That said, you've given me fuel for my next great hope in life: My Uber pulls up, I get inside, and Charles Ives is driving!

July 6, 2018 at 12:03 AM · Didn't Philip Glass actually work as a taxi driver at one point? I recall hearing a story about him actually driving a passenger to a performance of Einstein on the Beach, then getting out of the cab and going into the theater himself.

I do have faith in amateurs, because my own first composition teacher was an amateur composer. I got some composition lessons in 2003-04 academic year from a biology professor named Elaine Bearer, after learning that she was a former professional horn player, had studied composition under Nadia Boulanger, and had several major works performed. (Years later, I spent a year playing for the conductor who had premiered Bearer's piano concerto.)

And Ives? His second symphony is one of the most fun things I've ever had the opportunity to play.

July 6, 2018 at 04:16 AM · Oh, Andrew, I do hope you Philip Glass anecdote is true. I absolutely love it! Thank you for your wonderful comments about your composition teacher and Ives' Second Symphony. You made my day!

July 6, 2018 at 11:45 PM · There is a long history of very successful artists working regular jobs. Anthony Trollope, for example. One of England's finest writers, he was amazingly prolific - 43 novels, travel writing, essays, magazine editing - and all the while he worked full-time at the post office! On weekends,he enjoyed riding to hounds.

July 7, 2018 at 12:59 AM · David, I love Trollope and had no idea that he had a day job. Thank you!

July 7, 2018 at 01:08 AM · Diana, thanks for replying! I hope the next Charles Ives gets into your Uber, too. Expanding on what I said earlier. Maybe that's why at least here in America, the performing arts are thought of as a "young" profession. There's only so much burning the oil at both ends most people can take, and if you don't have a day job that leaves you with enough energy to create at the end of the day, eventually the person gets sick, or burned out, or some combination of the two. Which is one of the many reasons I support Medicare for all, as that would go a long way to give people more personal freedom of choice in this country.

July 7, 2018 at 05:12 AM · 195, I wrote a version of this article over 30 years ago when I worked at MONY. When I set out recently to resurrect it, I admit it never occurred to me how much the world had changed not only in the last 30 years, but in the years since Ives was working/writing. It is fascinating to ponder whether Ives would have been able to produce the output he ultimately gave us in today's environment. I thank you for raising an interesting question.

July 7, 2018 at 07:09 PM · Thanks for replying! Yep, there is one thing you can always count on in life: it's gonna change. You might find it also interesting that I read about some research somewhere that the Mozarts of the world non withstanding, most talents do not reach their initial full creative voice (that is the stuff that really takes off and changes things) until they are well into middle age, which is also the age that most people start going to the theatre to see, and hear. Maybe we are looking in the wrong direction, focusing on youth so much.

July 8, 2018 at 11:53 AM · I would suggest that the main difficulty amateur composers have is in gaining attention. Since I didn't start to compose until I was almost halfway through a biology major, I noticed that many of the opportunities for composers to get heard were age-limited, just as restrictively as competitions for performers. I don't think there's a good justification for that, seeing as composers are especially likely to hit their peak late; I don't even consider Mozart to have been a mature composer until he was in his late 20s.

I've taken an intense interest in amateur composers because of that, and because I'm also a late-starting string player. I get the sense that it's even harder to get noticed as a late-starting composer than as a late-starting performer, because at least amateur performers have ample opportunities to show what they can do while amateur composers have to convince someone else to perform their music.

The funny thing about Elaine Bearer is that, while she was a professional musician for a time, her most prolific period as a composer was the late 1990s, more than two decades after she left her professional musical career. The piano concerto I referred to was composed in 1988, while she was concurrently a biochemistry postdoc and a pathology fellow.

I know of another fairly recent scientist-composer: Richard Bing, whose granddaughter coached some chamber ensembles I played in. Richard Bing was most famous as a research cardiologist and continued to practice medicine well into his 90s (I know he was still working in 2004 when he was 95), but in his spare time he composed more than 300 pieces of music including thirteen masses and two symphonies.

Other notable amateur composers active since 1950:

In the first half of the 20th century, Kurt Atterberg wrote the last eight of his nine symphonies while working at the Swedish Patent Office. He composed his last symphony in 1955-56, when the world had already accelerated greatly from Ives's time.

Abu Bakr Khairat, Egypt's first notable symphonist, was best known as a modernist architect who designed a significant portion of Cairo's present-day skyline, and did not become a full-time musician until the last four years of his life. His symphonies were all composed in the 1950s.

Ivo Josipovic, president of Croatia from 2010 to 2015, earned a degree in music composition while working as a lawyer, and has over 50 pieces of chamber music to his name. Before entering politics he was concurrently a law professor and a music professor.

And these are just the true amateurs, for whom music was clearly secondary.

July 8, 2018 at 12:55 PM · Andrew, you raise so many wonderful points and examples that I hardly know where to begin. Your comments about age and notoriety are certainly built into the cultural landscape. As "95" notes as well, "most talents do not reach their initial full creative voice until they are well into middle age." Your comment brought to mind one of my literary heroes, James Michener. While he certainly became a "professional" writer over time, his first book was not published until he was age 40. (He then went on to publish more than 40 books.) Something else your comment captures is the distinction between "amateur" and "professional." In the strictest sense, the words simply indicate whether the artist was paid for her efforts. I think we layer into that definition that "professionals" are considerably more accomplished than "amateurs." While this may often be the case, it's certainly not definitive, as proven by Ives and the other composers you mentioned. Thank you for taking the time to comment and provide this wonderful background!

July 9, 2018 at 03:27 AM · An informative and thought provoking article about an interesting, innovative but also sensible man. Ives strikes me as someone who truly was struggling to find balance in his life--a problem that is universal and that still faces people today. I loved the way he approached both insurance and musical issues with creativity and thoughtfulness. He certainly blurred the distinction between amateur and professional. He was both, an amateur or lover of music and professional, someone who adhered to high standards in every aspect of his life. Thanks for a very interesting article, Diana.

July 10, 2018 at 03:05 PM · Thank you, 54! I particularly appreciated your remark that "He certainly blurred the distinction between amateur and professional. He was both, an amateur or lover of music and professional, someone who adhered to high standards in every aspect of his life."

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