David Paul isn’t crazy about a common cliché that is frequently applied to enduring masterpieces.
“I don’t think it’s a question of music surviving the test of time,” said the UCSB musicologist. “I think it’s a question of people finding things in a piece of music that make sense to them—that work for them.”
That is, perhaps, a subtle distinction, but an important one. Paul believes tracing the reception of an instrumental work—whether it was ignored or embraced, and what it stood for in people’s minds—tells us as much about a society’s beliefs and assumptions as it does about the piece itself.
In his highly readable book Charles Ives in the Mirror, which was just published by the University of Illinois Press, the Canadian native looks at how the man many consider America’s greatest composer has been viewed by his countrymen. “Seeing how Ives has moved through the American past allowed me tap into parts of American culture that I didn’t understand, or couldn’t figure out,” said Paul, who studied at UC Berkeley and is entering his eighth years on the UCSB faculty.
Ives, who lived from 1874 to 1954, was a successful insurance executive who wrote symphonies and sonatas in his spare time, ignored by the musical establishment. His works didn’t get noticed or widely performed until the 1940s, long after he had retired from composing.
His music contains, in Paul’s words, “a strange mix of Americana and the avant-garde.” Gospel songs, fiddle tunes and familiar folk melodies often weave their way through his works, but always in unexpected ways, sometimes overlapping one another or clashing in jarring dissonances.
In other words, he is recognizably a contemporary of Bela Bartok and Alban Berg, but unlike those European masters, he was working in an American tradition. As Paul notes, his life story fits nicely with the archetypal figure of the American hero: A solitary figure, true to himself and indifferent to public opinion. “We like our heroes to be unfettered and free,” Paul said. “Ives certainly represented that.”
That potent symbolism helps explain his late-in-life popularity. But there were other factors in play as well. At a time when America was still feeling culturally inferior to other nations (including our enemies, the Russians), Ives was held up as proof that we could produce forward-looking, highly creative music.
“And we could be capitalists at the same time!” Paul said. “Ives made a lot of money, and he also wrote this fabulous music. That’s one reason he was an appealing figure during the Cold War, when people like Leonard Bernstein would perform Ives while they were touring Eastern Europe. It was a way of saying, ‘Our system does produce great art.’”
Today, Ives’ music is on the fringes of the repertoire. It will play a prominent part in next June’s Ojai Festival, but otherwise won’t get much of a hearing in this area. So why hasn’t it proven as popular as that of Bernstein, or Aaron Copland?
“First, his music is really hard to play,” Paul explained. “It’s no small endeavor to put on something like the Fourth Symphony (widely considered his masterpiece). Also, he only wrote a limited number of pieces that are really accessible, including the First and Second Symphonies, [his orchestral suite] Three Places in New England, and a lot of his songs.”
And so the cultural history lesson continues. Perhaps the fact that Ives is widely acknowledged as our first master composer, and yet we aren’t willing to engage with with his challenging music, tells us something about our own era.