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Charles Ives: A Life with Music

Overview

An illuminating portrait of a man whose innovative works profoundly influenced the course of twentieth-century American classical music.
Jan Swafford's colorful biography first unfolds in Ives's Connecticut hometown of Danbury, then follows Ives to Yale and on to his years in New York, where he began his double career as composer and insurance executive. The Charles Ives that emerges from Swafford's story is a precocious, well-trained musician, a brilliant if mercurial thinker ...

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Overview

An illuminating portrait of a man whose innovative works profoundly influenced the course of twentieth-century American classical music.
Jan Swafford's colorful biography first unfolds in Ives's Connecticut hometown of Danbury, then follows Ives to Yale and on to his years in New York, where he began his double career as composer and insurance executive. The Charles Ives that emerges from Swafford's story is a precocious, well-trained musician, a brilliant if mercurial thinker about art and life, and an experimenter in the spirit of Edison and the Wright brothers.

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Editorial Reviews

Newsweek
“First-rate. . . . Thoughtful, witty, instructive, this is one of the best biographies in recent memory, as warm and strangely inspiring as the man and the music it describes.”
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the first great composer of American serious music (though he would have hated that phrase) and also, paradoxically, a pioneer in the nascent life insurance industry around the turn of the century, whose approaches are still known and followed. Inspired by his bandmaster father, he sought always to hear more acutely and to render a music at once popular and profound; and in his experiments with atonality and polyrhythms, he long anticipated the discoveries for which European masters like Schoenberg and Stravinsky are renowned. In his later years, as his own creative gifts faded, he lavished much of his considerable wealth on the promotion of his own, and others', music-as long as it wasn't "sissy" music, by which he meant anything too soothing to the ear. The perceived performance difficulty of much of his work, and its very different sound from what audiences were accustomed to, meant that his life was almost over before he began to be appreciated as a master, a profoundly American original. Swafford, himself a composer as well as a superb writer, has worked brilliantly on Ives's behalf: the depth of his research, his insights and his constant empathy have brought the old curmudgeon (and to many modern eyes, Ives must seem an absurdly anachronistic figure) to vivid life, at once a comic and a tragic figure-and in terms of his significance in American artistic life, on the level of Twain or Whitman. Photos not seen by PW. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In the past ten years, two excellent biographical studies of Ives have been published (Stuart Feder, Charles Ives: "My Father's Song," Yale Univ., 1992; Peter Burkholder's Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music, Yale Univ., 1985). Here Swafford, a composer long fascinated with the music of Ives, has contributed an outstanding addition to this recent rekindling of scholarly interest. In the author's words, this is an "Ivesian" biography in the sense that the life and music are inextricably interwoven. In many ways, the book does resemble a work of Ives. It is sprawling, rich with fascinating details, quirky, opinionated (though the author is careful to identify his own speculations), and very appealing. The opening paragraph, for example, consists of one 203-word sentence that paints a colorful, Romantic portrait of the Ives homestead in Danbury, Connecticut, in a manner that will remind readers of Ives's own tonal landscapes. Though the book is written in very inclusive language, musicians will appreciate the occasional technical references contained in the endnotes-a fascinating section in itself. Highly recommended.-Larry A. Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, Pa.
Kirkus Reviews
A decent, thoughtful, and idealistic biography of American music's radical idealist.

Judged by the first criterion of musical biography—does it make us want to listen to the music?—this portrait of "Charlie" Ives must be counted a success. Yankee bandmaster's son, Yalie, rebel modernist, insurance executive, and Romantic visionary who spent the last quarter-century of his life retouching a "Universe" symphony that was never completed to his satisfaction: The outline of the story is familiar to readers with a general interest in 20th-century American music. Swafford's personal slant is frankly to admit his own sympathy with the social progressivism that underlay Ives's approach to both his art and his go-getting business career. Unlike the psychobiographers who have been attracted to Ives (see Stuart Feder's Charles Ives, "My Father's Song"), Swafford has no interest in probing Ives's weaknesses. He is receptive to, rather than critical of, the expansive, can-do, "universalist individualism"—a legacy from the 19th-century Transcendentalists whom Ives "portrayed" in the Concord Sonata—which shaped Ives's beliefs about family, marriage, career, and artistic output. Since the author owns to this empathetic approach to his subject, the reader is readier to pardon the occasional gushing quality of Swafford's prose and some questionable, frankly subjective music judgements (e.g., The Unanswered Question is not a work of Ives's musical maturity). To his credit, Swafford has done a good job of setting out the gratifying story of how Ives's music was championed and actively promoted by other composers and musical leaders, including Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Leonard Bernstein, and Leopold Stokowski.

A conscientious, intellectually honest sifting of the plentiful evidence, though undoubtedly not the last word on its subject.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393317190
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/28/1998
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 969,602
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface ix
Ives Family Genealogy xvi
Prelude 1
ONE At Home 3
TWO The Music of War 16
THREE A Place in the Soul 27
FOUR An Apprenticeship 48
FIVE Farewell 66
Entr'acte One: The Music of the Ages 87
SIX A College 103
SEVEN Dasher at Yale 116
Entr'acte Two: Graduation 135
EIGHT Renunciations and Apprenticeships 143
NINE La Vita Nuova 170
TEN Measuring the Prospect 194
ELEVEN Entelechy 218
TWELVE That Beautiful Shore 955
THIRTEEN Tom Sails A way 272
FOURTEEN A Fall and a Credo 284
FIFTEEN Overtures 306
SIXTEEN The Work of Our Hands 325
Entr'acte Three: Watchman, Tell Us of theNight 349
SEVENTEEN Advances and Retreats 366
EIGHTEEN Distant Bells 393
Postlude 431
Appendix: Editing Ives 435
Notes 439
Bibliography 508
Index 513
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