Why Ives is not a ‘great composer’


Today – 23/8/13 – I stumbled into an article on the interesting website www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/ which is, I believe, run by an American radio station called NPR. Under the titleĀ ‘An American Maverick Turns The Symphony On Its Head’ the well-known musicologist Jan Swafford celebrates the modernity and genius of Charles Ives, who was so much ahead of his time, etc. etc. – so, harping on postwar modernist mythology of the ‘groundbreaking genius’ who, with great courage and ignored by an ignorant environment, stormed the barricades of modernity and brought American – if not Western – music into the future of 20C composition. Audiences who ‘could not take it’ were, of course, conservative, did not understand the forward-looking spirit of the prophet in their midst. And so forth. The article was enlivened by a video of Stokowski conducting the last movement of Ives’ Fourth Symphony, considered his ‘master piece’. You saw the worried faces of the performers, anxious to get their clue in time, an extra conductor at the back, a small choir singing something of a hymn at the end of the piece. I am almost certain that many musicians played wrong notes or missed their entry, but the difference with right notes at the right moments must have been minimal. In such music, there are in fact no wrong entries or wrong notes, because ‘wrongness’ is irrelevant in an ‘idiom’ where everything is ‘permitted’ and any combination of sounds, or of notes, or of harmonies – as Ives’ father contended – is OK. Who could suppress a reaction at such extensive naivety? So I entered a comment:


“His father also told him that any harmony at all was acceptable if you knew what you were doing with it. Nobody had ever told a young composer that before.” The reason that no young composer had heard that before lies in the caveat in the first sentence: “… if you knew what you were doing with it”. That Ives went-on doing his thing with any harmony does not mean that therefore the results are artistically great. His music has to stand on its own, autonomous feet, and has to be judged on its intrinsic artistic qualities. Ives’ approach was materialist, not spiritual: he threw-in all his eclectic bits of material into the pot in a literal way, without working them through, synthesizing them, modelling them, integrating them. This explains the messy nature of so much of his work and the lack of a real, worked-through idiom.

This last movement of the 4th symphony is a good example of the misunderstandings surrounding this body of work: the expressionist dissonant chords are close to Schoenbergian expressionism but thick, messy, clumsily put together (it is very easy to write messy dissonant chords); the ‘normal’ chords are just another ingredient gradually taking-over but not through some internally-developing tonal process. The sheer mass of ingredients is supposed to represent “a searching music seemingly made of myriad murmuring voices”, but they are merely literally given, in a material way – they are not ‘seemingly made of myriad murmuring voices’ but are the many murmuring voices themselves, unprocessed. And the necessity to have 2 conductors is just silly: if you need 2 conductors and that hughe orchestra and that mass of different ingredients to express some spiritual vision of life, you have not been able to digest the very idea. A spiritual vision of life can be realized with a string quartet, as well as with a regular orchestra. The multifarious possibilities which are offered by a symphony orchestra, give ample opportunity to exercise one’s creative fantasy.

All this is, of course, argued from a point of view of the work of art as an ordered, integrated structure where the parts relate to each other and form hierarchical patterns with different but interrelated meanings. But that is a precondition of musical greatness, and not ‘conservatism’. Ives had talent and fantasy, but lacked understanding of the musical work of art, which is also demonstrated – for instance – by his lack of understanding of Debussy’s music, of which he talked with contempt. That ‘audiences cannot take it’ may be because of a conservative outlook, but may as well be the result of a better understanding of what a musical work really is, an understanding better than Ives himself entertained. Here, the article falls into the very trap of modernist mythology, which confuses non-conformist handling of material with musical quality, a mythology already half a century old and without any real cultural substance. Ives was indeed far ahead of his time – but a time which gradually destroyed classical music as a living and dynamic tradition, so nothing to celebrate, really. New music nowadays is in a profound existential crisis on all fronts, and appreciation of the work of Ives as ‘great music’ merely helps eroding any sense of musical greatness.

And then – what an ugly sound that 4th movement is! What an uninteresting, messy chaos, what a pretentious exercise! It is fun, nonetheless, to perform it once in a while, but to call it the great American symphony goes, in my opinion, much and much too far.

John Borstlap / 2013


Comment, added in March 2015:

Why are, nowadays, so many music critics so well-meaning and accomodating to even the worst excesses of pretentious nonsense dressed-up as ‘new music’? They are afraid of appearing ‘conservative’ (hence their applauding ideas that have been ‘new’ and ‘groundbreaking’ for more than half a century) and got anxious about appearing in the next edition of Nicolas Slonimsky’s famous ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’, a collection of critical condemnations of works that have become the celebrated masterpieces of the classical repertoire.

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