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Charles Ives and His Music Essay

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Charles Ives is now internationally considered to be one of the most prominent American composers; however, his works did not receive much recognition especially during his lifetime. He had to cope with many challenges, relating to the reception of his music by his contemporaries (Garber, 2008). In order to understand the reasons for this unpopularity, we should first refer to the book, written by one of his closest friends Henry Cowell, who tries to assess the significance of Charles Ives’s compositions and most importantly explain why they did not enjoy cultural prestige in America.

Cowells assessment of Charles Ives

First of all, Charles Ives was firmly convinced that the audience, musicians should constantly widen their scope of musical boundaries. Cowell argues that many of them were not quite ready to do it therefore they did not manage to appreciate Ives works. He believed that “the impossibilities of today are the possibilities of tomorrow”, though only very few people agree with him or tried to follow his example (Cowell, 55). His style of tryouts and use of discord were not welcomed at the time, and most of the performers found his music to have complex rhythms that were discouraging (Cowell, 20). Nonetheless, Ives continued to ignore the people’s reactions and was concerned only with his personal stand. Cowell believes that this lack of attention is due to the fact that Ives did not want to comply with the rules of convention. His attempts to create original or even unique musical pieces were lost upon the audience (Cowell, p. 47).

Henry Cowell was one of the pioneers who invited Ives to work with him in production. In his book, he views the composers works as an immense breakthrough in American orchestra music. It gives precedence to religious belief, societal morals, and communal impartiality. His music seems to pour in all bearings boosted by some invisible force to flow. The audacious octave design in the deep voice chord at the commencement of the motion is a shaping notion of the whole piece. Ives was influenced by European composers but he never emulated or imitated them, as his main goal was to create a new and unprecedented style (Cowell & Henry, p. 14). Henry Cowell says that Ives’s life was a constant struggle against conformity. Even at college, he was taught by his musicians who relied only on European classics and did not wish to deviate from this tradition. He, however, used his lessons to finish texts from German and French producers. This never made his compositions less attractive; in fact, they developed into a unique style of music (Cowell & Henry, 1969). On the whole, Cowell thinks that the works of Charles Ives may find their listener and will be given their due but it will not happen very soon.

Reception of the composers works

There are several reasons why Charles Ives’s compositions were not well appreciated during his life. In his article, Stephen Blum presents his own answer to this question. To some extent, his explanation is analogous to that one of Henry Cowell. The thing is that Charles Ives was reluctant to follow the requirements of the audience, instead, he tried to find idealized listeners able to judge for themselves and make their decisions without the prompt (Blum, p. 469). This resulted in no concerts for a long period. The idea of trying out and use of discord did not augur well with the industry (Gann, 1997). Other musicians faced challenges in performing the pieces with the harmonies being too difficult. He had a reserved attitude to the way his music was not in demand.

In addition to that many performers deemed his efforts to be pretentious, arrogant, and hesitant. This is also connected with the fact that his compositions were not easy to play and it took quite a long time for the audience and musicians to get used to them. People did not feel as they owned the music mostly because of its alleged mannerism. There is a different facet of this issue. We may remember such famous composers as Bach, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky who centered on their respective cultures and greatly relied on them. The situation was drastically different with Ives who did not intend to stay within the limits of one cultural tradition, in his quest; he experimented with various styles and various national traditions. This is why he was seldom treated as, American composer. His European counterparts composed in accordance with what was current in their countries giving the people a sense of attachment to the music. In his turn, Charles searched for the melodies that would first please him but not the listeners (Antoq, 2008). Stephen Blum points out that his works must not be regarded as a rebellion against American musical tradition, but Ives originality eventually led to his alienation (Blum, p. 479).

Still, we have to acknowledge that some of his works did receive an appraisal. For instance, his symphony No. 4 of 1910 – 16 was tremendously staged (Antoq, 2008) The performance was huge with numerous instruments. There were effects of motion that accompanied the performance. At the tail end, there is a sort of distortion in the sound as the composition creates drama with music in a tone. Instruments continue to shake in a striking sound. Ives developed a slightly new manner in the 1940s when he worked with Lou Harrison who was his ally. Lou helped revise and endorse pieces such as Symphony No. 3 of 1904 which was staged in 1946. This music was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Ives also got an endorsement from people like Bernard Herrmann who was an instrumentalist at a symphony orchestra. Herrmann became a champion of Charles Ives’s compositions when working with him (Gann, 1997). This indicates that despite his sophisticated and complicated style, there were people who were willing to appreciate his works.


It is obvious that Charles Ives was an American innovator in his compositions of orchestra music. He relied on various cultures and did not strive to be a distinctly American composer: this eventually led to unpopularity and lack of attention. His musical pieces appeared both mannerist and untypical of American tradition. In his search of new unconventional melodies, he was practically deprived of any audience, yet there were some exceptions. They prove that under certain conditions Charles Ivess works will find their niche in American national culture. But like any true artist, he should not be limited only to one country or region, because Charles Ives was beyond geographic boundaries.


  1. Antoq. Ebook The Evolving Perception of Charles Ives And His Music. 2008.
  2. Cowell, S & Henry. Charles Ives and his Music. Oxford University Press, 1969
  3. Blum, S. “Ives’s Position in Social and Musical History”. The Musical Quarterly, 63 (4), 1997, pp 459-482
  4. Gann, K. 1997. Web.
  5. Garber, R. . 2008. Web.
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