There’s a quote by composer Gustav Holst that strongly resonates with me:
If nobody likes your work, you have to go on just for the sake of the work. And you’re in no danger of letting the public make you repeat yourself. Every artist ought to pray that he may not be ‘a success’. If he’s a failure he stands a good chance of concentrating upon the best work of which he’s capable.
Those words come to mind as I consider the work of American Modernist composer Charles Ives. For much of his life his music was completely ignored, and thus he was able to toil on his own, following his own interests and go where his own ears took him. By the time his work began to gain some renown, Ives had produced some of the more shockingly original music of the 20th century, all by following his own guiding light. Ives lived to the age of 79, but he stopped composing almost entirely in his early 50s, for reasons that have led to much speculation. He did live long enough to see his work gain acceptance, though, as he finished out his working career not as a musician but as an insurance agent.
Ives is always an interesting listen, though he unquestioningly, unhesitatingly, and unapologetically puts unusual demands on the listener. This was very much a part of his character. He once said “I don’t write music for sissy ears,” and he responded to another audience member’s distaste for a dissonant work with a caustic rejoinder: “Stop being such a goddamned sissy! Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”
I haven’t heard a great deal of Ives, but he is always fascinating and, indeed, moving. His work stands outside most of the traditions of his time: he is certainly not a jazzman, though he does incorporate popular songs here and there, nor is he exactly an atonalist, though he does experiment with alternate tonalities and things like quartertones.
The piece I feature here is a chamber work called Central Park in the Dark, and it’s one of Ives’s early works, written when he was just thirty-two. It starts as an atmospheric piece of tone-painting, but it becomes more and more raucous to the point of sheer cacophony, and we hear snatches of popular song and general noise. Of this piece, Ives himself wrote:
This piece purports to be a picture-in-sounds of the sounds of nature and of happenings that men would hear some thirty or so years ago (before the combustion engine and radio monopolized the earth and air), when sitting on a bench in Central Park on a hot summer night….The strings represent the night sounds and silent darkness – interrupted by sounds from the Casino over the pond – of street singers coming up from the Circle singing, in spots, the tunes of those days – of some “night owls” from Healy’s whistling the latest of the Freshman March – the “occasional elevated”, a street parade, or a “break-down” in the distance – of newsboys crying “uxtries” – of pianolas having a ragtime war in the apartment house “over the garden wall”, a street car and a street band join in the chorus – a fire engine, a cab horse runs away, lands “over the fence and out”, the wayfarers shout – again the darkness is heard – an echo over the pond – and we walk home.
This is what Charles Ives was composing in 1906. By way of context, George Gershwin was only eight years old at this point, and Igor Stravinsky was still seven years away from premiering the work of his that would hit the musical world like a lightning bolt of intense Modernism, The Rite of Spring.
Here is Central Park in the Dark by Charles Ives.