Timeline: Charles Ives

Nov 7, 2016

Charles Ives was an organist, a baseball player, an insurance salesman and a part-time composer. He was ahead of his time, and his compositions inspired a growing modernist movement in American music during the 20th century.

Charles was born in Connecticut. His mother was a choir singer and his father, George, was a band master for the Union Army during the Civil War. George was an accomplished musician and an instructor on multiple instruments. He imparted to Charles a love for the church, Bach and experimentation in music. Ives was composing original pieces by the age of 12 and was playing in his father’s band when he was 14. He became the youngest organist in the state of Connecticut.

As a young man, Charles Ives loved Baseball. He's the pitcher and team captain on the left in this photograph dating back to his grammar school days.
Credit US-PD

By all accounts, Ives was extremely athletic and loved baseball, but his father forbid him to pursue such things as he grew older, wishing for him to focus on music. Ives attended Yale where he barely managed to keep a D+ average in his studies. Charles was far too interested in his musical experiments. Specifically, he was interested in polytonality, playing in more than one traditional key at a time.

After graduating, Ives took a position at the Mutual Insurance Company where he found a place using his creative talents to sell the idea of life insurance. He began to live a double life as an insurance salesman by day and a composer during the nights and weekends. He fell in love with Harmony Twichell, whom he called, “the most beautiful woman in Hartford.” The two were wed in 1908. With her support, he became more confident in his compositions.

During this time he wrote his seminal work The Unanswered Question. In this piece faith and reason face off as the “perennial question of existence” is posed and left unanswered in a flurry of dissonance.

Ives’ music didn’t begin to find an audience until the 1920s. His good friend and follow composer Henry Cowell fought for the experiments of Ives to be heard. The next decade, while Ives was in his 60s, his works received international attention as young people in particular looked to his music as an inspiration. Ives was even awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his 3rd Symphony. However, as a rule, he avoided any performances of his own works.

In 1954, Ives was recovering from an operation when he suffered a stroke that would take his life. Since his death, scholars have marveled at how his music and sketches were far ahead of his contemporaries. He pushed the boundaries of harmony and set a standard of invention and experimentation in American music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.