It’s been more than 50 years since the death of American composer Charles Ives, yet he remains a controversial figure. For many, Ives is a musical messiah, a prophet who experimented with such earsplitting modern techniques as atonality, polytonality and free dissonance long before anyone else. Others, however, see him as more of a charlatan, an artist whose music was unquestionably original but flawed, even wacky.
On a new release, the Blair String Quartet make a compelling case that Ives was indeed the great American musical genius. Throughout the recording, the ensemble perform with enough polish and finesse to make his most head-scratching musical non-sequiturs seem inevitable. At the very least, the Blair players, who serve as the quartet-in-residence at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, reveal Ives as a composer of extraordinary emotional depth.
During his lifetime, Ives was mostly seen as a curiosity and enigma. Born in 1874 in Danbury, Conn., he grew up the son of a former Civil War bandleader. It was from his father that he picked up his love for church hymns, folk tunes and American popular music, especially the songs of Stephen Foster. He also shared his father’s fascination with unconventional music theory. (Ives, for instance, would often be required to sing a song in one key while his father accompanied him on organ in a different key.)
By the time Ives began studying music at Yale, his teacher, Horatio Parker, would ask, “Ives, must you hog all the keys?” You can only wonder what the conventional and conservative Parker would have thought of Ives’ mature music. In the manuscript of his Concord Sonata, Ives instructs the pianist to use a 14-inch block of wood to produce one hell of a headache-inducing tone cluster. His song “A Son of a Gambolier” features music for kazoo chorus with flutes, fiddles and flageolets. And his Fourth Symphony, surely his masterpiece, includes a wild cacophony of brass-band music, ragtime, church hymns and folk songs, all resonating in a splendiferous atonal roar.
Ives wrote only two string quartets. He also composed a quixotic, two-minute scherzo for quartet. The Blair quartet has recorded all this music and played it with energy and intelligence.
The String Quartet No. 1 dates from 1896, when Ives studied with Parker. Though it sounds mostly lyrical, and quite approachable to contemporary ears, it was unusual in its day. Ives based each of the quartet’s four movements on a popular hymn, a practice frowned on by highbrow classical purists. He also connected the movements thematically, using the same tune in a slightly altered form in each movement. (Ives’ favorite composer, Beethoven, did exactly the same thing in his Fifth Symphony.) The Blair players—violinists Christian Teal and Cornelia Heard, violist John Kochanowski and cellist Felix Wang—capture the spirit of this music, performing everything with the immediacy, simplicity and luminosity of a church hymn.
Completed in 1913, the String Quartet No. 2 is an altogether different beast. This is highly complex music full of sharp dissonance and extreme counterpoint. Ives loved collage and quotation, and in the quartet’s second movement he included fleeting snippets of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, Brahms’ Second Symphony and the patriotic tune “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” which follow one after the other in a beautiful and seemingly illogical stream. The Blair quartet toss off this fiendishly difficult swirl of music as if it were child’s play. They also do justice to the Scherzo, a strange and kinetic little piece brimming with whimsy and humor.
There’s one quirk about Ives that’s worth emphasizing: he earned his living not writing music but selling life insurance, and he made a fortune at it. A true New England son of Emerson and Thoreau, Ives was convinced that any musician who had to compose to make money would sell out. Perhaps. But maybe Ives also understood that the same qualities that make a great entrepreneur—independence, imagination and a willingness to take risks—are also the essential ingredients of a great composer.