The Influence of George Ives on His Son Charles

by J. Ryan Garber

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. George's Background
  3. George's Music Studies
  4. George's Musical Influence on Charles
  5. George as an Experimenter with Sounds
  6. Elements in Music of Charles Ives influenced by His Father
  7. Ives's Desire for "Masculine" Music
  8. Other Influences George had on Charles
  9. Conclusion
  10. Bibliography

If the initials G.E.I. are written in pencil, it takes but one small stroke of the eraser to make them appear C.E.I. This image symbolizes the unusually close relationship between Charles Edward Ives and his father George Edward Ives. Charles Ives was born to George Edward and Mary Parmalee Ives on October 20, 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut. His father was from a prominent family, one established in the business and civic world of Danbury for several generations. It was his father that Charles Ives most admired and this paper seeks to show the influence that George Ives had on every aspect of his son's life.

George Ives broke family tradition by not pursuing a career in business. Laurence David Wallach writes, " ... he was the only male in the family with neither a college education nor a lucrative business..." (1). These facts subsequently influenced Charles's career choice.

George was fascinated with music and the world of sound, rather than business. Although he did not attend a college, he was trained as a musician from childhood when he first showed an interest in music. Because his older siblings had first been given music lessons with little result, his parents only let George begin lessons after he was found secretly picking cherries in order to buy a flute. George, already the youthful entrepreneur, was investing his time in a money-making activity in order to support his musical desires. This early correlation between business and music foreshadows the lifestyle Charles was to later adopt.

Stuart Feder writes that George Ives probably studied with Emile Gaebbler, an organist and composer who lived in Danbury. According to Feder, Gaebbler showed George a side of life other than business (2). George's education culminated with a four-year period in Morrisania (Bronx), New York, where he studied theory and counterpoint with Carl Foeppl, and cornet with an unknown teacher. It was at this time that George's father, George White Ives, died. The same situation was to occur with Charles and George. It was while Charles was studying at Yale, and in contact with Horatio Parker, that George died. Both George and son Charles lost their fathers while they were studying away from home.

George's musical intentions and public image were varied and unclear. On the one hand, George "never had consciously aimed at a full-time music career" (3). A possible reason for this is given by Charles in his Memos: "Father felt that a man could keep his music interest stronger, cleaner, bigger, and freer, if he didn't try to make a living out of it" (4). On the other hand, George was the "leading figure in Danbury's musical life, and his fame and activities spread to a large area of Western Connecticut and New York State" (5).

George's success as a musician was the greatest early on in his life. During the Civil War, he served as a bandmaster in the Union Amy at the age of seventeen. His band was so good that General Grant reported to Abe Lincoln that it was the best one in the Army (6).

In Danbury, the call of music was too great for George and he gave up his job in business by selling his store in order to spend more time as a professional musician (7). If he had never intended to attempt a full-time career in music, he nonetheless was able to achieve just that for a portion of his life. He was "above all a public musician" (8), and his few compositions have titles reflecting the interest of the public: "Danbury News Man's Dream" (an overture), Danbury Waltz, and Duette: Datheran Polka.

However, the public did not continue to accept George as a musician. Wallach reports that in the 1870's there was a "rise in gentility" in Danbury, and with it George's status may have begun to decline (9). George faced the ridicule of a society that expected men to be in business; music was for "the ladies" (10). Feder notes that of the male musicians in Danbury, none was from Danbury, all had many jobs unrelated to music, and most did not last long in Danbury, presumably because of the uncomfortable position that they, as male musicians, were in. George himself finally had to revert to working under his nephew in the bank originally owned by his own father (11). Here he worked for the last part of his life, with his music having to take the role of an avocation. Upon George's death, Danbury did not give him the credit him as a musician; rather, for being in business, due to his family background (12). The Danbury News was kind enough to say of George Ives when he died that "his personality was so bright, so genial as to cast a gloom over the community by its removal". (13)

It was perhaps only because of the status of George Ives's family that he was accorded any respect at all. His achievements as a professional musician had mostly been forgotten. It is probable that Charles sensed the futility of his father's efforts and therefore choose instead a career in business and a private musical life. Feder writes that "early on, Charlie sensed George's relatively low status and economic position within the family as well as in the outside world" (14). Furthermore, Peter Burkholder contends that George Ives wanted his son to go to Yale in order to redeem himself from not following family tradition (15). Charles achieved what his father failed to accomplish not only in business, but in music as well. Rossiter sums up what Charles Ives did for his father's music reputation:

George Ives lived an obscure life in Danbury, and its people treated him badly, both socially and musically. When his son acquired a reputation as a composer, he felt justified in using that reputation to secure for his father some small posthumous recognition (16).

Charles's business was selling life insurance; his music insured that his father's life was not without value.

Charles Ives credited his father as his main musical influence. Certainly, it was his father who gave him the things that were to become hallmarks of his music: a thorough and solid theoretical base, an inventive and open mind, the notion that music could be "masculine," and the rejection of the idea that music had to be "pretty".

At the foundation of Charles Ives's music is the solid understanding of music theory he gained from his father. From copybooks that George used while he was studying with Foeppl, it is evident that he wrote out exercises in harmony, counterpoint and fugue. In addition, he copied Bach chorales, two movements of Jesu Meine Freude, sections of Baroque masses, Gluck and Mozart opera scenes, marches, and dance tunes. Burkholder states that "Charles Ives responded to his father's theoretical interests with enthusiasm, developing a fascination with musical technique for its own sake -- both traditional and experimental -- that lasted throughout his life" (17). This is apparent when Charles reminisces many years later in his Memos about a section in his 67th Psalm where there is a g Minor chord with a C Major chord superimposed over it. He remembers his father saying that the sound has "a dignity and sense of finality, quite a different effect from the dominant ninth" (18).

George Ives wrote an incomplete work on the basic elements in music, probably for the use of his students (including Charles), in the 1880s. This book reveals George's understanding of music history and the relative position of dissonance and consonance in different cultures (19). George Ives "never stopped studying and exploring on his own account: conventional music theory he conceived as merely a point of departure for his own thinking" (20). For example, George believed that harmony and melody are inseparable and that they both have to be understood simultaneously.

George was an experimenter with sounds, and "perhaps the single most important contribution George Ives made to his son's development was his fascination with sound..." (21). It was the fact that he had both an extremely sensitive ear as well as an open mind that he tried new ways to make music. Behind all of his experiments was the belief that all music was from heaven and therefore could not be bad. This led Charles to listen openly to all music (22). And because Charles shared the same musical gifts that his father did, he was able to grasp the sounds his father produced. Cowell asserts that Ives acted as an assistant to his father's experimentation with instruments and thereby gained a knowledge of the capabilities of instruments that superseded most people's at the time (23). "George's musical ingenuity was not directed outward toward harmonic and orchestral invention, but rather into the roots of musical pitch materials themselves" (24).

While George encouraged Charles to experiment, he also believed that proper technique was essential. When Charles composed a fugue in four keys, his father's response was that it was necessary to know how to write a proper fugue well before writing an improper one (25). Ives says in Memos that "... father was not against a reasonable amount of 'boy's fooling,' if it were done with some sense behind it ..." (26).

No matter how ingenious George's experiments were, it was left for Charles to fully realize them. In an article that suggests Charles Ives was a "musical prophet," Nicholas Slonimsky writes that "polytonality, microtones, polyrhythmics and other formidable techniques of modern music were unwittingly anticipated out by George Ives, and deliberately worked out by his son Charles" (27). The following list by John Hilliard shows some of the elements that appear in Charles Ives's music that George was responsible for developing in his son: (28).

  1. Late nineteenth century common practice melodies and harmonies.
  2. Modulations to distant keys, often with little preparation.
  3. Non-resolution of traditional dissonances.
  4. Quotes from other sources such as hymns, marches, popular songs, and classical works.
  5. Extended pedal points.
  6. Parallel harmonic structures.
  7. Chromatic scales in octave displacement.
  8. Twelve-tone composition as a short-lived thematic series.
  9. General atonality.
  10. Polytonality: two or more independent keys proceeding simultaneously.
  11. Polychords: two or more traditional triads sounding in a simultaneous sonority.
  12. Tone-clusters: sonorities consisting of a number of adjacent intervals of the second.
  13. Quarter-tones.
  14. Polymusics: two or more distinct yet interrelated musical strata usually involving polymeters and polytempi.

With regard to late nineteenth century common practice melodies and harmonies, it is obvious that Charles would have learned these from his father. He undoubtedly had reinforcement in these elements from Parker, not to mention all of the music that he would have heard while he was growing up, whether it was Bach he played on the organ or a march played by his father's band. Modulations to distant keys, often with little preparation is just an extension of this, with Wagner and Strauss leading the way. Non-resolution of traditional dissonant pitches is a style that his father would have supported: "You won't get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds" (29).

Extended pedal points and parallel harmonic structures can only be related to George with regards to his general music training. It is difficult to show that Charles used these only because of his father. Likewise, twelve-tone composition and general atonality were not directly taught by George. Only Charles's logical progression as a composer led him to use these techniques, and even then he did so sparingly.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable features in the music of Charles Ives is musical quotation from hymns, popular tunes, marches, and classical works. His exposure to all of these was at first through his father, a leader at camp meetings where hymns were sung, a band leader that performed marches and popular tunes, and a performer of classical works.

The music of the camp meetings in Danbury was led by George. Feder says that "camp meetings were Methodist religious festivals consisting of prayer meetings, sermons, religious classes, and hymn sings ..." (30). They were most popular from the early 1800s through the civil war and gospel hymns were the main music. George Ives enjoyed the music of camp meetings more than traditional church music because it had more feeling (31). He also felt a freedom in the music that allowed him to do things such as use a cornet to lead singing. Charles Ives admires this trait in his father when he writes in Memos that there was "something about the way father played hymns ... He had the gift of putting something in the music which meant more sometimes than when people sung the words"(32).

These hymns are often quoted by Charles Ives in his music. Feder states that In The Sweet Bye and Bye was one of George Ives's favorite hymns (33). In The Charles Ives Tunebook by Clayton Henderson, it is listed as appearing in nine different pieces (34). The text of the hymn may be another clue as to why Charles used it so frequently. The end of the first verse reads: "For the Father waits over the way to prepare us a dwelling place there." These words, along with the knowledge that this was his father's favorite hymn, are perhaps the reason Charles made it one of his most quoted tunes.

Charles did not always literally quote hymns but often wrote them in a way that made them sound as they would when his father led them at camp meetings. A portion of his Memos reveals how the music at camp meetings may have sounded.

At the outdoor camp-meeting services ... I remember how the great waves of sound used to come through the trees when things like Beulah Land, Woodworth, Nearer My God to Thee, The Shining Shore, Nettleton, In The Sweet Bye-and-Bye, and the like were sung by thousands of 'let-out' souls... Father, who led the singing, sometimes with his cornet or his voice, sometimes with both voice and arms, and sometimes in the quieter hymns with a violin or French horn, would always encourage the people to sing their own way (35).
Charles evokes this atmosphere in his compositions as a reflection of his father by trying to imitate these sounds of camp meetings. Musical examples of this can be found in the Third Symphony and the fourth Violin Sonata, among others.

Charles was again influenced by his father's performance of popular tunes and classical melodies. Feder considers the march to have "had a heightened meaning for Charles, both because of his unusual responsiveness to music and his relationship with his father. It was always to play a special role in his music" (36). Marches can be found in many of Ives's works; General William Booth Enters into Heaven and The Gong on the Hook and Ladder (Fireman's Parade on Main Street) are two examples. As with the camp meetings, Charles often imitates sounds as he heard them come from his father's directing. The band that his father led in Danbury had bad players. Charles observed, for example, a time when a viola player ended ahead of the band while a horn player lingered on a few extra measures (37). George Ives also performed classical works in Danbury. These would probably have been the first works of this kind that Charles heard. In addition to this, the notebook that George copied while studying with Foeppl would also have served as a source for classical works. Undoubtedly, when Charles went to Yale, he was exposed to other classical music, but it was his father's initial influence that seems to be most significant. Examples of quotes of classical pieces can be found in the "Concord" Sonata, the Fourth Symphony, and others. The one occasion when Charles did quote a piece of his father's is in the first movement of the fourth Violin Sonata where Charles uses most of his father's Fugue in B-flat (38).

Continuing down Hilliard's list, the next important element that relates directly to George is the use of chromatic scales in octave displacement. Apparently this technique comes directly from an exercise that George had Charles do on the piano in which a chromatic scale was played in all octaves at different intervals with different beat and accent patterns. The best example of this is the cadenza from Over the Pavements, which Charles explains in his Memos uses his father's exercise as its basis (39).

Polytonality, polychords, and polymusics all relate to George. Ives quotes his father as saying

If one can use chords of 3rds and make them mean something, why not chords of 4ths? If you can have a chord of three notes and [one of] four, alternating and following, why not measures of 3/4 then 4/4, alternating and following ... If the mind can learn to use two against (or rather with) a three, why not nine vs. eleven? - or even better (or worse)? If the mind can learn to use two rhythms together, why can't it [use] five or worse together? - and the measure referred to above? If the mind can understand one key, why can't it learn to understand another key with it? (40).
In this one quote, George outlines the basis for polytonality, polychords and polyrhythms. Polymusic is usually a combination of these elements. George experimented with these ideas as a band leader. For example, on the Fourth of July, he would have separate bands playing different pieces at different locations. Also, there is the famous example of George marching two bands together as they played entirely different pieces. Charles undoubtedly tried to imitate in his music this unique sound world created by his father. For example, in the second movement of Three Places in New England, the sound of two bands playing different tunes is deliberately created.

Tone-clusters are perhaps an outgrowth of a "game" that Charles played with his father. It involved "playing off-beats pp on the nearest black note" (41). Another incident from Charles childhood is when he was eight years old and his father found him banging out drum-like sounds at the piano. "Piano drumming," a term that Charles himself coined, is similar to the effect of a cluster, and appears later in his music.

Quarter-tones (or micro-tones) can be directly traced to George's experiments. An additional part of the quote above deals with micro-tones. George is quoted as saying:

If the whole tones can be divided equally, why not half tones? That is, if one has twelve notes in an octave, why not more or less. If you can learn to like and use a consonance (so called), why not a dissonance (so called)? If the piano can be tuned out of tune to make it more practicable (that is, imperfect intervals), why can't the ear learn a hundred other intervals if it wants to try? (42).
Charles lists in Memos the different ways in which his father constructed micro-tones: with a slide cornet, glasses (for small intervals), piano tuned to actual partials, new scales without octaves (glasses), and violin strings stretched over a clothes press and let down with weights (43). Quarter-tones appear in Charles's Three Quarter-Tone Pieces and also in the Fourth Symphony.

Another one of George's experiments was the "humanophone." It was "an arrangement of singers in which each person sang a different tone of the scale, and that one alone, sounding his tone only when the tune called for that particular note" (44). Charles acknowledges this idea of his father's as the idea behind some of his songs, such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, that were intended to be sung with different voices taking different pitches (45).

The influence of George's experiments on Charles was paramount. As Cowell puts it, "the germ of every new type of musical behavior that Charles Ives developed or organized can be found in the suggestions and experiments of his father" (46). The experiments served as a way George could fulfill his desire to hear new sounds, and they enabled Charles to hear them also. The significance of these experiments lies in a greater idea: the creation of a new sound world.

To sum up the influence George had on Charles's music with regard to sound, Cowell writes that

such a free-ranging mind, active in the entire world of sound, created fine growing conditions in his son Charlie. Moreover, George Ives appreciated the flavor of the rural music around him and encouraged the boy to find the fun and beauty in it (47).
Charles paid homage to his father with a short composition called The Pond (Remembrance). It was written in 1906, twelve years after George's death and it is essentially a remembrance Charles had of his father playing the trumpet across a pond - yet another experiment with sound.

With all of this direct involvement that Charles had with his father, it is no wonder then that Sidney Cowell has said that "the son has written his father's music for him" (48). Indeed it seems that Ives's music tells more about the life of his father than his own as Charles was essentially trying to write what his father heard (49).

Behind all of Charles's music was an idea that his father instilled in him; music could be masculine. The stifling musical atmosphere in Danbury that George and Charles so much despised was due, in their opinion, to the fact that women were in charge of most of the music. It was the women who programmed the music of Mozart and Haydn, while George and Charles considered it "too sweet, too pretty, too easy on the ears" (50). This attitude caused them to also dislike conventional instruction. In a letter, George said:

The older I get, [and] the more I play music and think about it, the more certain I am that many teachers are gradually circumscribing a great art by these rules, rules, rules, with which they wrap up the student's ears and mind as a lady does her hair - habit and custom all underneath (51).
The reference to a lady does not only point back to the Danbury women but it is intended to be an insult to music teachers. While it would be too much to say that the George and Charles were sexist, they compared men to ladies as a way of extreme criticism. An example of this is when Charles referred to a music critic as "Aunt Hale," "a nice old lady in Boston (with pants on often)" (52). Even outside of music, the conscious effort to be masculine is evident. Charles wrote the following about his political views:
Now there is one thing for Americans in these United States to get up and do if we are MEN with the strength and courage of most of our forefathers, and that is to do a bigger job than one which just has to do with our own national defense (53).

The influence that George had on Charles extended beyond just the realization of the father's music by his son to a fulfillment of the father's attempts at a lucrative career. Charles also kept his music separate from his vocation and his experiments were not intended to be for the public. Burkholder attributes Charles' idea of a "dichotomy between private inquiry and public performance" to George (54). Unlike George, Charles kept little contact with the musical public. His pieces, written in private, were almost always experimental, and not heard by the public until many years after they had been written.

Feder has extensively written about the psychological relationship that Charles maintained with his father throughout his life. Charles associated himself with his father to such an extent that his own creative activity followed his father's. Feder writes that "Charles's identification with George spawned his creative activity but by the same token determined its duration. Charles remained the composer during his life over the same span of time the he experienced George to have been a musician in his" (55).

It is not enough to say that son wrote his father's music, but rather that the son lived his father's life. Charles's life was about realizing his father's failed dreams, not only in music but in attaining an established career. The world (Danbury) could not accept the father (George) and it was through his son (Charles) that he was redeemed.


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