Charles Ives and Leo Ornstein
Abstract and Keywords
After the musical canon became established in the Gilded Age, the status quo in American music persisted well into the second decade of the twentieth century. George Chadwick, Amy Beach, Horatio Parker, and many other late romantic composers remained active and maintained much of their styles. Before 1915 two American composers, Charles Ives and Leo Ornstein, were writing unusual and original music. Despite their completely different backgrounds, career tracks, and historical reputations, both men arrived at musical positions that were remarkably similar and endured comparable problems. Both also wrote programmatic music in the broadest sense. In January and February 1915, Ornstein gave a series of four concerts at the Bandbox Theatre in New York City, by far the most significant event in his American performing career. His most uncompromising foray into modernism was the Violin Sonata, Op. 31. For Ives, his Concord Sonata was a bold move that established his name before the musical world. This chapter focuses on the lives and musical careers of Ornstein and Ives.
WITH THE ESTABLISHMENT of the musical canon in the Gilded Age, American music settled into a lengthy status quo, which continued well into the second decade of the twentieth century. Many of the late romantic composers, including George Chadwick, Amy Beach, and Horatio Parker, continued active, their styles little changed. A few younger composers, such as Charles Martin Loeffler and Charles Tomlinson Griffes, had some quietly new ideas, and a stronger sense of national pride was apparent in others. Otherwise an observer landing in the American musical world in 1914–15 could easily have thought he was still in the nineteenth century. A new composition premiering in 1915 likely could have just as well been written in 1885. To Americans modernism in music meant Richard Wagner, whose last opera, Parsifal, premiered in 1882, Claude Debussy, whose only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, was composed mostly in the 1890s, and César Franck, who died in 1890. When Leo Ornstein traveled to Europe in 1910, his biographer Frederick Martens observed, he “heard modern music for the first time.” As an example of modern music Martens explicitly cited Franck's Sonata for Violin and Piano, an unabashedly romantic piece written in 1886. Martens was writing in 1918.1
Rumors had reached the United States of a new radicalism in Europe, of such composers as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, but what little of their music American audiences actually heard were their earlier and more conventional pieces. Writing in 1916 Carl Van Vechten acknowledged the dearth of modern music in New York, saying, “Heaven knows that there is little (p.72) enough modern music played in New York.” He then specified that the most recent Schoenberg works heard there were his symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande (1903) and Kammersymphonie (1906), and for Stravinsky—except for “three slight pieces for string quartet (1914)—nothing later than Petrushka (1911). Béla Bartók at that time was completely unknown.2
Van Vechten was not entirely right in his assessment. By 1915 there were signs of unrest. Before 1915 two American composers, Charles Ives and Leo Ornstein, were writing music so unusual and so original that they seemed to have been dropped from another planet. Their backgrounds, career tracks, and historical reputations are completely different, but they arrived at musical positions that were remarkably similar, and they suffered comparable problems in the outside world's reactions to them. Neither seemed to have influenced the other. Ornstein had no chance to hear Ives, who kept his modernist compositions almost completely to himself until 1921. In 1915 Ornstein, a virtuoso pianist, began to present his own and other truly modern compositions to startled New York audiences, who nevertheless flocked to his concerts as if witnessing an act of sheer public madness. Did Ives hear Ornstein? He never mentioned it at the time, and later he denied it vigorously.3
Ives's denial appears disingenuous. Given Ornstein's high profile in New York from 1915, it would have been hard for Ives not to notice him. Yet by the time he would have come into contact with Ornstein's modernist pieces, Ives had completed much of his own work. Had Ives heard Ornstein, it probably had little effect on his own compositional direction.
Ives, whose modernism dates to at least 1902, earned a living completely outside music. Except for church organ positions he held as a young man, he never appeared in public as a concert artist. Yet Ornstein and Ives are similar in many ways: both were excellent pianists, both had shy, generous, nondissimulating personalities, and both came by their musical convictions, that is, their compositional styles, honestly and in their own singular way. Both wrote programmatic music in the broadest sense—that is, music that came from their own personal experience—both had extraordinary ears for sound combinations and used complex dissonant harmonies for their coloristic qualities, and both were more interested in creating a specific musical effect in a piece than following standard formal patterns.
The most important difference between Ives and Ornstein, however, is in their background, and here the difference is both geographic and ethnic. Ornstein, born near the Black Sea, was peripatetic, a product of several cultures—Russian, Jewish, and American. From an early age he was singularly (p.73) focused on music as a career. He had more conventional training than Ives, study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia and the Institute of Musical Art, later to become the Juilliard School, in New York. His studies, as well as his professional career, it should be noted, were as a pianist, not a composer. Ives came from a respected, solid New England family, and although he spent most of his adult life in New York City he was never more than a short train ride from his birthplace. His musical training was less systematic, first from his father, an experimental, eclectic musician, then only as a sideline at Yale University. Ives eschewed a musical career and went into the insurance business. He not only made a fortune as a founding partner of one of the largest insurance agencies in the country, but his reputation as a creative, innovative thinker in the insurance field rivals his musical accomplishments. True to his roots, Ives remained the crusty Yankee throughout his life. He seemed to cultivate the role.
Leo Ornstein was born in 1893 in Kremenchug, a town on the Dnieper River in southwest Russia. His father was a Jewish cantor, and he spent the first years of his life under reasonably comfortable circumstances. His big break came when he was about ten: the famous pianist Josef Hoffman came to Kremenchug, heard him play, and recommended him to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, a world-renowned institution founded by Anton Rubinstein. Soon thereafter he was enrolled.4
It was both a difficult and an extremely heady experience for Ornstein. He quickly found himself popular in the salons of the Russian nobility, in some of the most opulent surroundings in the world. At the same time he had to earn his way, which he did partly by coaching opera singers. It must have been surprising for an established opera singer to encounter his coach for the first time and find an eleven-year-old boy who, small for his age, looked even younger. Shy, sensitive, and extremely homesick, Ornstein suffered from the emotional strain of his new life. The change had been sudden, and he was essentially cut off from his family. But there was also real terror. In the following year, 1905, revolt broke out in Russia, and Ornstein for the rest of his life remembered having to dodge Cossacks charging down the narrow street where he lived, ready to run down anyone in their way. He was personally witness to some of the bloodletting that occurred during the revolt, such as the slaughter on Admiralty Square.
When the revolt was suppressed things got ugly for Ornstein and his family. Counterterrorists, officially known as the Union of the Russian People, unofficially called “the black hundreds,” began an assault on those elements of society deemed hostile to the czarist regime. High on the list were Jews. (p.74) The situation continued to worsen, and by 1906 Ornstein's family felt they had no choice but to emigrate to America.
Ornstein soon found himself in New York City. In three years, at an impressionable age, he had made two major cultural changes, from small-town Kremenchug to the capital of imperial Russia, and then, in Paul Rosenfeld's words, from “the pianist infant-prodigy of Petrograd society into the boy of a dense and livid slum.”5 Rosenfeld, who knew Ornstein personally, exaggerated. Ornstein's father, a highly respected cantor, had connections in New York, and he soon found a prestigious position as cantor of the Bialystoker Synagogue. Ornstein's life was more middle-class, but it was on the Lower East Side, an area notorious for its packed tenement houses and noisy streets. In any event lower-middle-class Jewish New York was a world apart from either St. Petersburg or Kremenchug, and the cultural shock was great. Ornstein, who left essentially an extended autobiography in tones in a large corpus of programmatic works, remained forever a man in two worlds.
By sheer persistence Ornstein continued his musical career. His extraordinary talent won him a scholarship to the Institute of Musical Art, where he became the pupil of Bertha Feiring Tapper. She was considered one of the better pedagogues in New York, and she recognized fully the extent of Ornstein's talent. She and her husband, a physician, took him under their wing, and she began to groom him for a career. They took him to their summer home in Blue Hill, Maine, which had the environment of a proto summer music festival. Franz Kneisel, the founder of the highly popular Kneisel quartet, came to play sonatas with Tapper; nearby, Horatio Parker, Ives's professor and mentor at Yale, had a cabin. Ornstein heard Parker play most of his opera Mona there, and he showed some of his compositions to Parker, who responded with praise and encouragement. Tapper also carefully prepared Ornstein for a debut recital, taking him first to Europe in 1910 to win the stamp of approval of the eminent piano pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, who pronounced him ready for the public. Ornstein later called Tapper the most important influence of his life.
Leo Ornstein's concert career began in 1911. He debuted in New York on March 5, with a meaty program. He played Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, pieces by Chopin and Schumann, and Anton Rubinstein's Concerto in D Minor. For the latter he was accompanied by the Volpe Symphony Orchestra. Both critics and fellow musicians were so impressed that the New York Philharmonic asked him to repeat the Rubinstein concerto with them a month later. This was not typical; the Philharmonic did not normally extend invitations to teenage performers after only a single public appearance. Before the March concert Ornstein's most (p.75) public outing had been at the commencement exercises of the New York music school.
By 1913 Ornstein had made two recordings with Columbia Records. The recordings, of pieces by Chopin, Grieg, and Ede Poldini, reveal a pianist of sensitivity, prodigious technical ability, and artistic maturity.6 And he began to develop a following. His first champion was A. W. Kramer. Writing in Musical America in 1911, Kramer depicted him as romantic artist, drooping his head and lost in thought at the piano, mystically communing with his instrument. No question that Ornstein had within his grasp a major career in the mold of Hoffman, Rubinstein, or Paderewski. Yet to Kramer, Ornstein was not the typical virtuoso. There was something different. Kramer vividly described the young man: “Of medium height, slender, or a wiry frame, one notices immediately his extremely nervous temperament. He speaks in quick, short sentences, and with a considerable degree of assertiveness. An alert eye which observes even the minutest detail, a countenance that is intelligent in its every line and feature—all these give outward sign of the possession of extraordinary abilities.”7
To his surprise Kramer found Ornstein mature, philosophical, and immersed in literature almost as much as music. Kramer noted his voracious reading habits, his knowledge of Shakespeare, which he reread every year, his understanding of Burns, Browning, and Ibsen. Maybe Ornstein was too thoughtful, too nervous, too engrossed, too innocent. He was a young man with a divine spark, but Kramer seemed uncertain about where that would lead.
Kramer could not have predicted what did happen, but soon afterward something snapped. One day in 1912, according to Ornstein, he began to hear, inwardly, some strange new chords. He carried them around for a time, and then suddenly, without warning, Danse Sauvage appeared in his head, in its entirety. He brought the new composition to Mrs. Tapper, who first thought it was some kind of joke; after determining that he was serious, her next thought was that he had gone insane. There was nothing in Western literature like it. Danse Sauvage is a study in rhythm and in dissonance, sheer driving, demoniac, unrelenting and unresolved dissonance. It is all rhythm, at times percussive with flurries of ostinato-approaching-tremolo dissonances, at times irregular, with unusual and constantly changing meter. There is no harmonic relief, no triads or tonal guideposts; the final chord, marked ⨍⨍⨍⨍, covers nearly six octaves and contains the notes D-sharp–Fsharp–A-sharp–C–E, in the left hand, and B–C–F-sharp–G-sharp–Asharp–B-sharp in the right, the B-sharp being the highest note on the piano.
Ornstein composed Danse Sauvage, then, at least according to his own recollection, before Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps premiered, and certainly without knowledge of Ives's compositions. It is preceded by Bartók's Allegro barbaro and Schoenberg's Op. 11 and Op. 19 piano pieces. Ornstein asserted that he had never heard of Bartók or Schoenberg prior to a European trip that he took in 1913–14, and Deems Taylor observed that as late as 1922 (p.77) Bartók's music was “virtually unobtainable in this country.” But even had Ornstein heard Allegro barbaro, it would not explain Danse Sauvage. While Allegro barbaro suggests the same driving rhythms of Danse Sauvage, melodically and harmonically the two pieces are worlds apart. Bartók's harmonies are essentially modal spiked with strong dissonances; they remain tertiary, that is, they are still based on traditional chords of Western music. Ornstein's harmony consists of chromatic clusters, several adjacent notes packed tightly together. The patterns bear little relation to traditional practices. But they are not random, and they are not simply all the white notes or black notes between x and y.9
As for Schoenberg: Ornstein owed little to Schoenberg, as he himself stated. Both came to a harmonic style that was essentially dissonant, compared with traditional practice, but that is as far as the comparison goes. Ornstein's use of dissonance is quite different from Schoenberg's. Schoenberg's grew out of a linear polyphony driven by the increasing chromaticism of romanticism. Ornstein's is not polyphonic; it is color. And Schoenberg's music never had the driving, savage rhythmic quality of Ornstein's. In that regard Ornstein is closer to Stravinsky and Bartók.10
Ornstein could have heard Stravinsky on his European trip of 1910. If so, it would be the Stravinsky of Firebird, not Le Sacre. Whatever Ornstein had absorbed, his early pieces give the impression of something sui generis.
Soon after Ornstein's startling revelation, Tapper took him on another European trip. No longer the pupil being whisked to the continent for a final check-up with an old-world pedagogue, Ornstein acted the part of the mature artist, both absorbing Europe's culture, old and new, and presenting himself to European musicians and public, who were just as bewildered as American musicians had been. Arriving in Paris, Ornstein was sufficiently moved by Notre-Dame cathedral to write his Two Impressions of Notre Dame, tone poems in his new idiom that nevertheless show a much wider range of expression and flexibility than his earlier pieces had. They also suggest a reconciliation with the past, with their at times Debussy-like painting.
In Vienna Ornstein again met Leschetizky, this time to perform Danse Sauvage for him. One can only imagine what the formal, nineteenth-century Viennese, whose ideas of modern music embraced possibly Franck or Max Reger, thought of this radical Russian-American. Leschetizky simply observed that it must be difficult to put all those notes on paper. The diplomatic silence speaks reams. Nevertheless Leschetizky was cordial enough for Ornstein to dedicate his Impressions of the Thames to him. On returning to Paris, Ornstein played for the critic and champion of new music Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who could not believe such pieces originated in New (p.78) York. Calvocoressi was sufficiently impressed to arrange a private performance for a number of Parisian musicians, and then to ask Ornstein to act as illustrator at the piano for a series of lectures he was giving on modern music. Ornstein had his own pieces included in the lecture along with works of Richard Strauss, Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Cyril Scott, Schoenberg, and Stravinsky. This was probably the first time he encountered much of this music.
In Paris Ornstein also met a young English composer, Roger Quilter, who invited him to Oxford and then London, and who arranged introductions leading to his first public recital of modernist, or as they were called then, futurist compositions.
The London recital, held at Steinway Hall on March 27, 1914, created a sensation only slightly less intense than Stravinsky's Le Sacre had in Paris. Ornstein played a Ferruccio Busoni arrangement of three choral preludes by Bach, two numbers from Schoenberg's Op. 11, Schoenberg's Six Little Pieces, Op. 19, and several of his own works, including Impressions of Notre Dame, Three Moods, Sonata Op. 25, Impressions of the Thames, and Danse Sauvage. Critics were outraged and sought to outdo one another in their condemnation. One called Ornstein's Sonata Op. 25 “four separate spasms of mental anguish too great to be borne.” Another observed, “We have never suffered from such insufferable hideousness, expressed in terms of so-called music,” although he did allow that “the skill that could devise the cacophonous, unrhythmic, unmusical always, two-penny colored rubbish which Leo Ornstein drove with the Nasmyth-hammer action into the heads of the longsuffering audience on Friday was stupendous!” Another critic, possibly remembering a recent performance of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces, which had set London on its modernistic ear, dubbed Ornstein “the sum of Schoenberg and Scriabine squared.”11
Audience reaction was mixed, but mostly negative. The London Daily Mail referred to a “wild outbreak at Steinway Hall.” The Daily Telegraph reported that “the audience remained to the end, hypnotized as a rabbit by a snake.” Other members of the audience, possibly feeling uneasy, responded with laughter. Ornstein did create enough stir, however, to persuade the music publisher Schott to issue several of his compositions in London and to be booked for a second recital, on April 7, which was to consist exclusively of his own music.12
For the second recital Ornstein played only his own compositions. The audience reacted similarly to the first recital. Most “treated it as a joke,” and there was some hissing. But the critics had had time to think. The Musical Standard acknowledged that Ornstein was “one of the most remarkable (p.79) composers of the day,” that his music had “that germ of realism and humanity which is indicative of genius on the part of its composer.” Finally the reviewer admitted, “I went half inclined to blame; I stayed to praise.”13
On returning to the United States, Ornstein and Tapper laid plans to launch an international career. A forty-concert trip to Norway set for the fall of 1914 had to be canceled, however, because of the outbreak of war. With the abandonment of the Norwegian tour Ornstein's career became exclusively American; he never left North America again as a performing artist.
By far the most significant event in Ornstein's American performing career was a series of four concerts that he gave at the Bandbox Theatre in New York, in January and February of 1915. Consisting entirely of modern music, they allowed Americans to hear for the first time radical pieces by Schoenberg, Maurice Ravel, and Aleksandr Skryabin, as well as a host of other “futurist” composers, including of course Ornstein himself. The concerts created a sensation. They mark the beginning of musical modernism in the United States.
Critics were dumbfounded. Conservative critics responded with outrage, bewilderment, and sarcasm, but even they grudgingly admitted the presence of a significant artist. James Huneker referred to Ornstein as “Leo the Intrepid,” but he had to confess, “I went, if not to mock, at least in a rather skeptical mood; but I remained to applaud; a sad commentary on my critical consistency.” Other critics called his music “bewildering, upsetting … very mad.” But even the Montreal reporter who wrote this had to admit that, “still, on reflection, there was likely method in it; … perhaps——.” Others took pity on the piano: “He has no more mercy upon smug enjoyment than on the instruments he flails with his mighty fist.” He “has left the piano with its keys ‘as bloodstained as a Melville melodrama.’” Waldo Frank reported “blood on the keys” after an Ornstein performance.14
For the next five years Ornstein led the life of a successful concert artist. He was in demand, and he toured extensively. Whatever audiences thought of his modernist pieces, the works gave him notoriety, and as today's media-conscious world knows, notoriety sells tickets. But it was hard on Ornstein personally: he was both a respected performing musician and a novelty act. As his concerts became filled with curiosity seekers, he became an object of amusement and lampoon. An anonymous writer in the New York Times described one of his concerts: “Mr. Ornstein still retains the power to delight, puzzle, and amuse his hearers…. As far as amusing goes, that is reserved for the moments when he plays some of his own queer compositions—and a particularly loud guffaw from some male voice in yesterday's audience simultaneous with his striking of the final note in a ‘trick finish’ of his ‘A la Chinoise’ (p.80) was a faithful commentary on the emotions of about 90 per cent of the audience—excluding those who maintained a very grim expression on their faces or walked down the aisle and out to register their disapproval.”15
In spite of the strain Ornstein continued to compose, and his compositional activity took another bizarre turn. He began to develop multiple creative personalities, with highly contrasting compositional styles. There was his first manner, his second manner, and then there was Vannin. His first manner consists of modernist, dissonant, often atonal, at times savage pieces, his second manner of lyrical, more tonal but still modern pieces. Vannin was a pseudonym under which Ornstein published a few simple, tonal, often diatonic works. It is hard to tell whether Vannin was practical, an attempt to hide authorship, or another compositional voice. The Vannin style is not the same as his second manner.
Later in life Ornstein had completely forgotten Vannin. A man 105 years old, as he was, can be forgiven such memory lapses. But even in relative old age Ornstein remembered and was puzzled by his two different styles. In speaking of the Cello Sonata, Op. 52, a romantic work that remained one of his favorite pieces throughout his life, Ornstein spoke of the white heat in which he often composed as well as his dichotomous creative life of the time: “As a rule when I write at all I write rapidly. The Sonata was written in less than a week under a compulsion that was not to be resisted. At the time when I was tumultuously involved in the primitivism of the Wild Man's Dance, the Three Moods, etc., its lyrical quality was utterly unaccountable. Why I should have heard this romantic piece at the same period is beyond my understanding, but the same contrast of exteriors has continued throughout my life.”16
The Violin Sonata, Op. 31, is Ornstein's most uncompromising foray into modernism, as he himself admitted. It is chromatic, atonal, highly dissonant, and unrelenting. Ornstein himself acknowledged that he had pushed his dissonant style, which he termed “abstract music,” “to the brink,” and that with Op. 31, he reached the verge of absolute disorder: “I would say that Op. 31 had brought music just to the very edge…. I just simply drew back and said, ‘beyond that lies complete chaos.’”17
Ornstein's first and second manners were not entirely contemporaneous, as his comment above suggests. After the chaos of the Violin Sonata, he decided to pull back, to turn from a more “experimental” to a more “expressive” style, as he described it.18 After 1916 or 1917 there are few pieces in the out-and-out radical style of the mid-1910s.
By the early 1920s Ornstein the concert artist was burned out. The concert world was wearing on him, and his interest focused more and more on composition. In 1924 he took a position at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, (p.81) then the Zeckwer-Hahn Philadelphia Musical Academy, and in 1934 he opened the Ornstein School of Music. He continued to compose, and he appeared in public occasionally through the early 1930s. Some of his most important pieces were composed during that time, most noticeably the Piano Quintette, which was written under a commission by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge in 1927, and the Piano Concerto of 1925, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra.19
Ornstein never abandoned composing, at least during his first hundred years. Even late in life he wrote big pieces. He wrote his Seventh Piano Sonata in 1988, when he was ninety-five years old. He followed this with the Eighth Sonata in 1990, when he was ninety-seven. His later music is mostly unknown, but that is a tale in itself. For our story it is Ornstein the pioneering futurist that is of interest.20
To the champions of musical modernism, Ornstein was a symbol. For several years he was an enfant terrible, and a better candidate could not have been chosen. His music was truly revolutionary, thoroughly disorienting, radical in the extreme—a complete break with tradition. Not even the most bored concertgoers could ignore Danse Sauvage or Three Moods. These works assaulted the audience directly, demanding and defying the listener to take sides. And Ornstein was out there, on the front line. His concertizing not only gave modernism an airing it could not have secured any other way but his formidable musicianship, constantly on display, dispelled any notion that he was some crank.
Yet, like Heinrich, Ornstein has been all but forgotten (although that may be changing). Mentioned only in passing in most histories, a mere handful of his pieces were available throughout the twentieth century, when almost every composer was covered extensively in CD catalogues. Ornstein had mostly retired by the time the new music organizations of the 1920s appeared. Too early and too independent, Ornstein had little desire to participate in the modernist movement by the time it caught hold in the United States.
Ornstein's disaffection from the modernist movement was not all oneway, however. Ornstein had been ultramodernism's poster boy, the one musical modernist before the public, and he had been championed by writers and critics sympathetic to modernism, such as in his biography by Martens and his inclusion as one of twenty important composers in a book by Paul Rosenfeld in 1920. Rosenfeld was emerging as the principal spokesman of musical modernism, and in his book, Musical Portraits: Interpretations of Twenty Modern Composers, he placed Ornstein alongside Berlioz, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg.21 Yet when Ornstein reverted to a more expressive (p.82) style, just at the time other composers were discovering the new, his modernist champions felt betrayed. They never forgave him for that. Ornstein still received major commissions in the 1920s, and he was included on the boards of new-music organizations, as his name still had cachet, but generally he was considered a defector, a traitor to the cause, and thus was shunned. Ornstein himself seemed little bothered by the publicity or lack of it. He listened to only his own voice, and he was forgotten.
Charles Ives is one of the pivotal figures in this story. He is a composer of the first rank, to some the most significant composer America has produced. He lived at a crucial time in American history, when forces that had defined the nation in the nineteenth century began to disintegrate under the pressures of the newly emerging modern age. He inherited the world of the nineteenth-century village and a musical culture dominated by a Euro-complex and an overwrought gentility. He moved to New York City, thought globally about politics and social issues, and wrote experimental, rebellious music that contrasted sharply with the prevailing romantic tone. His compositions herald modernism, although Ives himself was ambivalent about modernistic developments in the other arts. Nevertheless a direct lineage runs from Charles Ives to the avant-garde that appeared between the two world wars. Composers of the 1920s set the course for American art music for the rest of the century, and they personally and consciously looked back on Ives as a pioneer and an inspiration. To them, Ives became the father figure they were seeking.
By day Ives was a highly successful businessman, a major innovator in the field of life insurance. At night and on weekends he composed. He kept his artistic and business careers almost completely separate; some of his insurance colleagues were not even aware that he was a musician. After several chilly, even hostile receptions to his music, Ives turned away from attempts at public performance. Only around 1920, as his compositional career came to an end, did he seriously attempt to promote his music. That effort eventually paid off, resulting in a belated but enthusiastic recognition, bordering on reverence, from a younger generation of musicians.
Ives was pure New England. He was born on October 20, 1874, into one of the most established and prominent families in Danbury, Connecticut. The Ives family had been in Connecticut since 1638, its members being founders of both New Haven and later Danbury. Charles Ives's great-grandfather, Isaac Ives, a graduate of Yale and an attorney, came to Danbury in 1790 and soon married into one of the most successful families there. Ives could count members of the Connecticut House of Representatives among his ancestors, and his grandfather was treasurer of the Danbury and Norwalk (p.83) Railroad and a director of the Danbury Bank, the Danbury Gas Light Company, the Danbury Cemetery Association, and the Mechanics' Association, as well as the principal founder of the Savings Bank of Danbury, which originally operated out of the Iveses' home on Main Street.
Yet this prosperous, bourgeois New England family had its black sheep, specifically Charles Ives's father, George. George Ives showed enough musical talent as a youth, particularly on the trumpet, to be appointed, at age seventeen, the youngest bandleader of the Civil War. His musical activities had been encouraged by his father, who allowed him, when he was fifteen, to study music with Charles A. Foeppl in Westchester County, New York. George was the only Ives until that time to show any serious interest or talent in music.
So far so good. But when George returned to Danbury after the Civil War, he decided to make music his profession. Had such a possibility even occurred to his father when he sent George to New York? Probably not, but the question is moot, because the elder Ives had died during the Civil War. What the rest of the family thought of George's decision is not entirely clear, but almost certainly they did not view it favorably. Such a choice was unheard of among the New England elite at that time. In mid-nineteenth-century America, particularly in mercantile New England, music was not a respectable profession. Many American youths played musical instruments, and the trumpet, the lead instrument of the military band, was an acceptable choice in those gender-conscious, militaristic times. But for a grown man in Ives's class to abdicate his responsibility and pursue a career in music, that was different. No matter how good, professional musicians occupied a different niche on the social scale.
Even worse, George was a bandleader. A distinction between art music and other types emerged in mid-nineteenth-century America, and involvement in art music garnered at least some respectability. Band music, immensely popular, was not considered art music. Many years later Philip Sunderland, three years older than Charles Ives, remembered vividly life in Danbury where he had grown up. His comments speak for his generation: “They [the people of Danbury] didn't take George Ives very seriously. He was only the bandleader.”22
Only the bandleader! That judgment was to haunt Charles Ives the rest of his life. Equally humiliating was George's failure as a breadwinner. Although considered the leading local band musician of Danbury, he could not earn enough to support a family and was forced to take various jobs in family businesses. Fortunately for George the Ives clan stuck together, although his position within the family must have been difficult for him. Late (p.84)
The Iveses' sense of responsibility to their own served Charles well, because through the help of an uncle, Lyman Brewster, he was able to attend Yale, the first Ives to do so since Isaac had graduated in 1785. The Yale years were critical to Ives. They provided him contacts crucial to his later business career as well as his own family life. He met his wife, Harmony Twitchell, through her brother, David, a classmate and friend of his at Yale. Yale also allowed Ives to try his wings in music. He did not go to Yale to study music, but once there he did take advantage of the musical curriculum that was offered. His contacts with Horatio Parker, a newly appointed professor of music, taught Ives much and broadened his musical horizons.
After graduating from college in 1898 Ives got a job in New York City at the Mutual of New York insurance company. Once again the family was there for him. He landed the job through two family members, Granville H. (p.85) White and Robert Grannis, who were officers in Mutual. Ives continued to pursue music, at the time in a relatively conventional way. He secured a position as organist at the Central Presbyterian Church and continued to compose church music. There were occasional odd passages in his music, but through 1903 it remained largely within the nineteenth-century tradition. Much of it was choral, and much of it was very good. Had Ives never veered into his radical modernism he would still be remembered as a fine and original composer. In 1903, while continuing to live a dual but relatively conventional life, Ives made his last major effort before 1921 to reach the public. He presented his cantata The Celestial Country, a major choral composition in the mold of Horatio Parker's most important work, Hora Novissima.
Celestial Country was a watershed for Ives, or at least it has been so considered: disappointed at the reviews in the newspaper, he soon thereafter resigned his organ position, never to hold a professional musical appointment again, stopped writing choral music, and retreated to compose in silence and isolation in a new and radical style.
Did it happen that way? How sudden was the break, and did Celestial Country precipitate it? Ives's radicalism, or as he probably would have preferred, his experimentalism, was always there. It is apparent in one of his earliest surviving compositions, Variations on America, composed when he was seventeen years old. Ives inserted interludes between variations to get from one key to another. Rather than modulating, however, he began playing in the new key in one hand while simultaneously continuing to play in the old key in the other. According to Ives his father would not let him play it publicly as it “made the boys laugh.” And this was no isolated attempt. When at Yale, Ives had several run-ins with his mentor Horatio Parker over bold and unusual harmonic passages in his pieces.23
The Celestial Country itself was not badly received; comments were positive but not unabashedly enthusiastic. Yet it was apparently not what Ives hoped for. Maybe he knew what lay ahead, what was in his head, and what the response would be. Maybe he had no intention of going on publicly. His choice of an insurance career had been well determined before 1903; The Celestial Country did not set him on that course.24
Ives's own New England background and family situation undoubtedly had much to do with his career choice. He had something to prove to the Ives family as well as to himself. Ives was in some ways the chosen one, selected by the family to go to Yale. He developed a close relationship with Lyman Brewster, who, though not technically an Ives—he married Amelia Ives, George's sister—was by sheer dint of success, as a lawyer, civic leader, judge, and state senator, the prominent member of the family. And Ives, in spite of his immense (p.86) talent and love of music, was uncomfortable with being too identified with this aspect of his life. “What do you play?” “Shortstop,” he would often answer.
Dasher, Quigly—Ives's nicknames at Yale—captain of the Danbury “Alerts” baseball team, member of Wolfshead, a senior society at Yale, most of all Ives wanted to be a regular guy. He saw his father fail as breadwinner, he saw his father die just as he entered Yale; Ives had something to atone, to the family, to himself, and to the values of his culture.
Ives's first experience away from home, his attendance at Yale, was a continuation of both his family and New England tradition. His move to New York was typical of bright, young, ambitious New England men of his time. In fact it was so typical that his first ten years there were essentially a continuation of college life. Ives lived in a series of apartments that he and his roommates dubbed Poverty Flat; the personnel changed as members married or moved on in other ways, but the group always consisted of several young Yale graduates. It was like a rolling fraternity house, a re-creation of Yale undergraduate society, with all the attendant chaos, youthful spirit, and hijinks. Ives stayed in that environment longer than most. When he finally married Harmony Twitchell in 1907 and moved out, he was thirty-three years old, one of the house's oldest members.
Yet at Poverty Flat Ives endured several personal crises that ultimately had much to do with both his personal maturing and his musical evolution. The first came in 1904 when his uncle Lyman Brewster died. Brewster had been a surrogate father to Ives, helping make Yale possible and even collaborating with him on an opera based on a Revolutionary War theme. The opera never came to fruition.25
The next year Ives's company, Mutual of New York, was the focus of the United States Senate's Armstrong investigation into fraud in the insurance industry, and the Raymond Agency, the branch of Mutual where Ives worked, came under particular attack. While Ives himself was never implicated, he could feel the heat, and the possibility that his career would be tainted was for a time real. This occurred precisely when his relationship with Harmony had turned serious, and Ives had to face as a prospective father-in-law Reverend George Twitchell, the acknowledged moral and spiritual leader of Hartford, Connecticut.26 In the midst of all of this, Ives suffered a serious health crisis in 1906. Its precise nature is not known, although later medical records indicate that it was not a heart attack, as some biographers have suggested.27
Whether coincidence or cause, a new, more mature modernist sound emerged from this crucible. In 1906, Ives composed In the Cage, from a Set (p.87) for Theatre Orchestra, and The Unanswered Question. Both works evince a new seriousness and experimentalism not seen in his music before. In the Cage was based on an incident that occurred at the Central Park Zoo. Ives and his roommate Bart Yung watched a leopard pace back and forth across his cage, until finally Yung queried, “Is life anything like that?” Ives then wrote a tone poem on the idea, with a melody in the English horn, a series of meterless chords accompanying, and a repeating figure in the timpani, depicting the surrogate leopard. Ives later added words, reduced the orchestral part to the piano, and published it as a song in 114 Songs.
The Unanswered Question is one of the first of Ives's pieces that address “the perennial question of existence,” a topic that engaged him throughout his compositional career, to culminate finally in the massive Fourth Symphony. The music of The Unanswered Question unfolds in three layers. The strings, which represent “the silence of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing,” play throughout a slow, quiet, mostly traditional chordal pattern. The trumpet, which enters periodically with a questioning chromatic motive, poses the question. The winds, the “fighting answerers,” in their desperation to provide a solution, become more strident, frantic, and dissonant as the piece proceeds. The music, which is “utterly unlike anything before Ives,” retains its serious, unsettling tone throughout, with each layer musically independent of the others. Such layering became a fundamental hallmark of Ives's style.28
Neither piece was performed publicly until many years later. After 1903 Ives tried to interest musicians in his compositions, but these attempts generally came to naught. Efforts at musical dissemination aimed at musicians rather than the public were necessary, for either Ives had to interest other musicians in performing his works or he had to appear before the public himself, as Ornstein had done. The latter course was unthinkable for Ives. His insurance career itself would have at least limited that approach; in addition, Ives was temperamentally unfit for that role.
When Ives tried to interest musicians, mainly by playing his works for them on the piano, most episodes did not go well. In 1914, Franz Milcke, former concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, visited Ives, at Harmony's invitation, to play through some of the violin sonatas. Milcke started, stumbled, started again, and finally gave up, exclaiming, “This is awful! It is not music, it makes no sense.” Ives patiently tried to play through the offending page. Milcke then ran out of the room with his hands over his ears, exclaiming, “When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears.”29
Ives heard words like “horrible” and “awful” many times. Not all encounters, (p.88) however, were that unpleasant. Gustav Mahler, at the time music director of the New York Philharmonic, showed interest in his Third Symphony, and Ives harbored some hope that it would be performed. Mahler's tenure in New York was ending, however, and he might have taken the symphony back to Europe; there are stories that Mahler performed it there, but this has never been confirmed.30
Ives found a more willing reception for his music from theater orchestras. These were small, often irregular ensembles of journeymen musicians who sat in the pits night after night at the many theaters in New York. They had to be ready to play whatever the situation demanded. They were open to new music, they could read well, and they were versatile. Ives himself had played occasionally in the Hyperion Theater and Polt's Theater orchestras while at Yale, and he was comfortable with the setting and the musicians. He also knew that theater musicians were always looking for a buck.
Ives must have presented quite a sight to them. This tall, thin, shy man would appear with a sheaf of manuscript paper under his arm and money in his wallet and ask them to play the most unusual music. And he talked their language. Ives got on well enough with them that they expressed interest in playing his music in public. Unfortunately, they also realized the implications of such an act for audiences hardly expecting what they would hear.31
In the meantime, Ives made money. Lots of it. From 1909, when the Ives and Myrick agency opened, to approximately 1922, Ives made roughly $1.8 million. In 2003 dollars this would be approximately $22 million. In 1913, the first year of the income tax, he reported an income of $10,000, the 2003 equivalent of $186,000. By 1921 his reported income had risen to $41,000. As the agency's most prosperous years were in the 1920s, one can assume that his income from 1921 until his retirement in 1929 was even greater.32
By 1920 Ives had created a substantial oeuvre: four symphonies, several other multi-movement orchestral works, sets for chamber orchestra, two string quartets, a string trio, five violin sonatas, three piano sonatas, many other piano pieces, and more than one hundred songs.33 But there was still no interest in his music.
In 1921 Ives made his most sustained effort to reach the public. By this time he had suffered a serious illness, possibly a heart attack, in 1918, and signs of diabetes were beginning to appear. He had printed, at his own expense, a collection of his songs, 114 Songs, the Concord Sonata, and separately an explanatory volume, Essays Before a Sonata, that explicated his musical aesthetic, which included a substantial debt to transcendentalism. He sent several hundred copies, gratis, to musicians and critics throughout the country. (p.89)
At first, reaction ranged from polite thank-you's to bewilderment. Gradually, however, enthusiasm grew. From Pittsburgh he heard from T. Carl Whitmer, who called the Concord Sonata “fine, original and altogether interesting.” Henry Bellamann wrote from South Carolina to say that he found the sonata a “remarkable piece of work,” and planned to add it to a lecture-recital on modern music that he was giving. Bellamann soon wrote the first detailed review of Ives's music to appear in print, for the arts magazine Double Dealer. And from Chicago he heard from Clifton Joseph Furness, who had wasted no time and presented a lecture-recital on the Concord even before writing to Ives. In a 1926 article Furness called Ives a “musical Emerson.”34
(p.90) Yet Ives's career did not take off until the end of the 1920s. Ives needed the collective clout of the new modernists to find an audience, but once he got a hearing his talent was recognized. By then a new generation of composers had organized and established a strong foothold on the American musical landscape. Ives was never overtly active in their organizations, but he quietly supported their activities, principally by providing needed financial aid. He was a particularly strong supporter of Henry Cowell's New Music Society and did much to keep Cowell's journal New Music Quarterly alive. It is thus no coincidence that a major step in recognition came when Cowell published the second movement of Ives's Fourth Symphony in his journal.
By 1928 his works were appearing regularly at new-music concerts in New York, and in 1931 Nicolas Slonimsky premiered Ives's Three Places in New England with the Boston Chamber Orchestra that Slonimsky had established. With financial support from Ives, Slonimsky took the piece to Havana and Paris. These concerts and the response they elicited marked a significant turn in the establishment of Ives's reputation.
By then Ives had become a revered elder statesman among the avantgarde. His reputation grew steadily through the 1930s, but he had not become familiar to the general public. That changed when John Kirkpatrick premiered the entire Concord Sonata at Town Hall in New York. The crowd responded enthusiastically. More important, Lawrence Gilman, music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune, praised Ives and his sonata: “This sonata is exceptionally great music—it is, indeed, the greatest music composed by an American, and the most deeply and essentially American in impulse and implication. It is wide-ranging and capacious. It has passion, tenderness, humor, simplicity, homeliness. It has imaginative and spiritual vastness. It has wisdom and beauty and profundity, and a sense of the encompassing terror and splendor of human life and human destiny—a sense of those mysteries that are both human and divine.”35
Eighteen years had elapsed since Ives had sent the Concord Sonata to musicians throughout the country. That bold move inaugurated a process that ultimately proved successful, the establishment of his name before the musical world. During the 1920s and ′30s Ives had done much to further that process, meeting with, corresponding with, and befriending musicians who showed interest in his work. He had also been very generous with his wealth, supporting efforts not just for himself but for other composers. But Ives was a beneficiary as well as a catalyst. For just as he began his solitary journey toward public recognition a number of other musicians, who had similar radical ideas if not always Ives's sheer raw talent, began to assault what to them seemed an ossifying status quo. Their tactics differed dramatically from (p.91) Ives's, but their efforts created a new atmosphere, one in which Ives's music could thrive. The ultramoderns of the 1920s found a way to upend the musical world, with results that not only benefited Ives but altered permanently the American musical landscape.
Ives and Ornstein had pushed the system to the edge of chaos. They represent two early leaps from the plain that American music seemed to have settled on. In his discussion of rugged fitness landscapes, evolutionary biologist Stuart Kauffman distinguishes between short- and long-jump evolutionary change, and between more rugged and smoother landscapes. Long-jump evolutionary change occurs when an agent has no opportunity to evolve in place, and must consequently find new and distant terrain. From the fitness peak on which each stood—that is, the style each began with—Ives and Ornstein found that their art dictated a leap to another mountain range.
But American culture was not yet ready to move to the new mountain, so Ives and Ornstein found themselves alone, cut off from the other agents that compose a musical world. Ives persevered by freeing himself from the need for a support system. Ornstein, like Ives, became his own patron: Ornstein the concert artist supporting Ornstein the composer. The latter, however, fed back to the former, with Ornstein's compositions gaining him publicity and notoriety that had both good and bad effects. That two of the most important composers in the United States between 1900 and 1920 could not move American musical culture one iota suggests just how entrenched it was. Ives of course was not even heard, and Ornstein's music had only rare performances beyond his own concerts.
If American music was to take a new direction, more than the occasional work of an isolated artist who carved out a unique career was necessary. Composer and public might be in different places on the mountain but could not continue on an entirely different range. In 1922 that began to change.
(1.) Martens, Leo Ornstein, 16.
(2.) Van Vechten, Music and Bad Manners, 170.
(3.) Draft of letter to Walter Goldstein, 1921, apparently never sent: “Ain't never heard nor seen any of the music—not even a god damn note—of Schoenberg-Scriabin—Or Ornstein—Just because I swear and use cuss-words, aint no sign my name is Murphy” (Ives Papers 29/13), quoted in Swafford, Charles Ives, 319. Ives is defending against Gordon's claim that the Concord Sonata resembled the “Sehoenberg-Scriabin-Ornstein idiom.” Although there is no record of Ornstein and Ives meeting, Ives's statement strains credulity: Ornstein was too prominent for Ives to have been unaware of him. Ornstein's Bandbox concerts in 1915 created a sensation and were reported in the New (p.342) York newspapers. In 1916, G.F.H. commented, “So much has been written about Leo Ornstein…. Surely no pianist of recent years has aroused more discussion” (G.F.H., Musical America 27, no. 9 [January 1, 1916], 18), and in 1917 J.O.I. referred to him as “the intransigent pianist, who has set the entire musical world by the ears and who is probably the most discussed figure on the concert stage at the present time” (J.O.I., Baltimore Evening Sun, February 10, 1917, reprinted in Musical Courier, 74, no. 1 [March 15, 1917], 7). Literally dozens of articles about Ornstein appeared in the New York newspapers, and we know that Ives regularly read newspapers. There are clippings files in the West Redding House, and Ives composed many pieces based on contemporary events (see Vivian Perlis, comp., “Charles Ives Papers,” Yale University Music Library Archival Collection, mss. 14, p. 194). Two examples of pieces based on contemporary events are “General Slocum,” based on an explosion of a ferryboat, and “The Indians.” For a discussion of Ives's reliance on newspaper articles in regard to the latter see Von Glahn, “Charles Ives, Cowboys and Indians,” 292–94. Of course Ives may have read about Ornstein without actually hearing his music. Ives may have been unaware of Schoenberg in the 1910s, but much circumstantial evidence points to a knowledge of Skryabin's music. Ives apparently drafted his letter in a fit of pique, and his decision not to send it may have reflected his own realization on cooling down that what he had written was not entirely the case.
(4.) Exact dates are not clear.
(5.) Rosenfeld, “Ornstein,” 84.
(6.) Edvard Grieg, Butterfly, Op. 43, No. 1, Ede Poldini, Marche Mignonne (Columbia A 1445), and Frédéric Chopin, Impromptu, Op. 29, Etude in G-flat, Op. 10, No. 5 (Columbia A 1473). They were issued in February and March 1914, and recorded May 10, 1913.
(7.) Kramer, “Leo Ornstein, Pianist,” 23.
(8.) Vivian Perlis, Interview, Yale Oral History Project in American Music, December 8, 1972, Waban, Massachusetts, quoted in Perlis, “The Futurist Music of Leo Ornstein,” 737.
(9.) Deems Taylor, “Mainly About Music,” New York World, October 1, 1922, in “The New York Scrapbooks”; Martens, Leo Ornstein, 57.
(10.) In that sense Ornstein differs from Henry Cowell, who independently came upon tone clusters at virtually the same time. To Cowell dissonance clusters were also color, but the clusters were essentially the sound spectrum between two outer pitches. He was more interested in the overall, cumulative, and often programmatic effects of a series of similar clusters, and frequently combined them with diatonic lines, as in the “Tides of Manuanmen,” one of his first experiments in that direction. To Cowell clusters create a splash of sound, to Ornstein a very specific harmonic combination.
(11.) Martens, Leo Ornstein, 24–25.
(12.) R.C., “Futurist Music. Wild Outbreak at Steinway Hall,” London Daily Mail, March 2, 1914; “A ‘Futurist’ Recital. Mr. Ornstein's ‘Impressions,’” London Daily Telegraph, March 28, 1914, 7. Martens, Leo Ornstein, 26, lists the Ornstein pieces for the second recital.
(13.) Martens, Leo Ornstein, 26; C.N., “Music in London. Leo Ornstein. Some Frank Impressions,” The Musical Standard (London), April 18, 1914, 374.
(14.) James Huneker, “The Seven Arts,” Puck, April 17, 1915, 11; “Montreal Likes Ornstein's Futurism,”, Montreal Star, February 14, 1916, reprinted in Musical Courier 72, no. 8 (February 24, 1916), 29; Eric De Lamarter, “Pianists Three and Their Gentle Ways,” Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1916; J.L.H., “A Critic Abroad,” Musical America 23, no. 9 (January 1, 1916), 18; Trachtenberg, ed., Memoirs of Waldo Frank, 65.
(15.) “The Music of a Day,” New York Times, November 26, 1916.
(16.) Quoted in Severo M. Ornstein, liner notes, Leo Ornstein, Sonata for Cello and Piano, 3 Preludes LP, Orion ORS 76211.
(17.) “Ornstein Interviewed,” Musical Courier 88 (January 31, 1924), 62; Terrance J. O'Grady, “A Conversation with Leo Ornstein.” Perspectives of New Music 23 (Fall–Winter 1984), 127; both quoted in Metzer, “The Ascendancy of Musical Modernism in New York City,” 122.
(18.) Leo Ornstein, interviewed by the author, Green Bay, Wisconsin, June 26, 1998.
(19.) The Piano Concerto was a reworking of the Sonata for Two Pianos of 1921. According to Severo Ornstein, Ornstein stated that the concerto represented an extensive rewriting, although its extent cannot be determined because the two-piano version has not survived.
(20.) Shameless plug: A biography of Leo Ornstein is currently being written by Michael Broyles and Denise Von Glahn, to be published by Indiana University Press.
(21.) Rosenfeld, “Leo Ornstein,” 267–80.
(22.) Philip Sunderland, Interview, in Perlis, Charles Ives Remembered, 16. Sunderland was ninety-seven years old at the time he talked to Perlis.
(23.) Ives, Memos, 115–16.
(24.) Swafford, Charles Ives, 159–60, quotes some of the reviews.
(25.) For a discussion of the projected opera, see Cooney, “Reconciliations,” 100–106.
(26.) For a revision of how close Ives was to the heat generated by the Armstrong investigation and how its aftermath affected his career, see Broyles, “Charles Ives and the American Democratic Tradition,” 135–42.
(27.) Broyles, “Charles Ives and the American Democratic Tradition,” 158.
(28.) Swafford, Charles Ives, 180.
(29.) New York violinist and conductor Edgar Stowell described “The ‘St.-Gaudens’ in Boston Common,” the first piece in Ives's set Three Places in New England, as “awful.” Max Smith, an old friend and music critic for the New York Press, called the Concord Sonata both “awful” and “horrible.” Swafford, Charles Ives, 219–20. A description of the encounter with Milcke appears in Swafford, Charles Ives, 220–21, and Ives, Memos, 70.
(30.) Swafford, Charles Ives, 236; David Woolridge, From the Steeples and Mountains, 150–51, claims to have talked with a retired timpanist who played Ives's Third Symphony in Munich in 1910 under Mahler.
(31.) Ives, Memos, 59.
(32.) Swafford, Charles Ives, 198. Inflation calculators are taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/historiccpi.html, and the University of Michigan Documents Center, www.lib.umich.edu/govdocs/steccpi.html.
(33.) A precise inventory of his compositions by 1920 is difficult because it is not clear when he wrote some. This is especially true of songs, a number of which he composed between 1920 and 1926. Most of his instrumental music was composed by this time, although many pieces did not take final form until later.
(34.) The letters are contained in the Charles Ives Papers. They are summarized in Swafford, Charles Ives, 319–20. Bellamann's article, “Concord,” Double Dealer, October, 21, is in the Ives Papers, Box 27, Folder 8. Furness's article “Mysticism in Modern Music” appeared in Threefold Commonwealth in 1926. A copy is in the Ives Papers, Box 56, Folder 1.
(35.) Lawrence Gilman, “Music,” New York Herald-Tribune, January 21, 1939.