Charles Ives, both as a man and an artist, had his roots in the New England heritage. His tone imagery resounds from the music of his childhood:
His keen ear heard:
- hymn tunes,
- popular songs,
- town parade bands,
- fiddlers at a Saturday night dance,
- patriotic songs,
- parlor ballads,
- and medleys heard at county fairs.
From these personal experiences, he found his way to the use of polytonality, atonality, polyharmony, cluster chords, and polyrhythms.
- untrained voices singing both above and below the pitch, which manifested itself in his compositional use of tone clusters
- some singers a bit ahead of the beat and others lagged behind, which translated into his music as polyrhythms
- the overlapping clash of parade bands playing different tunes in different keys (polyrhythms, polytonality)
- fiddlers play a "mite off pitch" in their excitement at a country dance which initiated the idea of microtones in his mind
- fond of quoting hymn tunes and popular tunes
- partial to the contrapuntal procedures of inversion, retrograde, rhythmic augmentation and diminution
- addicted to dissonance, but his music has an underlying tonality
- one of the first to write without barlines, only inserting them to indicate an accented beat
He was influenced first by his father, a bandmaster who had libertarian ideas about what music might be. When he was perhaps 19 (the dating of his music is nearly always problematic) he produced psalm settings that exploit polytonality and other unusual procedures. He then studied with Horatio Parker at Yale (1894-8) and showed some sign of becoming a relatively conventional composer in his First Symphony (1898) and songs of this period. He worked, however, not in music but in the insurance business, and composition became a weekend activity - but one practiced assiduously: during the two decades after his graduation he produced:
- set two distinct lines of harmony in motion against each other and would treat them like counterpoint
- pit rhythmic patterns of three, four, five, or six notes in a measure against units of seven, eleven, thirteen, and seventeen.
- use repeating dissonant chords for percussive effect (anticipating Stravinsky)
- create jazz-like rhythms and syncopation (long before it became standard in jazz practice)
- He also moved away from symmetrical repetition to a fresh off-balance arrangement of material.
The only consistent characteristic of this music is liberation from rule. There are
- four more symphonies
- numerous other orchestral works,
- five violin sonatas,
- two monumental piano sonatas
- and numerous songs.
Most of his music had been written without prospect of performance, and it was only towards the end of his life that it began to be played frequently and appreciated.
- entirely atonal pieces,
- while others are in the simple harmonic style of a hymn or folksong.
- Some are highly systematic and abstract in construction;
- others are filled with quotations from the music of Ives's youth:
- popular songs,
- ragtime dances,
- marches, etc.
- Some, like the "Three Places in New England", are explicitly nostalgic;
- others, like the "Fourth Symphony", are fuelled by the vision of an idealist democracy.
- He published his 'Concord' Sonata in 1920
- and a volume of 114 songs in 1922, but composed little thereafter.
Charles Ives stands as the first truly American composer of the 20th century and one of the most original of his time.