Charles Ives on Authenticity

Excerpts from:

Charles E. Ives: Memos (Ed. Kirkpatrick; Norton 1991)

Charles Ives: Essays Before a Sonata, The Majority, and Other Writings (Ed. Boatwright; Norton 1961)

“To a great extent this” (the limitation of meaning in music to emotions) “depends on what is meant by emotion, or on the assumption that the word as used above refers more to the “expression of, rather than to a meaning in a deeper sense—which may be a feeling influenced by some experience, perhaps of a spiritual nature, in the expression of which the intellect has some part. ‘The nearer we get to the mere expression of emotions,’ says Professor Sturt in his Philosophy of Art and Personality, “as in the antics of boys who have been promised a holiday, the further we get away from art.’” (Essays, 4)

“If one is willing to go no further than to accept the theory that music is the language of the emotions and only that, the matter is perhaps an insoluble problem; but one becoming more interesting, perhaps more possible of solution, if instead of accepting the term ‘emotion’ only as an ‘expression of’ itself, it is received in a deeper sense—that is, that it is a feeling influenced by some experience, perhaps of a spiritual nature, in the expression of which the intellect has some part.” (Essays, 4 note f [from the 1947 edition of the Concord Sonata])

(Of music’s ability to reflect moral goodness) “Can music do more than this? Can it do this? And if so, who and what is to determine the degree of its failure or success? The composer, the performer (if there be any), or those who have to listen? One hearing, or a century of hearings? And if it isn’t successful, or if it doesn’t fail, what matters it? … Expression, to a great extent, is a matter of terms, and terms are anyone’s.” (Essays, 8 )

“Perhaps music is the art of speaking extravagantly. Herbert Spencer says that some men, as for instance Mozart, are so peculiarly sensitive to emotion that music is to them but a continuation not only of the expression but of the actual emotion, though the theory of some more modern thinkers in the philosophy of art doesn’t always bear this out. However, there is no doubt that in its nature music is predominantly subjective and tends to subjective expression, and poetry more objective, tending to objective expression.” (Essays, 52)

“Possibly the fondness for individual utterance may throw out a skin-deep arrangement which is readily accepted as beautiful—formulae that weaken rather than toughen up the musical-muscles. If the composer’s sincere conception of his art and of its functions and ideals coincides to such an extent with these groove-colored permutations of tried-out progressions in expediency that he can arrange them over and over again to his transcendent delight—has he or has he not been drugged with an overdose of habit-forming sounds? And as a result, do not the muscles of his clientele become flabbier and flabbier until they give way altogether and find refuge only in a seasoned opera box—where they can see without thinking?” (Essays, 98)

“[An] interest in any art-activity from poetry to baseball is better, broadly speaking, if held as a part of life, or of a life than if it sets itself up as a whole—a condition verging, perhaps, toward a monopoly or, possibly, a kind of atrophy of the other important values, and hence reacting unfavorably upon itself.” (Postface to 114 Songs, printed in Essays, 124)

“It depends, to a great extent, on what a man nails up on his dashboard as ‘valuable.’” (Postface, Essays, 124)

(Paraphrasing from Essays, 98) “Possibly the fondness for personal expression—the kind in which self-indulgence dresses up and miscalls itself freedom—may throw out a skin-deep arrangement, which is readily accepted at first as beautiful—formulae that weaken rather than toughen the musical-muscles.” (Postface, Essays, 125)

“Every normal man—that is, every uncivilized or civilized human being not of defective mentality, moral sense, etc.—has, in some degree, creative insight (an unpopular statement) and an interest, desire, and ability to express it (another unpopular statement). … [In] every human soul there is a ray of celestial beauty (Plotinus admits that), and a spark of genius (nobody admits that).” (Postface, Essays, 126)

“The problem of direct encouragement is more complex and exciting but not as fundamental or important. It seems to the writer that the attempts to stimulate interest by elaborate systems of contests, prizes, etc., are a little overdone nowadays. Something of real benefit to art may be accomplished in this way, but perhaps the prizes may do the donors more good than the donates. Possibly the pleasure and satisfaction of the former in having done what they consider a good deed may be far greater than the improvement in the quality of the latter’s work. In fact, the process may have an enervating effect upon the latter—it may produce more Roderick Hudsons than Beethovens. Perhaps something of greater value could be caught without this kind of bait. Perhaps the chief value of the plan to establish a ‘course at Rome’ to raise the standard of American music (or the standard of American composers—which is it?) may be in finding a man strong enough to survive it. … Such stimulants, it strikes us, tend to industrialize art rather than develop a spiritual sturdiness—a sturdiness which Mr. Sedgqick says shows itself in a close union between spiritual life and the ordinary business of life, against spiritual feebleness, which shows itself in the separation of the two.” (Postface, Essays, 127)

“If for every thousand dollar prize a potato field be substituted, so that these candidates of Clio can dig a little in real life, perchance dig up a natural inspiration, art’s air might be a little clearer—a little freer from certain traditional delusions for instance, that free thought and free love always go to the same café—that atmosphere and diligence are synonymous.” (Postface, Essays, 127)

(Prosaic passage at the end of Postface) “Should (a song) not have a chance to sing to itself, if it can sing?—to enjoy itself without making a bow, if it can’t make a bow?—to swim around in any ocean, if it can swim, without having to swallow ‘hook and bait,’ or being sunk by an operatic greyhound.” (Postface, Essays, 130-131)

“Rollos—resting all their nice lives on, and now hiding behind, their silk skirts—too soft-eared and minded to find anything out for themselves…”(Memos, 30)

(On NYT music critic Wm. James Henderson) “His ears, for fifty years or so, have been massaged over and over and over again so nice by the same sweet, consonant, evenly repeated sequences and rhythms, and all the soft processes in an art 85 percent emasculated, that when he says ‘there is no great music in America,’ one begins to have a conviction that that is the best indication that there is some great music in America.” (Memos, 31)

(On criticism of the supposedly non-universal, locally-flavored Emerson as basis for musical work) “If a man is born in a sewer, he smells it and of it—(but he may be nearer a spiritual fragrance than the major).” (Memos, 77)

“They all run true to form when they talk about the same thing or anything. As an example, they have a glib hand-out—they label ‘workmanship’ is one of their easy fall-backs. I don’t remember one of them that fell back on the word ‘workmanship’ that didn’t mean just one and the same thing, ‘groove made technique,’ reflecting almost literally some sofa-cushion formulism which they’ve slept on for generations—the little, usual, tried-out, played-out expediencies in harmony, melody, time—(rhythm is beyond them)—every right sound (sound or unsound) in just the nice way they’ve always seen it done, etc., etc.” (Memos, 86)

(Of Albert Stoessel conducting Halloween Party) “He not only didn’t see the joke, but didn’t know they were jokes, and not nice music. … Even Herbert Hoover could get it, and the average listener always gets it. But Allie took it so serious, and beat time nice and regular, just as serious.” (Memos, 90)

“So, ladies, you see, whenever now a properly dressed adding machine walks down the middle isle and gets off Western Union Platitude #22, ‘good workmanship’—I know there’s something soft in that job. And if it happens to be any work of mine, then I know there’s something wrong with it—at least I have a natural suspicion.” (Memos, 91)

(On the date of the sinking of the Lusitania) “As I came on the platform, there was quite a crowd waiting for the trains, which had been blocked lower down, and while waiting there, a hand-organ or hurdy-gurdy was playing in the street below. Some workmen sitting on the side of the tracks began to whistle the tune, and others began to sing or hum the refrain. A workman with a shovel over his shoulder came on the platform and joined in the chorus, and the next man, a Wall Street banker with white spats and a cane, joined in it, and finally it seemed to me that everybody was singing this tune, and they didn’t seem to be singing in fun, but as a natural outlet for what their feelings had been going through all day long. There was a feeling of dignity all through this. The hand-organ man seemed to sense this and wheeled the organ nearer the platform and kept it up fortissimo (and the chorus sounded out as though every man in New York must be joining in it). Then the first train came in and everybody crowded in, and the song gradually died out, but the effect on the crowd still showed. Almost nobody talked—the people acted as though they might be coming out of a church service. In going uptown, occasionally little groups would start singing or humming the tune.

Now what was the tune? It wasn’t a Broadway hit, it wasn’t a musical comedy air, it wasn’t a waltz tune or a dance tune or an opera tune or a classical tune, or a tune that all of them probably knew. It was (only) the refrain of an old Gospel Hymn that had stirred many people of past generations. It was nothing but—In the Sweet Bye and Bye. It wasn’t a tune written to be sold, or written by a professor of music—but by a man who was but giving out an experience.” (Memos, 92-93)

(On hearing a group of workers singing in the street in London) “What were they singing (slowly, with dignity and reverence, and strongly beautiful)?—In the Sweet Bye and Bye, but with Welsh words. And as they passed and turned slowly away up Curzon Street, they began another song. What was that?—some famous old Welsh ballad? No, it was the American Gospel Hymn, There’s a wideness in God’s Mercy (Converse tune). It was sung with an eloquent slowness, not evenly—not fast, precise, and ‘tinky,’ as so many nice church organists play it—but here there was a strength of accent, of phrase, of conviction. They sang it like great artists, not like great opera singers.” (Memos, 94)

“My experience has been, not always but most always:—the more voice a man has, the less music he has. … Apparently in a singer’s education the muscles of the throat get the training, and not the muscles of the ear and brain.” (Memos, 117)

(From correspondence with William Treat Upton, who sought Ives’ input on the state of then-contemporary American art song) “[From] meeting occasionally some of the younger men (composers), I should say that their lack of interest in songs is not a matter of decadence in the work… but rather that it is caused by—I won’t say decadence—but by a kind of musico-mental spiritual inertia, approaching an atrophy, on the part of singers in general… there are exceptions, mostly among the younger singers.” (Memos, 117 note 3)

(On a professor declaring that hymns and folk tunes have no place in serious music) “Well, I’ll say two things here: (1) That nice professor of music is a musical lily-pad—(and also use the same remarks as about Aunt Hale in Memo 4). He never took a chance at himself, or took one coming or going. (2) His opinion is based on something he’d probably never heard, seen, or experienced. He knows little of how these things sounded when they came ‘blam’ off a real man’s chest. It was the way this music was sung that made them big or little—and I had the chance of hearing them big. And it wasn’t the music that did it, and it wasn’t the words that did it, and it wasn’t the sounds (whatever they were—transcendent, peculiar, bad, some beautifully unmusical)—but they were sung ‘like the rocks were grown.’ The singers weren’t singers, but they knew what they were doing—it all came from something felt, way down and way up—a man’s experience of men!

“Once a nice young man (his musical sense having been limited by three years’ intensive study at the Boston Conservatory) said to Father, ‘How can you stand it to hear old John Bell (the best stone-mason in town) sing?’ (as he used to at Camp Meetings) Father said, ‘he is a supreme musicians.’ The young man (nice and educated) was horrified—‘Why, he sings off the key, the wrong notes and everything—and that horrible, raucous voice—and he bellows out and hits notes no one else does—it’s awful!’ Father said, ‘Watch him closely and reverently, look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds—for if you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds.” (Memos, 132)

(On Camp Meeting attendees’ hymn-singing) “Most of them knew the words and music (theirs) by heart, and sang it that way. If they threw the poet or the composer around a bit, so much the better for the poetry and the music. There was power and exaltation in these great conclaves of sound from humanity. I’ve heard the same hymns played by nice celebrated organists and sung by highly-known singers in beautifully upholstered churches, and in the process everything in the music was emasculated—precise (usually too fast) even time—‘ta ta’ down-left-right-up—pretty voices, etc. They take a mountain and make a sponge cake out of it, and sometimes, as a result, one of these commercial travelers gets a nice job at the Metropolitan.” (Memos, 133)

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