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Charles Ives: A Life with Music

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Jan Swafford's colorful biography first unfolds in Ives's Connecticut hometown of Danbury, then follows Ives to Yale and on to his years in New York, where he began his double career as composer and insurance executive. The Charles Ives that emerges from Swafford's story is a precocious, well-trained musician, a brilliant if mercurial thinker about art and life, and an exp Jan Swafford's colorful biography first unfolds in Ives's Connecticut hometown of Danbury, then follows Ives to Yale and on to his years in New York, where he began his double career as composer and insurance executive. The Charles Ives that emerges from Swafford's story is a precocious, well-trained musician, a brilliant if mercurial thinker about art and life, and an experimenter in the spirit of Edison and the Wright brothers.


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Jan Swafford's colorful biography first unfolds in Ives's Connecticut hometown of Danbury, then follows Ives to Yale and on to his years in New York, where he began his double career as composer and insurance executive. The Charles Ives that emerges from Swafford's story is a precocious, well-trained musician, a brilliant if mercurial thinker about art and life, and an exp Jan Swafford's colorful biography first unfolds in Ives's Connecticut hometown of Danbury, then follows Ives to Yale and on to his years in New York, where he began his double career as composer and insurance executive. The Charles Ives that emerges from Swafford's story is a precocious, well-trained musician, a brilliant if mercurial thinker about art and life, and an experimenter in the spirit of Edison and the Wright brothers.

30 review for Charles Ives: A Life with Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    robin friedman

    A Great American Composer Brought To Life Charles Ives (1874-1954)was the first, and still probably the greatest, composer of a distinctly American art ("classical") music. His relationship to American music seems to me roughly parallel to Walt Whitman's relationship to American poetry and to Charles Peirce's relationship to American philosophy. Like Peirce, Ives was little-known during his lifetime. Furthermore, while many people may be aware of Peirce and of Ives, a much smaller number have muc A Great American Composer Brought To Life Charles Ives (1874-1954)was the first, and still probably the greatest, composer of a distinctly American art ("classical") music. His relationship to American music seems to me roughly parallel to Walt Whitman's relationship to American poetry and to Charles Peirce's relationship to American philosophy. Like Peirce, Ives was little-known during his lifetime. Furthermore, while many people may be aware of Peirce and of Ives, a much smaller number have much acquaintance with their works. Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut and remained throughout his life attached to his vision of the post-Civil War small-town New England of his childhood. His father, George Ives, was a bandmaster and the greatest influence on Ives's life. Ives was a musical prodigy who began composing at an early age, quickly picking up experimental styles. He showed great proficiency at the piano and organ. (Through young manhood, he worked Sundays as a church organist.) He studied music at Yale where his teacher was Horatio Parker, a then famous American who was trained in the music of German Romanticism. As a college student, Ives wrote music played for the inauguration of President William McKinley. After graduation from Yale, Ives became a millionaire in the insurance industry where he pioneered many marketing techniques. He also became increasingly Progressive and politically active and actually proposed a constitutional amendment which would increase the power of the democracy in government decision-making. At the age of 32, he married Harmony Twitchell who, after his father, was the greatest influence on his life. Ives wrote music in the midst of an extraordinarily busy life. Most people think of Ives as a trailblazer and iconoclast. He was indeed, but may of his earlier works, such as the Second and the Third Symphonies are easily accessible and have a feel of America about them similar to the feelings Aaron Copland evoked some three decades later. Jan Swafford's biography movingly and eloquently describes the life of Charles Ives. He offers a reflective, thoughtful discussion of Ives, his America, his music, and its reception. In addition to a thorough treatment of Ives' life and works, Swafford has three chapters which he titles "Entra'acets" which consist of broad-based reflections on Ives's music and its significance. Swafford's entire book is full of ideas which are intriguing in themselves. Of Ives's work, Swafford gives his most extended treatment to the Fourth Symphony (he sees Ives as essentially a symphonist) and to the Concord piano Sonata. But many works are discussed in detail which will be accessible to the non-musician. The book has copious and highly substantive footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Ives's Americanness, humor, romanticism, modernism, optimism, and generosity ( Ives gave large amounts of money to his family and to musicians and music publications. He also paid for the publication of several of his important works when commercial publishers showed no interest in them.) come through well. Swafford sees Ives as the last American transcendentalist in the tradition of Emerson. At the conclusion of his book, Swafford writes of Ives " [I]n his music and his life he embodied a genuine pluralism, a wholeness beneath diversity, that in itself is a beacon for democracy and its art. Aesthetically he is an alternative to Modernism, an exploratory road without the darkness and despair of the twentieth century. In spirit he handed us a baton and calls on us to carry it further. He suggests a way out of despair, but leaves it to us to find the route for ourselves. If we are alone with ourselves today, Ives speaks incomparably to that condition." This book made me want to learn more about and to hear the music of Charles Ives. In its own right, it is a joy and an inspiration to read. Robin Friedman

  2. 5 out of 5

    Marianne Meyers

    Awesome, definitive biography. I am a Charles Ives fan so I found it riveting. I knew a good overview of his life before, but this book covered all his years. A fascinating, original American genius!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    One of the best biographies I've read. Part biography and part music notes, a good portion of this book analyzes significant works by Ives, placing them in context of his life. The other portion is just as well-written and engaging. One of the best biographies I've read. Part biography and part music notes, a good portion of this book analyzes significant works by Ives, placing them in context of his life. The other portion is just as well-written and engaging.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Steven

    An astonishing feat. You'll come back to this again and again. Swafford is one of the best classical music writers, and this is one of the best biographies I've read. An astonishing feat. You'll come back to this again and again. Swafford is one of the best classical music writers, and this is one of the best biographies I've read.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    One of the most engrossing biographies I've read. It adds somethig to the reading to have a little exposure to some of Ives' music. One of the most engrossing biographies I've read. It adds somethig to the reading to have a little exposure to some of Ives' music.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    As with the other composer biographies by Jan Swafford, I think it would be facile to say that this is a fine, or even a great one. “Charles Ives: A Life with Music” naturally presents the facts of the noted American composer’s life in logical sequence and with the expected refinements of prose style. More importantly, this biography does much to paint a convincing picture of American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is an era in US history that is now quite in the As with the other composer biographies by Jan Swafford, I think it would be facile to say that this is a fine, or even a great one. “Charles Ives: A Life with Music” naturally presents the facts of the noted American composer’s life in logical sequence and with the expected refinements of prose style. More importantly, this biography does much to paint a convincing picture of American life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is an era in US history that is now quite in the past and one that people, politicians in particular, like to sentimentalize, so that it is both refreshing and useful to gain a clearer picture of what life in this country then consisted of. Personally, I especially enjoyed reading about father George Ives’s experiences as the youngest bandmaster in the Union Army during the Civil War. Swafford’s later retelling of the young Charles Ives’s years as musical enfant terrible, senior football team player, and member of Wolf’s Head at Yale I also found revealing. Throughout, I was fascinated by the composer’s talent, intelligence, clearsightedness, forceful originality, and courage. As I read, I tried to acquaint myself with works by Ives I did not yet know. My aural understanding of his music grew a stretch in the few weeks I devoted to reading this biography, and I encourage other readers to familiarize themselves with at least some of the Ives compositions they have not already heard. For me, becoming reacquainted with the Fourth Symphony was especially rewarding; I listened to it twice through consecutively scarcely noticing that a full hour had clicked by. In general, having read three Swafford biographies, I now recognize a tendency in the author to portray a composer’s father in most glowing colors. Since Swafford’s next published biography will be on Mozart, a continuation of this trend can only be envisioned.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Charles Staley

    Ives was a genius. No question. No debate. His complete separation from public acclaim is his legacy. This book shows how important it is to keep your north star front and center. This book sets forth his ideals and his aspirations so that we can now begin to understand the absolute brilliance of this man.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Hager

    VERY deep dive into the life of an interesting American composer.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Bart

    This is a dense and difficult, but ultimately wondrous, biography of a generally misunderstood Yankee composer who changed American classical music. Charles Ives wrote some of the most innovative scores of the 20th century in his home, and at night and on vacation, while building a life-insurance empire in Connecticut. He tried desperately to get his music heard - by himself primarily - and generally failed, even while paying enormous sums to musicians to perform his tunes. Decades after diabetes This is a dense and difficult, but ultimately wondrous, biography of a generally misunderstood Yankee composer who changed American classical music. Charles Ives wrote some of the most innovative scores of the 20th century in his home, and at night and on vacation, while building a life-insurance empire in Connecticut. He tried desperately to get his music heard - by himself primarily - and generally failed, even while paying enormous sums to musicians to perform his tunes. Decades after diabetes took his will and ability to write new symphonies, Ives's music was discovered by America and the rest of the world. By then, he was a generally content, though sometimes cranky, old survivor too jaded by innumerable failures to care very much waht others opined of him. Jan Swafford's writing is excellent throughout. Here are a few examples. On Charles Ives's father and hero: "Certainly he realized that as far as most of the town was concerned he was finally getting a job, finally growing up. To them he was a failure because he had only been a musician. To himself he was a failure because he hadn't made a go at the job he loved." On pianist and Ives custodian John Kirkpatrick: "Handsome and dandyish, he was part of Heyman's circle and so ran with an arty, polysexual Parisian crowd among the intoxicating atmosphere of Joyce and Pound and Hemingway . . . Kirkpatrick kept a mistress financed by his brother and flirted with the occult." And on Charles Ives at the end: "Yet few people who knew Ives thought of him as a tragic man, but rather as an energetic and delightful and fascinating figure, a mythical creature in the flesh, a perpetual event." This book is not a light undertaking - it could take you a month to read - but it is a worthwhile one.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Andy Troyanos

    I came into this book fascinated and curious about the man who wrote that wonderful, strange and out of the blue shocking ending to his own Second Symphony. Who would have the intestinal fortitude to create that ending in 1903 (he actually added the chord cluster in the 30's, but that doesn't make it less interesting), something so alien to every bit of music that came before it, what kind of man does that? Little did I know he considered this "soft" music. His fascination with music that leads I came into this book fascinated and curious about the man who wrote that wonderful, strange and out of the blue shocking ending to his own Second Symphony. Who would have the intestinal fortitude to create that ending in 1903 (he actually added the chord cluster in the 30's, but that doesn't make it less interesting), something so alien to every bit of music that came before it, what kind of man does that? Little did I know he considered this "soft" music. His fascination with music that leads with dissonance, shakes your ear drums, and to find that the man's belief system is more focused on the improvement of mankind than any success in the field of music was a huge surprise. This book makes you feel connected to the man, in a way that as soon as I finished, I missed reading it, and being with Charles and Harmony. That being said the book does drag in the middle a bit, but it still is so worth the journey it gets 5 starts from me. I highly recommend that while you're reading it, to cue up Youtube (if you don't own the recordings) and find the pieces online that are being discussed. Reading about them are one thing, but hearing them will change the way you hear music. When I heard Elvis Costello and Tom Waits, ordinary rock music never sounded the same again and it's actually hard to listen to that style of music again, now listening to Ives, all music sounds different to me now. It's a sound that doesn't just change the way you listen to music, but changes the way you look at life. Enjoy the dissonance, it has a home with the consonance and doesn't need to be covered by mainstream art, music and creativity that's only use is to sound "nice".

  11. 5 out of 5

    Paul Secor

    All that you've ever wanted to know - perhaps more than you've ever wanted to know - it's a long fairly thorough biography - about Charles Ives. If you've lived with and gotten to know something of his music, you'll probably want to read this. All that you've ever wanted to know - perhaps more than you've ever wanted to know - it's a long fairly thorough biography - about Charles Ives. If you've lived with and gotten to know something of his music, you'll probably want to read this.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Angela

    The biographical parts of the book I found most interesting. There were some parts, especially near the end that were bogged down with analysis but over-all a very good book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Nathanial

    BORING!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Aldric

  15. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Lam

  16. 4 out of 5

    Ryan C.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Brady Meyer

  18. 5 out of 5

    Josh

  19. 5 out of 5

    Cory Winters

  20. 4 out of 5

    Steve

  21. 4 out of 5

    Robj

  22. 5 out of 5

    Justin

  23. 5 out of 5

    Paul Charest

  24. 4 out of 5

    John Maxham

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sivan

  26. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Boscardin

  27. 5 out of 5

    John

  28. 4 out of 5

    Chris Randolph

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lydia

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tengo

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