By Rex Burgess

Although Charles Ives had virtually ceased composing nine years earlier, when the first two movements of his Fourth Symphony were premiered in New York in 1927, this was the first time any of his compositions had come before the public. And it was not happy: a contemporary report records that the audience actually rioted!

After six more years in limbo, the third movement was premiered in 1933. It was not until eleven years after Ives’ death in 1965 that the work was performed in its entirety, with Leopold Stokowski conducting his American Symphony Orchestra.

While performers and the public were extremely slow in warming to his music, Ives did have his supporters among the critics, with Lawrence Gilman writing after the 1927 concert, “this music is indubitably American in impulse and spiritual texture. It has at times an irresistible veracity and strength – an uncorrupted sincerity.”

Born in 1874, Ives grew up with music: by age thirteen he was already a church organist and was arranging pieces for various ensembles conducted by his bandleader father. Nonetheless, after four years studying it at Yale, when he had to choose a career, he decided against music: he rightly assumed he could never make a sufficient living from it ‘to support a nice wife and some nice children’. So he chose insurance and was so successful that after twenty years and in his early forties, he was head of the largest agency in the country.

Paradoxically, it was during those years that he composed almost all of his music. Working tirelessly at night, at weekends and while holidaying, his mission to set down the sounds he heard in his head, although with faint expectation as to whether his compositions would ever be performed. Which was just as well, for the conductors and performers he tried to interest in his works pronounced them as unplayable, to the point where, after a number of such rebuffs, he gave up showing them his manuscripts, though undeterred, he went on composing, piling up the scores in his Connecticut barn. And when friends suggested he write music more likely to appeal to people his reply simply was: “I can’t do it – I hear something else.”

It was only after recovering from a serious physical breakdown in 1918 that Ives realised he needed somehow to make his music available to those open[1]minded people who might be prepared to listen to it. So he privately brought out three volumes, including the Concord Sonata and a large collection of songs, which he then distributed free to libraries, critics and anyone else asking for them. This was still to little immediate avail, although it did garner support from other composers facing the same problems of lack of performer and public interest.

 In the end, it was in Europe that Ives’ music first won attention, with performances in Paris, Budapest, Berlin, and Vienna, promoted there by Anton Webern. The American breakthrough came only in 1939, when pianist John Kirkpatrick gave several triumphant performances of the Concord Sonata, causing Gilman to hail it as ‘the greatest music composed by an American’. The gates finally were opening!

 Fast forward to 1961 and we find the eminent contemporary music authority Joseph Machlis writing that Ives, “waited many years for recognition. Today he stands revealed as the first truly American composer of the twentieth century, and one of the most original spirits of his time.”

Listeners can hear Ives’ Fourth Symphony in The World of a Symphony on Thursday May 16 at 8pm.