Charles Edward Ives (October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954) was an American modernist composer. He is one of the first American composers of international renown, though Ives’ music was largely ignored during his life, and many of his works went unperformed for many years. Over time, Ives came to be regarded as an “American Original”. Ives combined the American popular and church-music traditions of his youth with European art music, and was among the first composers to engage in a systematic program of experimental music, with musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatoric elements, and quarter tones, foreshadowing many musical innovations of the 20th century.
Sources of Ives’ tonal imagery are hymn tunes and traditional songs, the town band at holiday parade, the fiddlers at Saturday night dances, patriotic songs, sentimental parlor ballads, and the melodies of Stephen Foster.
Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874, the son of George Ives, a U.S. Army bandleader in the American Civil War, and his wife Mary Parmelee. A strong influence of Charles’s may have been sitting in the Danbury town square, listening to his father’s marching band and other bands on other sides of the square simultaneously. George Ives’ unique music lessons were also a strong influence on Charles; George Ives took an open-minded approach to musical theory, encouraging his son to experiment in bitonal and polytonal harmonizations. It was from his father that Charles Ives also learned the music of Stephen Foster. Ives became a church organist at the age of 14 and wrote various hymns and songs for church services, including his Variations on ‘America’.
Ives moved to New Haven in 1893, enrolling in the Hopkins School, where he captained the baseball team. In September 1894, Ives entered Yale University, studying under Horatio Parker. Here he composed in a choral style similar to his mentor, writing church music and even an 1896 campaign song for William McKinley. On November 4, 1894, Charles’s father died, a crushing blow to the young composer, but to a large degree Ives continued the musical experimentation he had begun with George Ives.
At Yale, Ives was a prominent figure; he was a member of HeBoule, Delta Kappa Epsilon (Phi chapter) and Wolf’s Head Society, and sat as chairman of the Ivy Committee. He enjoyed sports at Yale and played on the varsity football team. Michael C. Murphy, his coach, once remarked that it was a “crying shame” that Charles Ives spent so much time at music as otherwise he could have been a champion sprinter. His works Calcium Light Night and Yale-Princeton Football Game show the influence of college and sports on Ives’ composition. He wrote his Symphony No. 1 as his senior thesis under Parker’s supervision.