Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Maps for a New Land: Frank R. Rossiter's Charles Ives & His America (1975)

“The quest for identity runs through American music like a leitmotif,” writes music critic Veronica Slater. “Long before musical nationalism became an issue in Europe, native-born composers in the New World were trying to speak with a voice recognizably theirs and theirs alone.” Americans, according to Slater, rebelled against the rules in both politics and music for good reason. They were after an indigenous art rooted in their own experience of the new land, not what they inherited from the Old World. The map of that rebellion and quest is aptly provided in Frank Rossiter’s rare and illuminating study of American composer Charles Ives in his book Charles Ives & His America (1975).

Born in 1874, in Danbury Connecticut, Ives had little patience for what Slater would call the “elegancies of late-18th-century music.” In the America he envisioned, European decorum had no place to park. According to Rossiter, Charles Ives was born into an America where the chasm between the “cultivating” arts and the “popular” arts was long and wide. Composers in the United States at that time were steeped in the European romantic sensibility that emphasized “the sublime and spiritually exalted in the arts,” as Rossiter puts it. This meant the cultural arbiters of taste in America wouldn’t draw their inspiration from their new roots, but from the Old World values of Handel, Haydn and Beethoven. By the time Ives arrived, American composers of classical music were either trained in European schools or by European teachers in America. In Charles Ives & His America, Rossiter explores how, before Ives, America was cut off from “the popular culture of their own country” because they lacked a tradition of art music comparable to Europe. When Charles Ives began composing, he found the American voice in its folk hymns, marching band music and its patriotic tunes. He radically transformed this popular musical vernacular into mutating soundscapes, as in his boldly dissonant “4th of July,” that used collage and asymmetrical rhythms.

Rossiter also clearly illustrates why Ives’ rebellion against European gentility took on an ebulliently harsh tone. (He called Chopin “soft…with a skirt on;” Mozart was “effeminate.) Like Ernest Hemmingway, Ives defined American art in the narrow terms of masculine assertion. But that was hardly accidental. Film editor and scholar Paul Seydor once asserted in his fascinating study of film director Sam Peckinpah (Peckinpah: The Western Films) that the “artistic revolt in America has…always been masculine in character, with its emphasis on hardness, clarity, simplicity, boldness, difficulty, exploration, independence and rebelliousness.” Since women were excluded from professional and prestigious positions in business, those in the upper classes turned to music for leisure and a livelihood. They embraced the cultivated music of Europe. Early in the 20th century, women made up the majority of audiences at operas and concerts, and the majority of music students, too, and even wrote most of what constituted music criticism. “Women became dominant in cultivated-tradition music because the European system of selecting out and educating a body of males to carry on artistic traditions had never caught hold in America,” Rossiter writes.“And as women’s dominance grew," he explains, "American men retreated from classical music as a threat to their masculinity.” In his work, including Three Places in New England and the Concord Sonata, Ives stripped cultivated music of its genteel attributes as he were unmasking the true American character – and, of course, freeing the country from its colonial past.

That Ives turned to music, though, created a profound conflict. “When other boys…were out driving grocery carts, or doing chores, or playing ball, I felt all wrong [staying] in and [playing] piano,” he wrote in his memoir Memos. If women had represented gentility, they still cultivated American arts and Ives’s revolt is partly an attack on the very foundations that created him. “[R]ebelling against the official culture an artist is necessarily going to find himself betraying or at least suppressing some of his deepest leanings towards art and expression,” continued Seydor about Peckinpah, an artist who certainly shared some of the same conflicts and ambition of Charles Ives.

However, Ives’s ruggedly masculine assertions didn’t grow out of misogyny. He took on gentility, not women. His radically bold work further illustrates that elegance is not part of the American character because the land, and the foundations on which the country was founded, are anything but harmonious and sweet. Ives believed that ruggedness was the only true response to the spiritual legacy of being an American. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his American Scholar (1837) that “our day of independence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. We have listened to long to the courtly muses of Europe…We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” Even if music would be one of the last American art forms to walk on its own feet, Charles Ives certainly heard the call to speak his own mind and gave voice to the living speech of the culturally disinherited.

For an Ives sampling:

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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