Monday, November 9, 2009
Charles Ives: A Let-Out Soul
By Brian Nixon
Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- I remember the first time I listened to one of Charles Ives’ compositions. I was sitting in my music appreciation class at Stanislaus University in Turlock, California (I went on to minor in music history). My professor, Robert Danzinger, played the piece, The Unanswered Question. I was transfixed. From that moment on I was hooked by the music of America’s most original composer.
If you are familiar with the music of Charles Ives, you either hate it or love it. Many people consider it “noise,” others, “genius.” I happen to be of the later disposition.
Charles Ives was born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut. Ives’ father—a civil war bandleader—greatly influenced Charles with his unorthodox approach to music. Charles went to Yale University, and wrote his Symphony No. 1 as his senior thesis. During his time at Yale, Ives was Church organist at Center Church, where he was able to experiment with some of his profound musical ideas.
Interestingly, Charles did not enter into the world of music; rather, he became a successful insurance executive at Ives & Myrick. To this day, many in the insurance business consider Ives the architect of modern estate planning.
Yet, it is his music he is best know for. And a name many in the Christian world should be familiar with.
Throughout his musical life (he composed at night after work), Ives drew from a rich Christian tradition, though unorthodox at times. Ives wrote hymns, choral music, and musical compositions heavily influenced by the New England Christian mores of his day.
In 1947, Ives received the Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3. The symphony is subtitled, “The Camp Meeting.” It has three movements: 1. Old Folks Gathering, 2. Children’s Day, and 3. Communion. The Symphony is a nostalgic look at a New England revival meeting of his youth, where people came to hear the sermon, watch people receive Christ, and partake of communion. Though the symphony is full of difficult harmonies, time meters and rhythms, it is a unique look at a Christian reality.
Describing the influence of his father and the hymns of his youth, Ives remembers, “I remember how the great waves of sound used to come through the trees when things like Beulah Land, Woodworth, Nearer My God to Thee, and In the Sweet Bye-and-Bye and the like were sung by thousands of ‘let-out’ souls… There was power and exaltation in these great conclaves of sound from humanity.”
As one astute writer has pointed out, “Charles Ives composed the highest form of art music, yet his inspiration was often the simple, moving music sung at the camp meetings he attended as a young man” (Wilson-Dickenson, 211).
The inattentiveness to Ives’ music didn’t seem to bother him much. Ives is quoted as saying, “But maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be transcendental language in the most extravagant sense.”
For Ives music represented the “transcendental language,” or put another way, the spiritual language of one’s soul. It was music he wrote for God.
55 years since Ives death in 1954, Christians should take notice of the music and the man who traveled his own path, used his gifts without much recognition from man, and continually sought the solace of the great hymns and gospel songs of his youth.
Like Johann Sebastian Bach, living over 270 years before Ives, recognition from God seemed to be the chief end of his musical endeavors. And like Bach, the music of Ives has the propensity to cause one to think, ponder, and, yes, praise God for the gift of music and creativity graciously bestowed upon humanity.
So let’s all be “let-out souls” when it comes to thanking God for His gifts, even to the point of “extravagant sense.”
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This story is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of the ASSIST News Service or ASSIST Ministries.