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Charles Ives


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Charles Ives (1874-1954) was the first great composer of American serious music (though he would have hated that phrase) and also, paradoxically, a pioneer in the nascent life insurance industry around the turn of the century, whose approaches are still known and followed. Inspired by his bandmaster father, he sought always to hear more acutely and to render a music at once popular and profound; and in his experiments with atonality and polyrhythms, he long anticipated the discoveries for which European masters like Schoenberg and Stravinsky are renowned. In his later years, as his own creative gifts faded, he lavished much of his considerable wealth on the promotion of his own, and others', music‘as long as it wasn't "sissy" music, by which he meant anything too soothing to the ear. The perceived performance difficulty of much of his work, and its very different sound from what audiences were accustomed to, meant that his life was almost over before he began to be appreciated as a master, a profoundly American original. Swafford, himself a composer as well as a superb writer, has worked brilliantly on Ives's behalf: the depth of his research, his insights and his constant empathy have brought the old curmudgeon (and to many modern eyes, Ives must seem an absurdly anachronistic figure) to vivid life, at once a comic and a tragic figure‘and in terms of his significance in American artistic life, on the level of Twain or Whitman. Photos not seen by PW. (Mar.)

In the past ten years, two excellent biographical studies of Ives have been published (Stuart Feder, Charles Ives: "My Father's Song," Yale Univ., 1992; Peter Burkholder's Charles Ives: The Ideas Behind the Music, Yale Univ., 1985). Here Swafford, a composer long fascinated with the music of Ives, has contributed an outstanding addition to this recent rekindling of scholarly interest. In the author's words, this is an "Ivesian" biography in the sense that the life and music are inextricably interwoven. In many ways, the book does resemble a work of Ives. It is sprawling, rich with fascinating details, quirky, opinionated (though the author is careful to identify his own speculations), and very appealing. The opening paragraph, for example, consists of one 203-word sentence that paints a colorful, Romantic portrait of the Ives homestead in Danbury, Connecticut, in a manner that will remind readers of Ives's own tonal landscapes. Though the book is written in very inclusive language, musicians will appreciate the occasional technical references contained in the endnotes‘a fascinating section in itself. Highly recommended.‘Larry A. Lipkis, Moravian Coll., Bethlehem, Pa.

"First-rate. . . . Thoughtful, witty, instructive, this is one of the best biographies in recent memory, as warm and strangely inspiring as the man and the music it describes." -- Newsweek
"Starred Review. A superb writer. . . . [Swafford has] brought the old curmudgeon . . . to vivid life, at once a comic and a tragic figure and in terms of his significance in American artistic life, on the level of Twain or Whitman." -- Publishers Weekly

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