Charles Ives: Aphorist

Charles Ives, ca. 1913 (Wikimedia Commons)

Last semester, I had the pleasure of taking a semester-long survey of the life and works of Charles Ives with John Heiss, a New England Conservatory elder statesman with an encyclopedic knowledge of Ives's music. My term paper was an 1800-word late-night ramble on Ives's idiosyncratic writing style in "Essays Before a Sonata," particularly regarding his penchant for aphorism, epigram, and apothegm. I thought I'd share it here.

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Charles Ives and Aphorism

“Read where you will, each sentence seems not to point to the next but to the undercurrent of all” 
— Charles Ives, Essays Before a Sonata (xvii)
Charles Ives was a master aphorist. A skill that was possessed by a select few in the history of letters, aphorizing is a combination of wit, insight, and poetic disposition. This tendency toward aphorism and proverb in Ives’s prose is perhaps not unrelated to his tendency toward quotation in his musical compositions. The mnemonically adhesive quality of quotation—the resonant, familiar “ear worms” of catchy tunes—is strikingly similar to the evocative, literally memorable aphorisms in Ives’s prose.
In the vein of Ives’s philosophy that all aspects of life are interrelated, I will survey the use of aphorism and proverb in Ives’s prose, specifically in his monumental, deeply personal work on aesthetics, Transcendentalism, and music composition, Essays Before a Sonata*.  By examining how he deploys aphorisms to achieve rhetorical goals and how they function in their respective contexts, I hope that such a study will provide insight into an aspect of Ives’s mind that is extramusical yet clearly not unrelated to his musical tendencies.

Ives’s principally enters the proverbial register to bolster his arguments with disarmingly evocative one-liners. Although he often tends toward discussions of the abstract in Essays (e.g., during his extended meditation on the difference between manner and substance in art), he strategically deploys concrete images to illustrate his points in a persuasive fashion that abstract reasoning does not easily access. In defending Emerson against contentions of incoherence or disunity in his work, Ives writes, “A home-run will cause more unity in the grand stand than in the season’s batting average,” suggesting that isolated moments of coherence do not necessarily reflect coherence on the whole, and vice-versa: lack of apparent coherence in isolated moments does not reflect incoherence on the whole (xx). In the same section on Emerson, he cautions against overvaluing the intellect, writing, “A sailor with precious cargo doesn’t analyze the water,” suggesting that Emerson, in carrying his insights into the universal within him, need not sully those insights with the mind (xx).

The previous two examples by Ives illustrate his facility for imbuing everyday experience with symbolic meaning; he just as easily, however, aphorizes in the abstract. The unembellished declarative statement is a hallmark of Ives’s prose—the elimination of manner for the sake of substance—and in the same section he writes in defense of Emerson: ““Vagueness, is at times, an indication of nearness to a perfect truth” (xx). This kind of authoritative tone is heard throughout Ives’s music, e.g., whenever he quotes from American-derived source material (hymns, folk tunes, etc.), and it’s this aura of authority that convinces the listener to keep listening rather than dismiss these baldly referential assertions as meaningless.

Throughout Essays, Ives writes with a confident authority that invites contemplation and possibly dissension, but never indifference; for instance, in defending Thoreau against his detractors, he states simply, “…it is easier to make a statement than prove a reputation” (xxxi). A sense of lived experience is conveyed through these kinds of assertions, which is perhaps related to the vital quality of Ives’s music in works like The Fourth of July or the first movement of Symphony No. 3 (“The Camp Meeting”), where impressions and perceptions of American life inform and inspire the sonic narratives that unfold.

Although Ives’s tone throughout Essays is dignified and far more impersonal than in Memos, he still manages to leaven his reflections with the distinctly humorous, irreverent wit that tinges his music. There are instances where his train of thought gestures toward the absurd while maintaining the same clarity of argument, e.g., he analogizes how Emerson avoids the mistake of valorizing mind over matter with the following: “He is not like the man who, because he couldn’t afford both, gave up metaphysics for an automobile, and when he ran over a man blamed metaphysics” (xxii). This proverbial construction with an unnamed man (whom one might speculate to be a distant relative of Rollo, who remarkably goes unmentioned in the Essays) recurs again in another humorously memorable line, this time warning against the gluttony of indulging in unnecessarily grand instrumentation: “ A man may become famous because he is able to eat nineteen dinners a day, but posterity will decorate his stomach, not his brain” (xxxix).

In the same section, Ives also decries the practice of conceiving musical ideas concurrently with instrumentation, arguing that musical ideas should be allowed to fully form in their pure, impractically conceived state before being fitted to the demands of real world performance. Like the example of the man who mistakenly chooses between metaphysics and the automobile, the example Ives gives to illustrate his point bends the banal into an absurd but insightful teaching moment: “The waiter brings the only fresh egg he has, but the man at breakfast sends it back because it doesn’t fit his eggcup” (xxxviii).

The point that Ives demonstrates in these three examples is one that is similarly reflected in his music: humor, when tastefully employed in a manner that is honest to one’s personality, does not cheapen or vulgarize serious work, but instead enriches and makes the message more impressive, more memorable. This is directly related to his defense of Emerson, as these isolated moments of humor and wit may seem discontinuous with the Essays as a whole, but actually reflect a deeper truth: that humor and wit serve the same end of conveying the substance of Ives’s writing as his loftier, more abstruse claims.

In addition to defending the thinkers and figures who inspired the movements of the Concord Sonata, Ives also interpolates several amusing criticisms of artists whose work does not serve as a model of substance over manner. The one-liner, compact and therefore potent, is an ideal medium for these subtle digs, which pass by in the span of a sentence. As Ives valorizes Beethoven, he just as quickly insults Strauss with a simple distinction: “Strauss remembers, Beethoven dreams” (xxxix). These simple binary distinctions are an organizing principle elsewhere in the Essays, e.g., manner versus substance, mind versus matter, incoherence versus unity, dissonance versus consonance; and he uses them not to demonize one or the other, but instead to make more nuanced claims about the complex relations inherent in these binaries and how to identify such relationships in the world, including between Beethoven and Strauss.

Strauss is not the only composer to earn Ives’s well-expressed contempt; Tchaikovsky, one of the four “Romantic heroes” referenced (and parodied) in the third movement of his Piano Trio, also receives an Ivesian slight. He explains, “Some claim for Tchaikowsky that his clarity and coherence of design is unparalleled (or some such word) in works for the orchestra. That depends, it seems to us, on how far repetition is an essential part of clarity and coherence” (xliv). Ives himself is fond of repeating certain quotations, of course, but always furnishes them with novel contexts that keep monotony and boredom at an arm’s length, so he goes on, “We know that butter comes from cream—but how long must we watch the ‘churning arm!’” (xliv). Like the earlier examples of the home run and the sailor, cream churning into butter is transformed from the mundane into the profound through careful recontextualization of experience.

At several points in Essays, Ives warns against the temptation of “easy unity” (xx), or of shallow coherence (as in Tchaikovsky) whose pleasurable, easily grasped form serves as a distraction from its lack of substance. He opines, “…beauty is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair” (xliii). Ives’s work is clearly the opposite of music that grants the ears such pale domestic comforts: at times seemingly impenetrably dense and at other times apparently formless upon a first listening, his work often demands repeated listening and different reorientations to the sonic landscapes on the part of the listener. Similarly, not all of his aphorisms are as facile or readily parsed as the above examples; like some of his most challenging music, Ives sometimes seems to write with the intent of composing something that actively resists interpretation.

Such a stance is not inconsistent with his self-avowed universalism, which embraces paradox and contradiction, including simultaneous clarity and obscurity. In pondering the limitations of program music, Ives turns to visual media to further interrogate the relationship between artist, art work, and audience: “A painter paints a sunset—can he paint the setting sun?” (xxxiii). The riddle hinges on a subtle but essential distinction: whether such particular intentions on the part of the artist can be detected by the audience, which, if impossible in the visual arts, would likely prove even less likely in the non-semiotic medium of organized sound.

At times, clarity of meaning seems less of a priority to Ives than suggestion and the rupturing of linear thought. As in his music, his prose can create unanswered questions that justify their existence by opposing the conventional—by representing the other side of an issue and thereby providing a wholeness (Ives’s universal). Such a perspective is given in his defense of Brahms, whom detractors accuse of muddy orchestration, to which Ives responds: “The mud may be a form of sincerity which demands that the heart be translated, rather than handed around through the pit” (xix). Even in context, the logic of Ives’s thoughts in these moments of obscurity prove challenging—almost as though they were intentional non sequiturs, or else thoughts that sit obliquely across from the primary reasoning of a given passage. In discussing the challenges of understanding Emerson, Ives cryptically writes: “Intense lights—vague shadows—great pillars in a horizon are difficult things to nail signboards to” (xx)**. 

The prose style of Charles Ives is marked by a penchant for the aphoristic, the proverbial, and the epigrammatic. As he shows in the numerous examples given above, the power and versatility of a single well placed, resonant sentence is unmatched: he can turn the everyday into a symbolic illustration, deftly chide other artists, provoke laughter, and invite contemplation into the opaque or the puzzling. Although he never saw himself as a particularly talented student, his command over language reflects many of the same characteristics in his command over sound, including a homespun sensibility about how to get ideas and feelings across and a memorable if not instantly identifiable sense of personal style.

Having explored this major aspect of Ives’s prose expression, it would seem only fitting to end with this aphorism of his as a parting thought:

“Expression to a great extent is a matter of terms and terms are anyone’s” (xv).


*All page numbers in this essay refer to the 2012 Dover edition of Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord,” With the Essays Before a Sonata (introduction by Stephen Drury).
**Notable also is Ives’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation: dashes in the previous example recall Emily Dickinson, and his use of commas seems expressively whimsical rather than strictly functional.


Aside from the assigned readings in Heiss's course (e.g., Vivian Perlis's Charles Ives Remembered), I haven't surveyed much of the secondary scholarship on Ives. Recently, I've been following Kyle Gann's blog and I'm looking forward to checking out his forthcoming book on the Concord Sonata.


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