“I have so many fair dreams and hopes about music in these days. It is a gospel whereof the people are in great need.” Charles Ives (1874-1954)
The perception of music as a gospel, an undeniable truth, a cleansing for our souls, and an exercise for our minds, is the perception Charles Ives brought to life in his compositions. He took the music that represents the fabric of our everyday lives and wove it into his own unique form of expression. In doing so, Ives created music that is American to the core.
Here, for example, is his "Variations on 'America'":
During my years in music school, I studied not only Ives’ compositions, but also various aspects of his life. Ives stood out in my mind as ‘the composer who worked for an insurance company.’ In his case, it was The Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York (MONY).
I worked at MONY as well when my career at New York City Opera was derailed by a financial shutdown in the early 80s. (In another coincidence, Ives had been the organist at Central Presbyterian Church in New York, where I was a vocalist for many years. I seemed to be following him around Manhattan, albeit decades later.)
My MONY career began as secretary to the head of Corporate Communications. It turned out to be a fortuitous job for me, as my boss quickly figured out I could write and assigned me numerous fascinating assignments, including writing about Ives.
As a young musician, it was incongruous to me that a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer was, in fact, an extremely successful businessman. Insurance, not composition, was the way he made a living and supported his family. This was difficult for an idealistic young musician to come to terms with. How could Ives, who was considered a musical pioneer, have pursued composition on a part-time basis? Why was he not consumed with a passion for music that transcended any desire for stability and personal wealth? Where was the starving composer who sacrificed everything in pursuit of his art? His life didn’t seem romantic. It was downright dull.
Certainly, it was a disappointment to discover that the man behind the music I so dearly loved was a mere mortal who worked for an insurance company.
And yet, as I later approached the life of Charles Ives, no longer a student, but a person who contributes to the support of a family, a musician who strives to find a balance between business and art, and another mere mortal who worked for an insurance company, I am aware of the profound statement Ives’ life was. He epitomized American creativity, not only in the sound of his music, but in the quality and nature of his ideals.
Father Knows Best
These ideals were instilled in Charles from an early age by his father, George Ives. A highly-skilled musician himself, George had the rare distinction of being the youngest bandmaster in the Union Army. There is record that General Ulysses S. Grant remarked to President Lincoln, “It’s the best band in the Army, they tell me.”
George Ives laid the foundation for the musical road Charles would travel. When working with his son on musical matters, George continually devised exercises to stretch his son’s musical abilities. He believed that “not every dissonance needs to be resolved.” He developed in Charles an awareness not only for the music that permeates our daily lives, but an appreciation for the inner expression that music is. When George was once asked, “How can you stand to hear old John, the stonemason, bellow off-key the way he does at camp meetings?” His answer was, “Old John is a supreme musician. Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don’t pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music.”
Charles developed an accepting ear that welcomed dissonance and cacophony. He cultivated an ability to hear beauty and harmony in conflicting sounds and tonalities. “Beauty in music,” Ives wrote, “is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us and, for that reason, we are inclined to call them beautiful.”
Musical training aside, George Ives also influenced his son in his career choices and felt that a man “could keep his music interest stronger, cleaner, bigger, and freer if he didn’t try to make a living out of it.” This philosophy was accepted by Charles, who later said, “If a man has a certain ideal he’s aiming at in his art, and has a wife and children whom he can’t support, should he let his family starve and keep his ideals? No, I say, for if he did, his ‘art’ would be dishonestly weakened and his ideals would be vanity.” So Ives pursued a business path and reserved composing for evenings and weekends.
Ives & Company
Providentially, a relative of Ives’ was a medical examiner for MONY, where Ives was welcomed into the Actuarial Department. It was soon clear that Ives was not a born actuary, though he remained grateful for this firsthand experience in insurance fundamentals. He transferred to a local agency and his first assignment was to stand in for a young clerk named Julian Myrick.
Ives and Myrick clicked and prospered right from the start. They quickly established their own agency, initially called Ives and Company, then later changed to Ives & Myrick. They had such high ideals that fiasco was predicted, but soon they were outpacing all their competitors.
Ives approached selling life insurance with creativity and zeal. It was a perfect challenge for his creative imagination. He believed the sale of insurance should be patterned to the needs of the individual, considering the total personal and financial picture — a concept that to this day brings him recognition as the father of “estate planning.”
He set up a school for underwriters and taught his agents that there’s “too often more stress on the psychology of a sale than on the science of it. There is an over-appeal to the weakness of the average personality and an under-appeal to the strength of the average mind.”
Ives felt strongly about life insurance and considered his profession one that made a profound difference. He said, “The great majority of men today know that a life insurance policy is one of the definite ways of society for toughening its moral muscles, for equalizing its misfortunes, and hence, supplying a fundamental instinctive want. Because this is now appreciated, the normal mind today knows that to carry life insurance is a duty.”
Victim of His Culture
Ives is often criticized as being a victim of his culture, philosophies, and beliefs. Some feel his attachment to certain American values and institutions was so complete and literal as to narrow and stifle his career as a creative artist. Many Ives scholars maintain that he rejected his role as an artist and was thus a man hopelessly divided against himself — divided between the demands of his business and the demands of his craft.
I choose to believe that Ives approached both music and business with the same creative spirit and moral conscience. I do not envision Ives as a man divided, but rather, as a man whose actions were aligned with his ideals. His efforts as a composer and as a businessman were equally fundamental to his pursuit of an American way of life.
During his lifetime, Charles Ives experimented with virtually every significant technique of “modern” composition many years before its use by even the most advanced European composers. In the field of insurance, his idea of integrating a person’s life insurance with his financial and family needs, his training school for agents, and his concept of estate planning, remain cornerstones of the insurance industry.
When I think on Charles Ives, I think of a man who is the essence of America — a freedom to pursue and express one’s creativity and ideals in diverse forums. This is a man who famously said, “In ‘thinking up’ music, I usually have some kind of brass band with wings on it in back of my mind.” Oh, what an image!
As we celebrate America’s independence, it is appropriate to reflect on the lives of those individuals who have made a profound impact on the heritage of our country. Charles Ives is one such individual. His life is wonderfully summed up in the words of composer Arnold Schoenberg:
“There is a great man living in this country — a composer. He has solved the problem how to preserve one’s self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Charles Ives.”Tweet
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