Charles Ives (1874-1954) was a composer and businessman from Danbury, Connecticut. He never made his living from his compositions, instead making a fortune in life insurance. The unusual nature of this dual life paralleled his music, which not only defied but brazenly toppled the conventions of his era. For instance, it is at times bitonal, often disjointed, and occassionally reflects the sound of two musical ensembles playing at the same time at a distance from each other. Ives’s music was largely ignored by all but a precious few fans during his lifetime. However, his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Symphony no. 3 made the music world begin to take him seriously. He has posthumously attained a reputation as among the finest of all American composers of all time.
Ives scholar Jan Swafford summarizes Ives’s influence and importance thusly:
For all his singularity, the Yankee maverick Charles Ives is among the most representative of American artists. Optimistic, idealistic, fiercely democratic, he unified the voice of the American people with the forms and traditions of European classical music. The result, in his most far-reaching work, is like nothing ever imagined before him: music at once unique and as familiar as a tune whistled in childhood, music that can conjure up the pandemonium of a small-town Fourth of July or the quiet of a New England church, music of visionary spirituality built from the humblest materials–an old gospel hymn, a patriotic tune, a sentimental parlor song. The way in which Ives pursued his goal of a democratic art, and his career of creating at the highest level of ambition while making a fortune in the life insurance business, perhaps could only have happened in the United States. And perhaps only there could such an isolated, paradoxical figure make himself into a major artist.
This is just the beginning of Swafford’s fabulous short biographical essay on Ives, which can be found here.
Swafford’s essay is just a taste of the treasure trove of information available at the Charles Ives Society website.
More on Ives from Wikipedia.
Biography with a link to an essay about the influence of Ives’s father, George, a local bandmaster.
One more biographical essay from essentialsofmusic.com
Ives wrote Variations on America at age 17 when he was the organist for a local church. Despite its early origin, it still contains many characteristics of the Ives sound: unapologetic bitonality, themes of patriotism, some sense of playfulness and optimism. American composer and Lincoln Center president William Schuman transcribed the original organ work for orchestra in 1962, after which it was transcribed for band in short order by William Rhoads.
A concise program note on the orchestral version.
The University of Michigan Concert Band plays Variations on America.
The original organ version performed by flamboyant organ virtuoso Virgil Fox: