Every walking tour adds something fresh to the now familiar streets of downtown New Haven and the old Yale campus. Today, Charles Ives provides the layer added to the history cake.
Who knew that the experimental composer and dour organist was actually a party-hardy type at Yale? Tracing his lineage to a New Haven founder William Ives, Charlie was a fourth generation Ives to attend the university, where he studied music. His father, a Civil War band leader, pushed him away from his athletic prowess toward his other passion for music, after his son broke his nose playing football. Charlie was a star pitcher and probably would have relished playing at Yale’s indoor baseball field. But he kept his word to his dad.
Perhaps you know Ives’s music well enough to remember the melancholy quality much of it has. Jim Sinclair, our guide and Orchestra of New England conductor, attributed this wistful tonality to the death of his father, just weeks after Charlie arrived at Yale.
Still, Charlie Ives was a popular, funny, frat boy, who joined a secret society, the Wolf’s Head, and generally made the most of Yale’s social life. He played ragtime and musical stunts on the piano. One I wish I could have heard was his 1897, two minute musical version of the Harvard-Yale football game, with Yale’s surprise victory. He wrote songs for the frat shows at the Hyperion, with the om-pah-pah drinking song “Pass the Can Along” becoming a crowd favorite.
Knowing this biography helps me understand how pop culture music made its way into his symphonic works, along with the familiar patriotic anthems his father must have played that wind through pieces like “Fourth of July.”
As you might imagine, Charlie wasn’t the best academically. Apparently, he was a “gentleman’s C,” meaning a D+ student. Just not where he genius lay.
Sports and music were his gifts. Ives was a professional organist by the age of 13, and when he arrived at Yale, he played for Center Church, founded along with New Haven in 1638. He had more freedom to experiment there than he did as a music student at Yale.
We were treated to one of his student compositions on the Church’s organ, two generations removed from the smaller and boxier one Ives played. The three minute “C Minor Fugue” seemed like it could have been written 200 years earlier, following all the traditional compositional rules. Nothing would indicate the kind of work he was to produce.
Tonight’s concert will feature Ives’s more playful college work, as well as fragments that survive, including one inspired by sunrise at East Rock.
For all his liveliness, Ives could be shy, too. He ventured with his fiance Harmony Twitchell to meet the parents in Hartford. Her father was friends with Mark Twain, as they had been innocents abroad together. So the family went to see the venerable author, sitting with him on his porch.
Twain recognized how uncomfortable Ives was and did nothing to ease the awkwardness. Instead he stared. Which only made things worse for Ives. Eventually, Twain reportedly said, “The fore’s okay. Let’s spin him around, and see the aft.”
The young couple transcended that memorable moment and grew old together.
Stories like this one turn the icon into a man. Jim concluded the tour by commenting on the “humanity that permeates the music” of Ives. With new insights on what can be difficult music, I hope to listen with new ears.