On Ives – 3

April 19, 2009 at 2:57 pm 2 comments

Mr. Thompson’s final question:

Would you say that Ives’s revisions were towards a “finished work”, or would you place Ives as a composer stuck in between the romantic tradition of “Great Composer”s with Great Completed Works (i.e Beethoven and Wagner, who he compares himself to in the memos), and the twentieth century distrust of the notion of completeness, probably reaching its summation in the death of the author theory.

I think one of the reasons that Ives continues to haunt — frustrate? — us is that his output as a whole resists most blanket statements. He holds an important liminal status within the American music canon, summarizing and synthesizing trends in both Europen and American music in important ways. In retrospect (since history is, by definition, in retrospect), he looms large in American composition until at least the rise of Minimalism (and continues to do so for composers like Elliott Carter and John Adams).

That being said, I think it is easy to overstate Ives’s influence on what came after him in general, and indeterminacy in particular. Yes, he liked revising things, and yes, people like George Roberts remember him laughing at publishers who wanted him to just finish works like the Concord Sonata. But indeterminacy arose out of a complex constellation of cultural causes (including Cage’s interactions with Boulez in the 1950s, beautifully captured in Nattiez’s edition of their correspondence), and simply drawing a line from Ives to (perhaps) Cowell to Cage and beyond oversimplifies a bit.

As for Barthes’s notion of the Death of the Author being the “outcome” somehow of Ives’s revisions … I don’t know. I’m not a specialist on poststructuralism, but I think that Ives had his feet firmly enough planted in both European and American traditions of the 19th century that this would be a tricky line to trace. Also, if I remember my Barthes correctly, it is a lot about avoiding mapping an author’s biography onto a work to arrive at a meaning for said work. But this is problematic for Ives because so much of his music seems to invite precisely such an approach (is anyone going to argue that “Two Little Flowers” really has nothing to do with his daughter?).

So I guess my answer to this question is that I would like to challenge the premise of the question itself (see Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, v. 1, xxvii for a superb critique of musicological binarisms). I don’t think Ives has to be either one way or the other – and it precisely this tension — not to mention the incredible beauty of his best works — that is part of his enduring appeal.

Entry filed under: musicology, Uncategorized.

More on Ives – Day 2 Echoes of Ellington @ UT-Austin, Day #1


  • 1. Joe  |  April 19, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Thanks a lot Drew for answering those questions! These blog entries have been really helpful!

  • 2. Drew Massey  |  April 20, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Sure thing! You can see that the 129 songs did make an appearance in the second post, after all….


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