Charles Ives & Albert Einstein: Parallel Lives

I just noticed that today is the birthday of the great American modernist composer Charles Ives, who was born 141 years ago on this day. Some time ago I read The Life of Charles Ives by Stuart Feder, it’s a very interesting and informative biography of one of the strangest but most fascinating composers in the history of classical music so I thought I’d rehash an old piece I wrote about him to celebrate his birthday.

Charles Ives was by any standards a daring musical innovator. Some of his compositions involve atonal structures and some involve different parts of the orchestra playing in different time signatures. He also wrote strange and wonderful piano pieces, including some which involved re-tuning the piano to obtain scales involving quarter-tones. Among this maelstrom of modern ideas he also liked to add quotations from folk songs and old hymns which gives his work a paradoxically nostalgic tinge.

His pieces are often extremely diffficult to play (so I’m told) and sometimes not that easy to listen to, but while he’s often perplexing he can also be exhilarating and very moving. Other composers might play off two musical ideas against each other, but Ives would smash them together and to hell with the dissonance. I think the wholeheartedness of his eccentricity is wonderful, but I know that some people think he was just a nut.. You’ll have to make your own mind up on that.

My favourite quote of his can be found scrawled on a hand-written score which he sent to his copyist:

Please don’t try to make things nice! All the wrong notes are right. Just copy as I have – I want it that way.

But the point of adding this post to my blog was that in the course of reading the biography, it struck me that there is a strange parallel between the life of this controversial and not-too-well known composer and that of Albert Einstein who is certainly better known, especially to people reading what purports to be a physics blog.

For one thing their lifespans coincide pretty closely. Charles Ives was born in 1874 and died in 1954; Albert Einstein lived from 1879 to 1955. Of course the former was born in America and the latter in Germany. One inhabited the world of music and the other science; Ives, in fact, made his living in the insurance business and only composed in his spare time while Einstein spent most of his career in academia, after a brief period working in a patent office. Not everything Ives wrote was published professionally and he also rewrote things extensively, so it is difficult to establish exact dates for things, especially for a non-expert like me. In any case I don’t want to push things too far and try to argue that some spooky zeitgeist acted at a distance to summon the ideas from each of them in his own sphere. I just think it is curious to observe how similar their world lines were, at least in some respects.

We all know that Einstein’s “year of miracles” was 1905, during which he published classic papers on special relativity, Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect. What was arguably Ives’ greatest composition, The Unanswered Question, was completed in 1906 (although it was revised later). This piece is subtitled “A Cosmic Landscape” and it’s a sort of meditation on the philosophical problem of existence: the muted strings (which are often positioned offstage in concert performances) symbolize silence while the solo trumpet evokes the individual struggling to find meaning within the void. Here’s a fine recording of this work, featuring the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein:

The Unanswered Question is probably Ives’ greatest masterpiece, but it wasn’t the only work he composed in 1906. A companion piece called Central Park in the Dark also dates from that year and they are sometimes performed together as a kind of diptych which offers interesting contrasts. While the former is static and rather abstract, the latter is dynamic and programmatic (in that it includes realistic evocations of night-time sounds).

Einstein’s next great triumph was his General Theory of Relativity in 1915, an extension of the special theory to include gravity and accelerated motion, which which came only after years of hard work learning the required difficult mathematics. Ives too was hard at work for the next decade which resulted in other high points, although they didn’t make him a household name like Einstein. The Fourth Symphony is an extraordinary work which even the best orchestras find extremely difficult to perform. Even better in my view is Three Places in New England (completed in 1914) , which contains my own favourite bit of Ives. The last movement, The Housatonic at Stockbridge is very typical of his unique approach, with a beautifully paraphrased hymn tune floating over the top of complex meandering string figures until the piece ends in a tumultuous crescendo.

After this period, both Einstein and Ives carried on working in their respective domains, and even with similar preoccupations. Einstein was in search of a unified field theory that could unite gravity with the other forces of nature, although the approach led him away from the mainstream of conventional physics research and his later years he became an increasingly marginal figure.

By about 1920 Ives had written five full symphonies (four numbered ones and one called the Holidays Symphony) but his ambition beyond these was perhaps just as grandiose as Einstein’s: to create a so-called “Universe Symphony” which he described (in typically bewildering fashion) as

A striving to present – to contemplate in tones rather than in music as such, that is – not exactly within the general term or meaning as it is so understood – to paint the creation, the mysterious beginnings of all things, known through God to man, to trace with tonal imprints the vastness, the spiritual eternities, from the great unknown to the great unknown.

I guess such an ambitious project – to create an entirely new language of “tones” that could give expression to timeless eternity, a kind of musical theory of everything – was doomed to failure. Although Ives was an experienced symphonic composer he couldn’t find a way to realise his vision. Only fragments of the Universe Symphony remain (although various attempts have been made by others to complete it).

In fact, the end of Ives’ creative career was much more sudden and final than Einstein who, although he never again reached the heights he had scaled in 1915 – who could? – remained a productive and respected scientist until his death. Ives had a somewhat melancholic disposition and from time to time suffered from depression. By 1918 he already felt that his creative flame was faltering, but by 1926 the spark was extinguished completely. His wife, appropriately named Harmony, remembered the precise day when this happened at their townhouse in New York:

He came downstairs one day with tears in his eyes, and said he couldn’t seem to compose anymore – nothing went well, nothing sounded right.

Although Charles Ives lived almost another thirty years he never composed another piece of music after that day in 1926. I find that unbearably sad, but at least a lot of his work is available and now fairly widely played. Alongside the pieces I have mentioned, there are literally hundreds of songs, some of which are exceptionally beautiful, and dozens of smaller works including piano and violin sonatas.

Although they both lived in the same part of America for many years, I don’t think Charles Ives and Albert Einstein ever met. I wonder what they would have made of each other if they had?

If you believe in the multiverse, of course, then there is a part of it in which they do meet. Einstein was an enthusiastic violinist so there will even be a parallel world in which Einstein is playing the Ives’ Violin Sonata on Youtube…



10 Responses to “Charles Ives & Albert Einstein: Parallel Lives”

  1. I think it was Prokofiev who said, “Dissonance is like mustard; its great in soup, but no one should make a soup entirely out of mustard.” That is a half remembered paraphrase, but close enough.

    Like many people, I find the majority of Charles Ives’ music, un-listenable. That is to say, I have tried, but life is short. To me, the impression that I get is that he was a mathematician, who was focused on musical notes and their relationship. He may have been a genius, and probably was. I am not sure that his genius benefited humanity, and I am left wondering, if beauty does indeed matter, whether he harmed the world, even if only slightly.

  2. I really should have checked that quote of Prokofiev’s instead of paraphrasing it. His actual quote is much better, of course.

    “Of course I have used dissonance in my time, but there has been too much dissonance. Bach used dissonance as good salt for his music. Others applied pepper, seasoned the dishes more and more highly, till all healthy appetites were sick and until the music was nothing but pepper.”

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    This article reminds me that I should refamiliarise myself with the Ives symphonies. The Unanswered Question is a remarkable and profound piece of music.

    I can’t help drawing a parallel between the end of Ives’s productive work in the late 1920s and that of Sibelius at around the same time.

  4. telescoper Says:

    If I were ever chosen to go on Desert Island Discs I would pick The Housatonic at Stockbridge by Charles Ives, not least because it would annoy so many people!

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I had presumed that the title, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”, was a pun and that it was a musical portrait of a house, using atonality. But Wikipedia informs me that there is a Housatonic River.

    It would be a nice piece if it weren’t overlain atop that other one of the orchestra tuning up.

    Is that Freud in the pic?

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s very typical of Ives to juxtapose something familiar with something decidedly unfamiliar, often in different keys and with different time signatures.

      In this piece you hear a paraphase of Isaac B Woodbury’s hymn tune “Dorrance” floating across complex whirling figures that evoke the Housatonic river. The whole piece evokes Ives’ recollection of hearing singing from church drifting over the very same river.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        That’s the trouble – to Ives the swirling figures evoke the Housatonic River. To others, though, they just sound a mess. You don’t need to know what Bach had in mind when he wrote his music to enjoy it.

      • telescoper Says:

        It’s unfair to compare anyone with Bach, but in any case Bach’s music is not “programmatic” in the way that this piece is. I think it is quite remarkable how Ives manages to conjure up a recollection of a very specific evocation of place and atmosphere. It may not be easy listening, but I think it’s great music. And you don’t have to have seen the Housatonic at Stockbridge to understand what he’s saying about the nature of memory and experience.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Regardless of who the composers are, I’ve never agreed with Richard Strauss that if you have enough compositional skill then you can describe a pin dropping via music (I’ve not verified the quote) – in other words, music can in principle describe just about anything in such a way that the audience will recognise what is being described. I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic roles of words and music (which are, of course, capable of complementing each other gloriously). It can be done with the sea – I’m told that plenty of people who are played Debussy’s La Mer twig what it is about without knowing in advance – but just try it with an arbitrary noun from the dictionary.

  6. Martin Olson Says:

    Ives is also my favorite composer, Peter. I loved your thoughtful article on Ives and Einstein and send good wishes to you and your family.

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