CHARLES IVES by Jan Swafford


A Life with Music
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 A decent, thoughtful, and idealistic biography of American music's radical idealist. Judged by the first criterion of musical biography--does it make us want to listen to the music?--this portrait of ``Charlie'' Ives must be counted a success. Yankee bandmaster's son, Yalie, rebel modernist, insurance executive, and Romantic visionary who spent the last quarter-century of his life retouching a ``Universe'' symphony that was never completed to his satisfaction: The outline of the story is familiar to readers with a general interest in 20th-century American music. Swafford's personal slant is frankly to admit his own sympathy with the social progressivism that underlay Ives's approach to both his art and his go-getting business career. Unlike the psychobiographers who have been attracted to Ives (see Stuart Feder's Charles Ives, ``My Father's Song''), Swafford has no interest in probing Ives's weaknesses. He is receptive to, rather than critical of, the expansive, can-do, ``universalist individualism''--a legacy from the 19th-century Transcendentalists whom Ives ``portrayed'' in the Concord Sonata- -which shaped Ives's beliefs about family, marriage, career, and artistic output. Since the author owns to this empathetic approach to his subject, the reader is readier to pardon the occasional gushing quality of Swafford's prose and some questionable, frankly subjective music judgements (e.g., The Unanswered Question is not a work of Ives's musical maturity). To his credit, Swafford has done a good job of setting out the gratifying story of how Ives's music was championed and actively promoted by other composers and musical leaders, including Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Leonard Bernstein, and Leopold Stokowski. A conscientious, intellectually honest sifting of the plentiful evidence, though undoubtedly not the last word on its subject.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-393-03893-9
Page count: 450pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1996


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