Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Jeremy Denk on Ives

Jeremy Denk has written a sympathetic and characteristically chatty review in the the New York Review of Books of Stephen Budiansky's new biography of Charles Ives, which I've read. I'm not sure who this Ransom Wilson is. I don't remember him from the book, he doesn't appear in the index, and it was the critic Tim Page, not Wilson, who, according to Budiansky, dismissed Ives as a "basement tinkerer" who knocked out "ditties" on Sundays (p. 15). (So, the Fourth Symphony and the Robert Browning Overture are "ditties." In thinking of those pieces, and so many more, the word never would have occurred to me.)  I suppose Denk went back to the article in the New York Times Budiansky cites in his notes and found Wilson's name there. In any event, I have never heard of him, and I imagine Ives will be remembered and argued about long after he and Tim Page are forgotten.

I'm also puzzled by Denk's statement that "Ives's music often falls flat in performance." I have heard many performances of Ives that were far from flat -- among them Denk's own, with Soovin Kim, of the four violin sonatas. It was such a wonderful evening I recall it easily after seven years -- though I am still not sold on Jeremy's recording of the Concord Sonata.

I'm note sure, either, how high the Concord towers over Elliott Carter's Piano Sonata. My own feeling in comparing the two (since you asked) is that Carter, overall, is the more accomplished, but there are moments in Ives -- for example, "Hanover Square North" -- that take me places no other composer since Beethoven has ever taken me. (Jeremy also has an irritating habit, somewhat common among Ives partisans, of making the case for Ives's greatness while at the same time backhandedly slighting  the music.)

I recommend anyone with an interest in Ives to read Budiansky's book. He's particularly good on the composer's health problems, and, mercifully, he avoids the imbroglio over the dating of Ives's compositions. (Maynard Solomon is never mentioned.) If I had a complaint, it would be that perhaps he spends too much time on the insurance industry and the  treatment of diabetes. Biographers seem to feel obligated to put all their background research on the page. If it stands out more in this book than it might in some others, however, it does so because the book is so admirably concise.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your interesting observations about my new biography of Ives, Mad Music, and Jeremy Denk's recent review in the New York Review of Books. I can clear up the mystery about Wilson vs. Page: Jeremy Denk was correct that I misstated the attribution of that dig about Ives being a "basement tinkerer." While that accusation against Ives does appear in a 1987 New York Times article by the critic Tim Page that I cite, it was an article in which Page invited a number of musicians to nominate the "most overrated" and "most underrated" composers, and it was one of those musicians, the flutist Ransom Wilson, whose words Page was in fact quoting. (This will be corrected in the second printing of my book).
But just to be clear, Page without a doubt agreed with those views himself. Page, a longtime music critic for the Times and the Washington Post, regularly referred disparagingly to Ives's songs as "ditties" and wrote in another 1987 review that he found most of Ives's compositions to be "sloppy and disjunct."
To me, that shows just a magnificent inability to even to begin to grasp what Ives was doing -- rather like complaining that Tolstoy's sentences were too long or Jackson Pollock's paintings showed a lack of symmetry.

On another note, I wonder if Jeremy Denk's passing comment about Ives's music "fall[ing] flat in performance" wasn't an allusion to Hilary Hahn's recent attempts to play the violin sonatas, in which she plays every note "nicely" without much of a clue as to what it is all supposed to be about. Denk notes that is it "hard for classically trained musicians to hover between popular and learned styles," which is exactly the problem with Hahn's performances.
-- Stephen Budiansky

Joe Barron said...

Golly, I didn't think anyone read this blog. I have to ask: did you find writing about Ives a depressing experience? I've found that reading about him can be. I've had that reaction to both your book and Gayle Sherwood's. (I got the feeling she didn't like him very much.) By the end of each I found myself growing unaccountably sad. Maybe it was the slow physical decline. Maybe it was the dementia, or the professional frustrations, or the suggestion that his music is so personal to him that listeners must inevitably fail to grasp it. It's mystifying: Ives had a successful marriage, a devoted daughter, and friends who stood by him all his life. People simply loved him. And yet with each new book, we delve ever more deeply into his failures and failings. It makes for a difficult course of study. Thanks for your comments.

Joe Barron said...

I'm not sure I would agree with Jeremy that it's "hard for classically trained musicians to hover between popular and learned styles." Ives was far from the first serious composer to incorporate popular idioms into his music. One needs a feel for jigs, marches, waltzes and laendler if one one is going to perform the classical repertoire with any real feeling. Perhaps, with Ives, the line musicians find hard to walk in is the one between prankishness and sublimity. (Haydn straddled that line, too, though perhaps he never juxtaposed the two as closely as Ives does.)

As for Ives's compositions being "disjunct" (what a pretentious word): I had a music professor years ago who comment once that if you cleaned Ives up, he wouldn't be Ives anymore.

Anonymous said...

You ask, re my Ives biography, "did you find writing about Ives a depressing experience?"
Not in the least, and this is coming from someone who can be as gloomy as the next writer. On the contrary, I hated to finish this project, I was having such a fine time having Ives as part of my life. He was such a fascinating study as a person, he led such an unusual creative life, and trying to understand what made him tick and where his incredible musical vision came from was always interesting. The tragedy of his life was all apiece with his genius — you can't separate them. But ultimately I come away incredibly inspired by the integrity, individuality, and deep humanism of the man. -- Stephen Budiansky

Johnny Reinhard said...

A similar trend is visible with new books about J.S. Bach, which seem to look for reasons to tear down his reputation. This phenomenon also reminds me of an old story about violinist Jascha Heifetz; Carnegie Hall audience members took scores of the music Heifetz would play to their seats. Their collective purpose was to discover a mistake in his playing, any mistake. But they never did. The issue is about genius and its transmission. Writers about Ives simply don't understand the bigger picture, preferring to angle up to him and to pour his essence as found into a premeditated vessel.