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Charles Ives and Me

Charles Ives and Me

    Near one of the Danbury CT exits on Rte 84 a sign invites travelers to visit the Charles Ives Museum nearby.  Many of you who read this essay may not know Charles Ives, even though Brittany and The Boss and Ringo may immediately identify other icons of music.  Charles Ives, a successful insurance broker in Manhattan, in his spare time wrote symphonies. His compositions are generally regarded by those who should know as the best ever created by an American.  Those of you who have heard Ives' music tend to be dismissive, because he's often atonal and full of clashing disharmonies.

    Tuesday night at the bandstand on the Valley Stream Village Green, the concert nearest to July 4th, the band would often play Ives' take on "America," in several musical styles.  At the opening concert of the Hartford Symphony we had third row from the front loge seats for the major work of the evening, Ives' Second Symphony.  If one listened carefully, one could hear musical snippets of Ives' Danbury upbringing as the son of a church organist: "Bringing in the Sheaves," "America the Beautiful," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "Joy to the World," "Old Black Joe," "Swanee River," and "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean."  Echoes of Dvorak, Wagner, and Brahms also sounded.  It contains "a kitchen sink" of melodies, as the musical director described the Second Symphony.  And the last chord of the thirty minute symphony rattled like pots and pans in the kitchen sink.  This burp of a benediction was typical of Charles Ives' iconoclasm and "in your face" attitude.

    But why do I trouble you, dear reader, with mention of Charles Ives on this remote corner of the Internet?  Because he has turned up in my life several times these past fifty years.

    In the fall of 1953, I went in pursuit of my pastoral duties to a home on Umpawaug Hill in West Redding CT, at the insistence of a parishioner in my first church, Luemily Ryder.  It was the summer home of Charles and Harmony (nee Twichell) Ives.  I sat in the living room parrying questions from Mrs Ives about John Wesley and how anyone could get up every morning at 4 AM and pray for hours.  The house didn't seem to be heated.  After several minutes, Charles Ives entered the room.  He was small of stature and quite frail.  But his eyes looked right through me.  When I said how pleased I was to meet him, he responded with something like, "Do you really mean that?"  I was twenty-one; he was seventy-nine. I had no understanding of how privileged I was, to come face to face with America's greatest composer, reclusive and difficult, and here I had a private audience.  Charles Ives died May 19, 1954, a few months after I met him. 

    The woman who arranged that meeting, the aforesaid Luemily Ryder, lives still, in the house next door to the Ives' summer place.  Lu is in her mid-nineties and is as sweet as ever, if short on long term memory.  She was quoted (from an interview years earlier) in the Hartford Symphony's program booklet by way of explaining how Charles Ives came to hear the Second Symphony performed for the first time, by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein's baton fifty years after its composition: "He [Charles Ives] came to our place after the Second Symphony premiere with Mrs. Ives to listen to it rebroadcast on the radio.  Mr. Ives sat in the front room and listened as quietly as could be, and I sat way behind him, because I didn't want him to think I was looking at him.  After it was over, I'm sure he was very much moved.  He stood up, walked over to the fireplace, and spat!  And then he walked out into the kitchen.  Not a word.  And he never said anything about it.  I think he was pleased, but he was silent. I was thrilled to think he came here to hear it.  It was my privilege."

    Not only did the Ives' house in West Redding have no central heating; it also had no radio.

    Luemily surely knew she was providing me with a memory I would keep for the rest of my life by arranging that pastoral visit in the Ives' home.  Last October I sat in a chair in front of the fireplace into which the composer spat.  But what Lu certainly did not calculate was the Ivesiana I have collected.

    Like the evening at Alice Tully Hall when the soloist sang a poem written by Harmony Ives and set to melody by husband Charles, celebrating the return to good health of their young daughter following a brush with an illness which almost took her life.  I wanted to stand up in that auditorium with a thousand others and tell them that I was there for that daughter's last illness when she and her husband occupied a cottage near the entrance to the summer house compound.

    A couple of years ago at a sumptuous buffet in a former castle in Portugal, I sat next to Charles Twichell and plied him with questions about the Ives.  Harmony was his aunt.  Charles Twichell couldn't have cared less; but his ex-wife filled me in on the connections and, with a touch of exasperation, allowed as how she couldn't understand why the Twichells seemed so vague and indifferent to their family's embrace of greatness.

    The first pastor of the local church where the twins now attend Church School was Joseph Twichell, Harmony's father, and father to Joe Jr., himself an ordained minister who served as something of a volunteer chaplain at Williams College during the years Barbara's father was an undergraduate.  The church contains a Twichell Room.  For me to enter it is to invoke memories of that Saturday afternoon fifty years ago in West Redding with Joe Twichell's daughter and her husband.

    I've never been one to seek out the rich and famous.  In fact, my inclination on seeing someone of star magnitude is to go in the other direction.  They have their lives to lead too, I think to myself, no point in me sidling up to them and telling them how much I do or don't admire them.  But sometimes stars cross one's path; and, maybe, in my time on earth the brightest star, polished to brilliance by those who never met him but who admire his genius, will turn out to be the very unprepossessing presence I found on Umpawaug Hill in West Redding CT in the late fall of 1953.

    Perhaps the angels in heaven will intersperse their playing of Bach and Mozart before the throne of God to play every now and then Charles Ives' Second Symphony.  If I get there, I'll put in a personal request.




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