The National Endowment for the Arts’ American Masterpieces: Choral Music initiative is designed to celebrate our national musical heritage by highlighting significant American choral composers and their works of the past 250 years. Stanton’s Sheet Music is proud to present this series highlighting the composers and their works featured in this groundbreaking project.
Charles Ives (1874-1954), born in Danbury, Connecticut, was a mild-mannered businessman by day and an unstoppable composer by night. Inspired by his father, who had experimented with quarter-tone music and polytonality decades before the “modern” composers, and by the transcendentalist philosophy of so many New England writers, Ives sought to write truly American music in a style divorced from the orthodox European traditions.
After graduating from Yale University he married and went into the insurance business, finding it in accord with his humanitarian impulses. Beginning in about 1922 his compositions began to circulate among interested musicians and gradually some of the works received performances and critical acclaim. In 1947 his Symphony No. 3 was awarded the Pulitzer Prize – 42 years after it was composed! (He gave the money away, commenting that “prizes are for mediocrity.”)
Despite Ives’s radicalism, much of his sacred choral music came from his early career, while he was still a church organist, and it tends to be conservative. The sacred cantata The Celestial Country could almost have been written by his Yale music professor, the staid Horatio Parker. The same can be said for most of his Psalm settings, yet they are all worth hearing if not fully characteristic of his musical philosophy. His wife said “Psalm 90” was the only one with which he was fully satisfied. Meanwhile the Three Harvest Home Chorales have had a vigorous concert career.
His secular choral works span his whole career. Many of these, however, are re-arrangements of his solo songs by himself or others. John J. Becker made the chorus and orchestra version of General William Booth Enters into Heaven, while Ives himself was responsible for Lincoln, the Great Commoner.