Posted by: rbbadger | January 25, 2009

Charles Ives, Variations on America

America has long had its mavericks and revolutionaries.  In the field of music, we find names such as Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Harry Partch.  But the grandaddy of them all was Charles Ives (1874-1954).  Ives experimented with just about everything that the 20th century composers experimented with.  He used polytonality before Milhaud (polytonal music uses several keys at the same time), complex polyrhythms before Stravinsky, experimented with atonality about the same time that Schoenberg was experimenting with it in Vienna, used chance as an element of composition before Cage, and much more.  He minored in music Yale where he studied with Horatio Parker, a composer who would have been utterly horrified at the things his young student was interested in doing.  For much of his musical career, he was almost entirely unknown.  By day, he worked in an insurance company where he later amassed a respectable fortune.  By night and on the weekends, he composed a large amount of music, most of which went unplayed during his life.  It was too daring for the times and most audiences today would have trouble coping with it even now.  There are some works, such as The Unanswered Question for orchestra, the Symphony No. 2, and the Variations on “America” for organ which are well known.  The Variations are now better known in their orchestral form, having been orchestrated by William Schuman, himself a fine American composer. 

It was only in about the 1930s that Ives’ work began to be known.  When his Third Symphony was premiered, his wife simply could not believe that a work of her husband’s was actually being applauded.  Ives won the Pulitzer Prize in music, a prize he disdained.  Being quite wealthy at the time, he gave the money away saying “prizes are for boys and I’m all grown up”.  Ives really did not care what people thought of him or his music.  In so many ways, he personifies the “rugged individual” type of person that America seems to cherish.  Yes, it is challenging music, but it is very, very American.  Ives often liked to use popular American music of his time, hymns, patriotic songs, and so forth in his works.  In speaking of the Variations, Ives said, “It is ‘America’ NOT ‘God Save the Queen’!”.

The great American organists E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox both championed the Variations on “America“.  I must warn you that Ives had a strange sense of humour, something which is evident in this work and in his Symphony No. 2.  Indeed, who else but Ives would write one of the most magnificent and beautiful of all American  symphonies, a work that is orthodox in every way and end it with one of the most terrifically ugly chords around?  In the last movement of the symphony, allusions to all the preceding movements are made and the whole thing finally builds up to a terrific climax where we hear “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean”.  And the climax continues to build up even more to where we are certain that the work is likely to end soon.  And as it goes through the motions of the final bars where out of nowhere we hear a chord containing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale (all the white and black notes). And on that orchestral raspberry, the symphony ends.

So, here is Virgil Fox performing on his Rodgers touring organ (alas it is electronic) Charles Ives’ Variations on “America”.  As far as electronic organs go, this isn’t bad for the 1970s.  But the clothing is bad for any decade.



  1. WOW…nobody has enough fingers to play all twelve notes! I loved watching his feet towards the ending! Ummm…the clothes…purple & gold? orange? Very nice! Hmm…. Don’t you wish you had a suit like that? AND a touring organ? Do you ever get a chance to play one there? Mendi Parker has the old organ from Vernon Branch in her house!

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