Charles Ives: Selected Songs

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

  • “Songs My Mother Taught Me”
  • “Charlie Rutlage”
  • “At the River”
  • “The Circus Band”

When he wasn’t composing, Charles Ives worked as a New York insurance executive, his business colleagues having little idea what he was working on in his spare time. In fact, hardly anyone knew what he was composing, since he didn’t pursue performances—instead, he would occasionally hire musicians to try out his pieces in private, and they were often confused by his dissonant harmonies and collage-like use of popular tunes. In the 1920s Ives finally began to promote his completed pieces, and stopped writing new ones altogether (sometimes revising past work to appear more modern, claiming to have been ahead of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky). In 1922 he self-published 114 Songs, a collection of nearly all the solo vocal music he had ever written. In the book’s afterword, he explained:

The printing of this collection was undertaken primarily, in order to have a few clear copies that could be sent to friends who, from time to time, have been interested enough to ask for copies of some of the songs; but the job has grown into something different,—it contains plenty of songs which have not been and will not be asked for. It stands now, if it stands for anything, as a kind of “buffer state,”—an opportunity for evading a question, somewhat embarrassing to answer,—“Why do you write so much—, which no one ever sees?” There are several good reasons, none of which are worth recording.

“Songs my Mother Taught Me” dates to 1895, while Ives was a student at Yale, and uses a Czech poem by Adolf Heyduk (translated by Natalie Macfarran), which had previously been set by Antonín Dvořák. “Charlie Rutlage” is a cowboy elegy, based on a text collected by John Lomax (father of Alan), with a middle that collapses into typically Ivesian cacophony. “At the River,” from 1916, is an arrangement of a hymn by the preacher Robert Lowry, which Ives had previously adapted for his Fourth Violin Sonata. “The Circus Band” is a funny song that riffs on the sounds and scenes of a parade.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.