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Charles Ives: The US composer with an unusual insurance policy

ClassicTalk with George Hamilton


Two careers: Charles Ives is regarded as the founder of modern insurance practice

Two careers: Charles Ives is regarded as the founder of modern insurance practice

Two careers: Charles Ives is regarded as the founder of modern insurance practice

On this Fourth of July, the name Charles Ives deserves mention. This son of New England has his place in the annals of music. The magazine Gramophone explains it thus: he was "the first flexing of genuine American musical muscle".

Antonín Dvořák had been hired in the 1890s to help create a distinctive classical style for the United States and sought to base it on the spirituals and the music of the indigenous peoples of North America.

Ives saw nothing wrong in seeking inspiration in the sounds and rhythms - the hymns, the popular songs, the town band music - he was familiar with at home in the Connecticut of his youth in the late 19th century.

The Fourth of July meant a lot to Charles Ives. It's at the centre of a symphony called New England Holidays - four unconnected movements meant to bring to life four of the major public holidays in the US: Washington's Birthday (Presidents' Day), Decoration Day (the former name of Memorial Day), the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving.

Ives explained that each movement was meant to express a particular scene and feeling. So in 'The Fourth of July', for instance, you have what might be described as a recollection in sound of what it was actually like to be around on that day, complete with snatches of the music you would hear.

This is an aural portrait of the excitement a small boy (himself) on that public day out - general mayhem caught in music unlike anything anybody else had ever produced. The website charlesives.org notes its "chaotic vitality".

"I did what I wanted to," Ives wrote, "quite sure that the thing would never be played." It wasn't that he had a low opinion of what he was creating. He recognised its complexities, its very essence, its dissonance, how challenging it would be to perform. "Music about music," as the website puts it.

If his work is idiosyncratic, so too was his approach to life as a musician. Acknowledging that pursuing his art as he did was unlikely to endear him to the establishment, he recognised the difficulties that pursuit would pose. Should a composer have "a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let them starve on his dissonances?"

So this composer, who in one of life's delicious coincidences had a wife called Harmony, set about ensuring that she and their family would be well-looked-after.

He sacrificed his career as a performer - he was an organist - to take a job as an insurance clerk. He was not long making his mark.

He set up an agency with a partner, and in no time Ives and Myrick was the biggest in the US. It specialised in life insurance - a relatively new idea - and becoming forerunners in the field of estate planning.

Long days in the office followed by long nights writing music eventually took their toll, and his health went downhill. Ives wrote little after he turned 40, and it was only in later life that his music became more widely known, but not that widely.

At a dinner in the 1980s, the president of a large American insurance corporation was making small talk. "I read in our trade magazine that Charles Ives, whom we regard as the founder of modern insurance practice, was also a composer.

"Was he any good?" the businessman asked. Good enough to win a Pulitzer Prize.

George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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