Born in 1874 to a prominent family in Danbury, Connecticut, Charles Ives was the archetypal American good son: the well-liked captain of his high school baseball team who went on to matriculate and run track at Yale. He worked as an actuary before founding one of the most successful insurance agencies in the United States, where he laid the foundations for estate planning practices still in use today. Many of his colleagues didn’t know that Charles Ives was also, in his spare time, one of the most brilliant and innovative composers of his era, privately pioneering avant-garde techniques years before his European contemporaries.
A quintessentially modernist composer, Ives rejected the status quo, culling influences from wildly disparate sources—European classical music, American folk and pop, ragtime, hymns—and shaped them into a fiercely original idiom that was uniquely American and uniquely his. His work broke irrevocably with tradition, incorporating polytonality as well as twelve-tone and atonal elements, quarter tones, and tone clusters. He experimented ceaselessly, often spending years revising a piece before it was finished, and most of his oeuvre went unpublished and unplayed for decades, though he achieved considerable renown in the years before his death.
This polished 2018 documentary by German director Anne-Kathrin Peitz—the first feature on the fascinating Ives—features interviews from admirers, musicians, musicologists, and family members. A beautifully representative selection of Ives’s work serves as the soundtrack, highlighting his idiosyncratic songs, as well as his early Variations on “America,” a virtuosic organ work he wrote at 17, already an iconoclast; the well-loved, transcendalist-inspired Concord Sonata, whose cluster chords call for a 15-inch wooden plank pressed across the keys; and the haunting Unanswered Question, in which strings and winds, sequestered from each other, attempt in vain to answer the “perennial question of existence” posed insistently by a solo trumpet. Both longtime fans and newcomers to Ives’s music will agree that his legacy is that of a true original, a composer who blazed a trail into the twentieth century and far beyond.