There are very few composers of whom it can be said that they gave the world not just a new music, but a new kind of music – a phenomenon whose existence would otherwise have been impossible to predict, on the evidence of what had come before. Step forward Charles Edward Ives – bandmaster’s son from Connecticut, gifted athlete and sportsman, Yale University graduate, and insurance agent in the New York firm of Ives and Myrick. The still young American nation in the late 19th century had not yet built up a classical musical tradition that it could truly call its own. American concert halls and the repertory performed there were dominated by European example. So were American composers such as Edward MacDowell and Ives’s main teacher, Horatio Parker.

Ives changed this at a stroke, in the process coming up with an unprecedented brand of modernist radicalism. Yet he does not seem to have thought about his composing in terms of today’s fashionable mantras about ‘crossing boundaries’ or ‘breaking barriers’. If asked, his answer would surely have been along the lines of: ‘What boundaries? Why not just write down the music that you hear?’

Ives’s father George was a bandmaster and music teacher in the Connecticut town of Danbury. This New England corner of America had already given the world the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the novels of Mark Twain, and the philosophical writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Behind the work of several of these, and connecting with Puritan revivalist religious tradition, was the spirit of ‘American transcendentalism’. Emerson defined this as being about ‘the infinitude of the private man’ – the perception that God could be comprehended intuitively ‘here and now’, that a human soul was innately good and valuable, and appreciating how spiritual aspiration could happily co-exist with day-to-day living.

Surrounded by this rich local culture, young Charles grew up with cheerful ad hoc music-making. His father was a gifted working musician, neither fettered by burdensome concepts of ‘high art’ nor hostile to them. George Ives once divided his band into two contingents and had them marching round Danbury’s town green in opposite directions, just to hear what music could sound like when simultaneously played in different tempos and keys. The story may or may not be apocryphal – but effects like this feature prominently in the music that George’s exceptionally talented son was beginning to compose.

When not on the sports field at Yale University, Ives studied music there with Horatio Parker. The conservative teacher and adventurous pupil soon ran into irreconcilable difficulties over Ives’s experimental streak and his uninhibited interest in dissonant chords and bitonality. Parker’s teaching, however, meant that far from being some sort of primitivist, Ives became familiar with the musical tradition that his own creative instincts were leading him to bypass. From his teenage years he had also been a professional organist (starting at Danbury Baptist Church), and continued this on and off until his mid-thirties; he was also a fine pianist.

Despite these marketable skills, Ives did not commit to music as a full-time profession – a situation partly, but not fully, explained by the difficulty he knew he would have in getting his music performed at all, let alone taken seriously. In 1899 he took a job at a New York insurance agency. He was so successful in this that in 1907 he formed his own company, with an impressive income to match. Next year he married Harmony Twitchell, the sister of a friend from his time at Yale. Meanwhile, he composed in his spare time – so prolifically that a pile of manuscripts began to build up.

Dating most of Ives’s works is next to impossible: he would begin something, write a sizeable amount, put it aside for other projects, and then return to any or all of these in stages over the years. The fact that almost none of his music was publicly performed neither discouraged him, nor induced him to compromise his idiom. Into his various preferred genres – well over 100 songs for voice and piano, choral music, organ preludes, two piano sonatas, four symphonies, several orchestral ‘sets’ or suites, and chamber music including four numbered violin sonatas – Ives poured the sounds and ideas remembered from his childhood years in Danbury, or drawn from the urban or rural worlds around him. Hymn tunes, band music, popular songs, ragtime, the sounds of nature or city life, portraits and events from American history, memories of camp meetings and country dances – all these rub shoulders with each other, and with Ives’s visionary, ‘transcendental’ streak, in a way that had not happened before in music.

Central Park in the Dark is a short but definitive Ives statement. Traditional notions of ensemble, harmony, melody and goal-directed duration here do not exist. From start to finish the strings play a continuous, quietly unchanging sequence of chromatic chords, evoking the stillness of the New York night. Fragments of woodwind melody seem to drift in and out of earshot. Then an increasingly raucous rendition of the ragtime tune ‘Hello My Baby’, thumped out on brass and piano in its own independent tempo, suddenly breaks off to leave the strings again playing alone, as quiet and inscrutable as before. The piece lasts about eight minutes; there is no built-in reason why it could not last for 80, doing the same things, except that it has already made its point. The music also has a strange, haunting quality, an almost Delius-like sense of something transient and lost. Many years later, Ives said that the piece was written ‘before the combustion engine and radio monopolised the earth and air’.

The same method – simple in principle, with infinitely complex potential – underlies the similarly brief and haunting The Unanswered Question, the wild superimposition of tunes and keys in ‘Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut’ from the orchestral set Three Places in New England, and the even wilder ‘The Fourth of July’ from A Symphony: New England Holidays. Yet the apparent craziness is cannily controlled: with Ives’s phenomenal ear for new ways of how notes could combine, the energy is all channelled towards the total statement. Besides the ultra-vivid sense of time and place, there is also the ability of Ives’s music to convey compassion, even tenderness, for fellow humanity. It’s a quality that shines through the opening and closing movements of Three Places in New England: ‘Boston Common’, a tribute to the memorial there for America’s first black regiment (founded in the Civil War); and ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’, with its flowing river and overheard congregational singing.

Given that Ives was not to hear most of his music until decades after it was written, how did he manage to conceive such things at all? There is a clue in the genesis of his Theatre Orchestra Set, one of several suites for smaller orchestral forces. Every so often he would write out the individual players’ parts, take them along to a Broadway theatre after a show, turn up at the orchestra pit, and offer the musicians instant cash payment to play the music through. Whatever their comments, ‘Mr Ives the insurance man’ afterwards knew how his music sounded. Experiences of this kind were part of what engendered the vast complexity of the Fourth Symphony, with its multiple orchestral layerings, chorus, offstage instrumental group, and two conductors.

Ives’s music for smaller forces could explore musical worlds that were no less new or remarkable. In the Fourth Violin Sonata’s second movement, the composer explained that the two outer Adagio sections, based on the children’s hymn ‘Jesus Loves Me’ sung at a camp meeting, frame a middle section where the boys were excused to ‘throw stones down on the rocks in the brook!’ – the passage is marked Allegro (conslugarocko). At the opposite extreme of this short and engaging piece is the formidable Piano Sonata No 2: Concord, Mass., 1840-60, with its portraits of four of the town’s community of writers, Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau. In the Second String Quartet each of the instruments depicts one of four men who, in the composer’s words, ‘converse, discuss, argue… fight, shake hands, shut up – then walk up the mountain side to view the firmament.’ Ives’s output of songs ranges from the roistering irreverence of General William Booth Enters Into Heaven to the bleakness of Like a Sick Eagle – composed in April 1909, a few days after Harmony had miscarried her first child, after which she was unable to conceive others. (In 1916 the couple adopted a much-loved daughter, Edith.)

Ives was somehow able to achieve all this while also commuting to work year after year. The routine took its toll: 1907 brought the first of several heart attacks, caused by stress-related reaction to overwork. After the most serious of these in 1918, Ives found himself composing less. And one day in 1927, something else happened. According to Harmony he came down the stairs of their house in tears, saying that he couldn’t compose any more, and that ‘nothing sounded right’. Had he simply worked himself to a point of psychological exhaustion?

Thereafter he revised and published some of his music, in which America’s younger composers and conductors (among them Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Nicolas Slonimsky) were now taking an interest. Sporadic work continued on the planned Universe Symphony, for multiple orchestral groups ‘located in valleys, on hillsides and on mountains’ and representing the Heavens, the Earth, and ‘the eternal pulse’ of the Universe; this remained unfinished. Retirement from the insurance business to West Redding, Connecticut in 1930 freed up more composing time. But nothing new was completed.

Not that it needed to be. In those two decades after the turn of the century, America’s first great composer had already written down the scores that make him immortal. But one wonders whether, in his case, musical reference points are the relevant ones. Ives’s achievement, of vividly charting the whole spectrum of human life at a particular time and place, seems to relate more to the great novelists or poets. Like Tolstoy’s Russia, or Yeats’s Ireland, or Hemingway’s Spain, the New England that Ives knew is long gone. But once we’ve heard the music, we’ve been there.

Malcolm Hayes