Essays Before a Sonata
by Charles Ives
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If anyone has been strong enough to escape these rocks—this "Scylla and Charybdis,"—has survived these wrong choices, these under-values with their prizes, Bohemias and heroes, is not such a one in a better position, is he not abler and freer to "declare himself and so to love his cause so singly that he will cleave to it, and forsake all else? What is this cause for the American composer but the utmost musical beauty that he, as an individual man, with his own qualities and defects, is capable of understanding and striving towards?—forsaking all else except those types of musical beauty that come home to him," [footnote: Contemporary Composers, D. G. Mason, Macmillan Co., N. Y.] and that his spiritual conscience intuitively approves.

"It matters not one jot, provided this course of personal loyalty to a cause be steadfastly pursued, what the special characteristics of the style of the music may be to which one gives one's devotion." [footnote: Contemporary Composers, D. G. Mason, Macmillan Co., N. Y.] This, if over-translated, may be made to mean, what we have been trying to say—that if your interest, enthusiasm, and devotion on the side of substance and truth, are of the stuff to make you so sincere that you sweat—to hell with manner and repose! Mr. Mason is responsible for too many young minds, in their planting season to talk like this, to be as rough, or to go as far, but he would probably admit that, broadly speaking—some such way, i.e., constantly recognizing this ideal duality in art, though not the most profitable road for art to travel, is almost its only way out to eventual freedom and salvation. Sidney Lanier, in a letter to Bayard Taylor writes: "I have so many fair dreams and hopes about music in these days (1875). It is gospel whereof the people are in great need. As Christ gathered up the Ten Commandments and redistilled them into the clear liquid of the wondrous eleventh—love God utterly and thy neighbor as thyself—so I think the time will come when music rightly developed to its now little forseen grandeur will be found to be a late revelation of all gospels in one." Could the art of music, or the art of anything have a more profound reason for being than this? A conception unlimited by the narrow names of Christian, Pagan, Jew, or Angel! A vision higher and deeper than art itself!


The humblest composer will not find true humility in aiming low—he must never be timid or afraid of trying to express that which he feels is far above his power to express, any more than he should be afraid of breaking away, when necessary, from easy first sounds, or afraid of admitting that those half truths that come to him at rare intervals, are half true, for instance, that all art galleries contain masterpieces, which are nothing more than a history of art's beautiful mistakes. He should never fear of being called a high-brow—but not the kind in Prof. Brander Matthews' definition. John L. Sullivan was a "high-brow" in his art. A high-brow can always whip a low-brow.

If he "truly seeks," he "will surely find" many things to sustain him. He can go to a part of Alcott's philosophy—"that all occupations of man's body and soul in their diversity come from but one mind and soul!" If he feels that to subscribe to all of the foregoing and then submit, though not as evidence, the work of his own hands is presumptuous, let him remember that a man is not always responsible for the wart on his face, or a girl for the bloom on her cheek, and as they walk out of a Sunday for an airing, people will see them—but they must have the air. He can remember with Plotinus, "that in every human soul there is the ray of the celestial beauty," and therefore every human outburst may contain a partial ray. And he can believe that it is better to go to the plate and strike out than to hold the bench down, for by facing the pitcher, he may then know the umpire better, and possibly see a new parabola. His presumption, if it be that, may be but a kind of courage juvenal sings about, and no harm can then be done either side. "Cantabit vacuus coram latrone viator."


To divide by an arbitrary line something that cannot be divided is a process that is disturbing to some. Perhaps our deductions are not as inevitable as they are logical, which suggests that they are not "logic." An arbitrary assumption is never fair to all any of the time, or to anyone all the time. Many will resent the abrupt separation that a theory of duality in music suggests and say that these general subdivisions are too closely inter-related to be labeled decisively—"this or that." There is justice in this criticism, but our answer is that it is better to be short on the long than long on the short. In such an abstruse art as music it is easy for one to point to this as substance and to that as manner. Some will hold and it is undeniable—in fact quite obvious—that manner has a great deal to do with the beauty of substance, and that to make a too arbitrary division, or distinction between them, is to interfere, to some extent, with an art's beauty and unity. There is a great deal of truth in this too. But on the other hand, beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair. Many sounds that we are used to, do not bother us, and for that reason, we are inclined to call them beautiful. Frequently,—possibly almost invariably,—analytical and impersonal tests will show, we believe, that when a new or unfamiliar work is accepted as beautiful on its first hearing, its fundamental quality is one that tends to put the mind to sleep. A narcotic is not always unnecessary, but it is seldom a basis of progress,—that is, wholesome evolution in any creative experience. This kind of progress has a great deal to do with beauty—at least in its deeper emotional interests, if not in its moral values. (The above is only a personal impression, but it is based on carefully remembered instances, during a period of about fifteen or twenty years.) Possibly the fondness for individual utterance may throw out a skin-deep arrangement, which is readily accepted as beautiful—formulae that weaken rather than toughen up the musical-muscles. If the composer's sincere conception of his art and of its functions and ideals, coincide to such an extent with these groove-colored permutations of tried out progressions in expediency, that he can arrange them over and over again to his transcendent delight—has he or has he not been drugged with an overdose of habit-forming sounds? And as a result do not the muscles of his clientele become flabbier and flabbier until they give way altogether and find refuge only in a seasoned opera box—where they can see without thinking? And unity is too generally conceived of, or too easily accepted as analogous to form, and form (as analogous) to custom, and custom to habit, and habit may be one of the parents of custom and form, and there are all kinds of parents. Perhaps all unity in art, at its inception, is half-natural and half-artificial but time insists, or at least makes us, or inclines to make us feel that it is all natural. It is easy for us to accept it as such. The "unity of dress" for a man at a ball requires a collar, yet he could dance better without it. Coherence, to a certain extent, must bear some relation to the listener's subconscious perspective. For example, a critic has to listen to a thousand concerts a year, in which there is much repetition, not only of the same pieces, but the same formal relations of tones, cadences, progressions, etc. There is present a certain routine series of image-necessity-stimulants, which he doesn't seem to need until they disappear. Instead of listening to music, he listens around it. And from this subconscious viewpoint, he inclines perhaps more to the thinking about than thinking in music. If he could go into some other line of business for a year or so perhaps his perspective would be more naturally normal. The unity of a sonata movement has long been associated with its form, and to a greater extent than is necessary. A first theme, a development, a second in a related key and its development, the free fantasia, the recapitulation, and so on, and over again. Mr. Richter or Mr. Parker may tell us that all this is natural, for it is based on the classic-song form, but in spite of your teachers a vague feeling sometimes creeps over you that the form-nature of the song has been stretched out into deformity. Some claim for Tchaikowsky that his clarity and coherence of design is unparalleled (or some such word) in works for the orchestra. That depends, it seems to us, on how far repetition is an essential part of clarity and coherence. We know that butter comes from cream—but how long must we watch the "churning arm!" If nature is not enthusiastic about explanation, why should Tschaikowsky be? Beethoven had to churn, to some extent, to make his message carry. He had to pull the ear, hard and in the same place and several times, for the 1790 ear was tougher than the 1890 one. But the "great Russian weeper" might have spared us. To Emerson, "unity and the over-soul, or the common-heart, are synonymous." Unity is at least nearer to these than to solid geometry, though geometry may be all unity.

But to whatever unpleasantness the holding to this theory of duality brings us, we feel that there is a natural law underneath it all, and like all laws of nature, a liberal interpretation is the one nearest the truth. What part of these supplements are opposites? What part of substance is manner? What part of this duality is polarity? These questions though not immaterial may be disregarded, if there be a sincere appreciation (intuition is always sincere) of the "divine" spirit of the thing. Enthusiasm for, and recognition of these higher over these lower values will transform a destructive iconoclasm into creation, and a mere devotion into consecration—a consecration which, like Amphion's music, will raise the Walls of Thebes.


Assuming, and then granting, that art-activity can be transformed or led towards an eventual consecration, by recognizing and using in their true relation, as much as one can, these higher and lower dual values—and that the doing so is a part, if not the whole of our old problem of paralleling or approving in art the highest attributes, moral and spiritual, one sees in life—if you will grant all this, let us offer a practical suggestion—a thing that one who has imposed the foregoing should try to do just out of common decency, though it be but an attempt, perhaps, to make his speculations less speculative, and to beat off metaphysics.

All, men-bards with a divine spark, and bards without, feel the need at times of an inspiration from without, "the breath of another soul to stir our inner flame," especially when we are in pursuit of a part of that "utmost musical beauty," that we are capable of understanding—when we are breathlessly running to catch a glimpse of that unforeseen grandeur of Mr. Lanier's dream. In this beauty and grandeur perhaps marionettes and their souls have a part—though how great their part is, we hear, is still undetermined; but it is morally certain that, at times, a part with itself must be some of those greater contemplations that have been caught in the "World's Soul," as it were, and nourished for us there in the soil of its literature.

If an interest in, and a sympathy for, the thought-visions of men like Charles Kingsley, Marcus Aurelius, Whit tier, Montaigne, Paul of Tarsus, Robert Browning, Pythagoras, Channing, Milton, Sophocles, Swedenborg, Thoreau, Francis of Assisi, Wordsworth, Voltaire, Garrison, Plutarch, Ruskin, Ariosto, and all kindred spirits and souls of great measure, from David down to Rupert Brooke,—if a study of the thought of such men creates a sympathy, even a love for them and their ideal-part, it is certain that this, however inadequately expressed, is nearer to what music was given man for, than a devotion to "Tristan's sensual love of Isolde," to the "Tragic Murder of a Drunken Duke," or to the sad thoughts of a bathtub when the water is being let out. It matters little here whether a man who paints a picture of a useless beautiful landscape imperfectly is a greater genius than the man who paints a useful bad smell perfectly.

It is not intended in this suggestion that inspirations coming from the higher planes should be limited to any particular thought or work, as the mind receives it. The plan rather embraces all that should go with an expression of the composite-value. It is of the underlying spirit, the direct unrestricted imprint of one soul on another, a portrait, not a photograph of the personality—it is the ideal part that would be caught in this canvas. It is a sympathy for "substance"—the over-value together with a consciousness that there must be a lower value—the "Demosthenic part of the Philippics"—the "Ciceronic part of the Catiline," the sublimity, against the vileness of Rousseau's Confessions. It is something akin to, but something more than these predominant partial tones of Hawthorne—"the grand old countenance of Homer; the decrepit form, but vivid face of Aesop; the dark presence of Dante; the wild Ariosto; Rabelais' smile of deep-wrought mirth; the profound, pathetic humor of Cervantes; the all-glorious Shakespeare; Spenser, meet guest for allegoric structure; the severe divinity of Milton; and Bunyan, molded of humblest clay, but instinct with celestial fire."

There are communities now, partly vanished, but cherished and sacred, scattered throughout this world of ours, in which freedom of thought and soul, and even of body, have been fought for. And we believe that there ever lives in that part of the over-soul, native to them, the thoughts which these freedom-struggles have inspired. America is not too young to have its divinities, and its place legends. Many of those "Transcendent Thoughts" and "Visions" which had their birth beneath our Concord elms—messages that have brought salvation to many listening souls throughout the world—are still growing, day by day, to greater and greater beauty—are still showing clearer and clearer man's way to God!

No true composer will take his substance from another finite being—but there are times, when he feels that his self-expression needs some liberation from at least a part of his own soul. At such times, shall he not better turn to those greater souls, rather than to the external, the immediate, and the "Garish Day"?

The strains of one man may fall far below the course of those Phaetons of Concord, or of the Aegean Sea, or of Westmorland—but the greater the distance his music falls away, the more reason that some greater man shall bring his nearer those higher spheres.



This edition of Charles Ives' "Essays Before a Sonata" was originally published in 1920 by The Knickerbocker Press. It has also been republished unabridged by Dover Publications, Inc., in a 1962 edition, ISBN 0-486-20320-4.

This electronic text was prepared by John Mamoun with help from numerous other proofreaders, including those associated with Charles Franks' Distributed Proofreaders website. This e-text is public domain, freely copyable and distributable for any non-commercial purpose, and may be included without royalty or permission on a mass media storage product, such as a cd-rom, that contains at least 50 public domain electronic texts, whether offered for non-commercial or commercial purposes. Any other commercial usage requires permission.


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