Jeremy Denk Praises Charles Ives

Jeremy Denk has in interesting article about Charles Ives in the New York Review of Books. Disguised as a review of a new biography of the composer – Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel, by Stephen Budiansky (, Amazon UK) – Denk addresses much of the criticism of Ives’ music. In particular, he points out how it is often poorly performed, and poorly received due to preconceptions:

Orchestras don’t typically have enough rehearsal time to deal with his complex scores; many musicians are not that enthusiastic about playing Ives to begin with; audiences may have preconceived notions, based on previous traumas.

But he ends with a sweeping statement that validates Ives for all of us who do connect with this crotchety composer:

If Ives’s music often falls flat in performance, does that make the music less great? For most people the answer is unequivocally yes. But it’s worth contemplating the example of three piano sonatas, all written within fifteen years of the premiere of Ives’s “Concord,” by three of the most important American composers: Carter, Barber, Copland. Each of these pieces attempts an epic statement, fusing popular music with the complexities of modernism. Each is more expertly composed than the “Concord”—better crafted, more transparent, more pianistic—and eminently practical in concert. But Ives’s sonata towers over them all, despite or because of its doubts, sweeping past the fine points of constructing a musical work to address the nature and purpose of music itself. And that is the injustice of art; sometimes all the craft in the world is trumped by someone with something more important to say.

Read Denk’s essay. Then get Jemery Denk’s wonderful recording of Ives’ two piano sonatas. (, Amazon UK)