Composer Charles Ives’ Connecticut studio finds a home in New York’s American Academy of Arts and Letters
Museums are accustomed to receiving donations of artworks or heirlooms or files of correspondence, but few are in a position to accept the gift of an actual room. The American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City therefore had some serious thinking to do when Charles Ives Tyler approached the organization with the offer of the room in which his grandfather, Charles Ives, wrestled compositions into being from about 1913 until his death in 1954.
The Academy already had lots of rooms, as would be apparent to anyone who visits its very spacious headquarters, which sprawls through three separate buildings at Audubon Terrace, not many paces from where West 155th Street meets the Hudson River. The Academy moved there in 1923, having spent its formative years (since around the turn into the 20th century) anchored in midtown Manhattan. It is the ultimate “honor society” for our nation’s creative artists, and it has been ever since its first members were inducted — its initial handful of luminaries included sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, stained-glass master John La Farge, composer Edward MacDowell, and writer William Dean Howells. Ives received little recognition as a composer until his final years, but in 1947 he was given the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Symphony No. 3, which by then was about 40 years old but had just received its belated premiere. Two years earlier, in 1945, he had been granted membership in the Academy.
He appreciated this honor deeply, and he reciprocated by arranging for the Academy to become the beneficiary of the royalties from his compositions after his wife died, which she did in 1969. “At that time, the amount realized from his royalty payments was very small,” explained Cody Upton, the Academy’s director of operations, when I visited the premises in January. “Now it comes to more than $200,000 a year.” The funds support scholarships for composers, of which the most impressive is a grant of $100,000, spread over two years, that is designated the Charles Ives Living. Luckily, Ives hadn’t depended on his music for his living. He made a fortune in the insurance business, establishing his own firm on Wall Street when he was less than a decade out of Yale and earning renown for devising what would become known as estate planning and formulating methods, later adopted throughout
the industry, for training insurance agents. He quietly underwrote numerous enterprises to support avantgarde music and gave away substantial sums to less fortunate composers. In fact, he passed on half of his Pulitzer Prize award money to fellow composer Lou Harrison as thanks for conducting the winning piece in its overdue premiere.
When confronted with the opportunity to absorb the Charles Ives Studio into its collection, the Academy considered it as an artifact that would memorialize one of America’s greatest composers but would also honor one of its own and, one might say, an ongoing donor. An agreement was reached, and curators, architects, and moving specialists began plotting how to disassemble the room and reinstall it within the Academy’s facility. The journey began in Redding, Connecticut, just a few miles from the composer’s native city of Danbury. Although Ives and his wife, Harmony, kept a residence in New York, he built a country home, beginning the project in 1912 and moving into the completed house, with its composing studio, the following year. He initially set his sights on Danbury, but finding that it had changed more than he wished since his growing-up days, he settled on Redding because it reminded him of the Danbury of his youth. He lived there, at least part of most years, until his death.
On the afternoon I dropped in at the Ives Studio, the room was absolutely silent. When Ives was at work, it would have been anything but. He was certainly capable of writing lovely and gentle music, and he often did; but his signature sound is unbridled to the point where it can seem spiky and chaotic, and recordings of him improvising at the piano testify that he seemed at his happiest when working up to an incontestable din. Those days are long gone, of course, and yet the studio seems practically alive, as if the maestro had stepped out briefly and would return any minute through the saloon-style doors to pick up the hullabaloo he had left hanging in the air.
It wouldn’t take very much noise to prove deafening, since the space is not large — 20 feet long and just 9 feet wide, with a nicely fashioned Ives exhibit surrounding the exterior and insulating the room from the nearby galleries. The studio is full but not overly cluttered; still, some 3,000 objects were packed up and transported as part of this relocation, and that adds up to a lot of stuff. The Academy has opened up a portal in one of the narrow ends to provide a view down the length of the studio to the far extremity, where a preexisting paned window looks out on the same bucolic view Ives had in Connecticut, though now reproduced in a photograph and artistically lit to resemble a sunny day. Viewers can also look in from a door on a side wall, next to a fireplace, and from one perspective or the other, nothing is very far away.
The studio’s contents vividly reveal the composer’s life, often through unanticipated details. There’s his piano — not a highfalutin, famous-brand instrument of the sort he could easily have afforded, but rather a “cabinet grand,” which is a polite way of saying an upright piano, built by the firm of James
& Holmstrom, which produced good but hardly prestigious instruments at a shop in Harlem. This particular piano boasts a proud heritage nonetheless. Its crashing keys and flying hammers were the first to intone some of the most towering masterpieces of American music, including Ives’ Three Places in New
England , his Symphony No. 4, his Concord Sonata , and the groundbreaking collection he would publish under the title 114 Songs . On the back of the piano is affixed a portrait of Johannes Brahms — a surprising discovery, but less so when one thinks about how Ives’ earliest songs were of a Brahmsian mold, from back when his exasperated Yale professor Horatio Parker was trying to knock some musical sense into him and blessedly failed. Brahms portraits, it turns out, are positioned throughout the studio, rarely out of view if you know where to look. Maybe they reminded Ives to maintain uncompromising musical standards.
There is his pencil sharpener, filled with its original shavings — perhaps from pencils dulled while scribbling those very pieces onto music paper. There is his military cot, all made up and ready for his afternoon nap. Lying there, he could reach out and pluck a book from the couple of hundred that line the shelves, or he could swivel up to jot down an idea at either of two small writing desks. Two cornets, one badly dented, sit atop a bookshelf. These belonged to Ives’ adored father, a Civil War bandleader; Gen. Grant presumably reported to President Lincoln that his was the best band in the whole Union Army. The father passed on to the son a love of hearing unrelated musical activities going on at the same time, like different bands playing simultaneously on a parade ground or the competing hymns emanating from churches surrounding a village green. Some of Ives’ most memorable pages involve incongruent sounds of this sort. Perhaps it explains why not one but two metronomes sit atop the piano in the studio, each ready to mark the rhythms of the distinct pieces going on simultaneously in the composer’s mind.
The saloon doors double as a bulletin board, a treasure trove of ephemera secured to them with thumbtacks: newspaper clippings about Ives and his friends, pictures of his high school and college athletic teams, old concert programs, including one from 1890 documenting a performance by “Master Ives,” who was fifteen at the time. One spots quite a few bottles of bitters. “Many of these bottles were found hidden in cabinets and behind bookshelves,” Upton said. “It seems that he stocked up on several cases prior to Prohibition — 44 percent alcohol.” In short, this was not just Ives’ composing studio. It was his man cave.
The Charles Ives Studio is accessible whenever the American Academy of Arts and Letters is open to the public, which it is when its annual art shows are on display. The Academy opens on Thursdays through Sundays, from 1 to 4 p.m., from March 12 through April 12; and again, on the same schedule, from May 21 through June 14. At other times, however, the Academy is happy to welcome visitors, although arrangements must be made in advance. Enter on Audubon Terrace between 155 and 156 Streets, on the west side of Broadway in New York. There is no admission charge. For information, call 212-369-5900.
The Charles Ives Studio, relocated from Connecticut to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, houses a wealth of memorabilia relating to the composer; all images courtesy the Academy Opposite page, Charles Ives by David Levine, 2006, created for the Academy
Charles Ives with his wife, Harmony, Redding, Connecticut, 1946; courtesy American Academy of Arts and Letters