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Ives, Diabetes, and His “Exhausted Vein” of Composition
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The rapid decline of Charles Ives’s compositional output after 1918 has long been the subject of much mystery—and even more speculation. Following a decade and a half of phenomenal creative productivity, during which time he produced nearly all of his most important works including The Unanswered Question, the Concord Sonata and First Piano Sonata, the Second, Third, and Fourth symphonies, Three Places in New England, the New England Holidays Symphony, two string quartets, and dozens of other compositions—while simultaneously building one of the most successful life insurance agencies in the United States—Ives, at age forty-four, seemed to have “exhausted the vein” of his creative resources as his wife, Harmony, described it some years later. From that point on he began only a small number of new compositions; the last was in 1926, and it was shortly after that, as Harmony related to John Kirkpatrick, that Ives “came downstairs one day and with tears in his eyes said that he couldn’t seem to compose any more—nothing would go well, nothing sounded right.”

As Tom C. Owens notes, “The nature and extent of Ives’s health problems during and after his period of active composition have posed a vexing series of questions for biographers and students of his music.” Multiple theories have been propounded to account for this crucial turning point in Ives’s life as a composer. The explanation that his family always gave was that he suffered a serious heart attack in October 1918, having supposedly had a previous heart attack in an earlier health crisis in 1906 as well. Ives himself, however, was always a bit coy on the matter. In his posthumously published Memos he referred obliquely to “a serious illness that kept me away from the office for six months”—it was in fact most of the entire year following the October 1918 crisis—and said only that following that incident he was never again in good health or able to “get going ‘good’ in music.” His authorized biographers Henry and Sidney Cowell also skirted the question of what exactly this unspecified illness in 1918 was, but asserted that it “left him with permanent cardiac damage.” Subsequent biographers, including Jan Swafford and Frank Rossiter, repeated as fact that Ives suffered heart attacks in 1918 and 1906. The “heart attack” explanation, as Owens notes, still remains probably the most generally accepted, or at least commonly offered, in the Ives literature.

Yet other authors, dissatisfied with the circumstantiality of the medical evidence, have proposed an array of other hypotheses, of varying degrees of speculation and imagination, which attribute Ives’s decline as a composer to a variety of psychological, spiritual, political, or personal causes. Stuart Feder, himself a medical doctor and a psychiatrist, proposed a psychoanalytical explanation: Noting that Ives’s electrocardiogram upon admission to Roosevelt Hospital shortly before he died in 1954 was normal, or at a minimum inconsistent with that of a patient who had ever experienced a true heart attack as understood today (i.e., a myocardial infarction causing actual damage to the heart muscle), Feder suggested that Ives’s post-1918 decline was the end result of his extended mourning for his father, a process unnaturally prolonged by Ives’s own sense of guilt; once he reached the age of his own father’s early death (forty-nine), Ives’s will to create was spent. Agreeing that Ives’s collapse was fundamentally psychological, and suggesting that the family claim of Ives having suffered a “heart attack” was merely a cover story, Gayle Sherwood Magee advanced the alternative notion that his 1918 and subsequent ailment was part of an ongoing condition going back at least to his earlier 1906 “breakdown” that would have been understood in the context of the time as “neurasthenia,” a supposed depletion of nervous energy often attributed then to overworked businessmen and creative individuals.

Still others have proposed more personal or artistic explanations. Kirkpatrick, and to some extent Harmony Ives, believed that Ives had simply burned himself out creatively: his “double life” as a businessman and a composer, working late at night for so many years, left him spiritually exhausted and unable to go on...



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