Charles Ives — Microtonalist. Part I

Keywords: Charles Ives, American music, microtonalist, microtonality, Pythagorean tuning, spiraling fifths, Universe Symphony, Concord Sonata, aggregate chords, microtonal music


The article presents the great American composer Charles Ives as a pioneer of microtonal music. This is in addition to his Three Piece for Two Pianos in Quartertones and amongst the sketches to his unfinished Universe Symphony (which was subsequently realized by the author of the article for a Lincoln Center premiere in 1996). In fact, Ives composed with an elaborate tuning system formed by spiraling fifths, but constituted only in his mind and through his notation. True dissonance for Ives was the result of temperament, while the tuning he imagined for his original music - even for his piano music, was meant for a microtonal design that is only being realized a century later. It is noted in the article that Ives was virtually unknown in the American musical scene during most of his lifetime, recognition having been gradually given to him towards the end of his life, while in the second half of the 20th century he was finally acknowledged as a monumental figure in American music. It has been observed and noted by many musicians that he notated the accidentals in his musical scores in certain original ways, which correspond to the concord of what may also called 3-limit just intonation, and perfectly coherent from the standpoint of extended Pythagorean tuning principles. The article consists of several parts and includes analyses of the notation in prominent sections of major works by Charles Ives, including such compositions as the “Concord Sonata,” “Universe Symphony,” “Unanswered Question,” and “String Quartet #2.” Ives’s perspective for the tuning of his music was to lose all temperament by utilizing a spiral of pure perfect fifths offering as many as 28 different specific notations for particular microtonal applications. These conclusions are entirely based on the composer’s written music, his extensive writings in “Memos,” “Essays Before a Sonata,” and “Some Quarter-tone Considerations,” and general microtonal knowledge for appropriate analysis. It places Ives’s contributions in an historical context with his contemporaries, and reflects his profound debt to Hermann von Helmholtz’s On the Sensation of Tone, and to the influence of his microtonalist father, George Ives. 

The Art of Music