From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, by David Wooldridge

Charles Ives has been one of my heroes ever since I read about his reaction to a man who started hissing at a performance of Carl Ruggles’ piece, “Men and Mountains,” in the early 1930s. Ives turned around and hissed back, “When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!”

It’s good advice for anyone who wants to open themselves up to new forms and styles of music. And applied to other senses, it’s good advice for learning to appreciate any form of art or experience that doesn’t wrap itself up in a gentle blanket of pleasantness.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "From the Steeples and the Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives"David Wooldridge’s From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives (first published in the U.K. under the title, Charles Ives: A Portrait) appeared in 1974, marking the centenary of Ives’ birth. Although Ives had by then won a sure place in musical history as the first important, and perhaps greatest, American composer, his work hadn’t–and may never–gain the level of popular recognition and appreciation as that of Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. A hundred years after he wrote most of it, his music still requires most listeners to sit up and put some effort into their listening.

Wooldridge’s own approach to Ives pretty much guaranteed that his book would receive the same scant acceptance that Ives’ music did with its first listeners. Although the U.K. edition of the book appears from its sedate cover to be a conventional biography, it’s hardly the sort of account that would sit well with the average fan of classical music.

A clue to Wooldridge’s literary inspirations comes from the book’s prologue, which opens with a quote from Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, his influential 1947 celebration of the work of Herman Melville. “Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.”

“Ives mounted,” Wooldridge writes. “His music rides on such space. The man, his life, the whole pattern of his thinking are witness to it. A sense of space, a use of space, an understanding of space that transcended metered time.” Like Melville–using Olson’s words, Ives had “a comprehension of PAST, his marriage of spirit to source”–and “a confirmation of FUTURE.”

Ives’ past, as Wooldridge shows, went back almost as far back in American history as any white man’s could. Captain William Ives landed in Massachussetts in 1635, and his family lines crossed paths with the Puritans, George Washington, Emerson, and Thoreau. His father George once helped a drunken Stephen Foster home from a Manhattan bar and led the band of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery that paraded past Lincoln and Grant after the surrender of Richmond.

George passed along to Charles a unique mixture of popular American and classical European music. He led bands that played at camp meetings and holiday celebrations in Charles’ home town of Danbury, Connecticut. He also encouraged his son to study the piano and organ and shared what formal training he’d had in composition. By the age of 18, Charles was working for pay as the organist of St. Thomas’ Church in New Haven, where he later attended Yale University.

At Yale, his primary teacher was a stalwart figure of the American musical establishment, one Horatio William Parker. As his Wikipedia entry puts it, “During his lifetime he was considered to be the finest composer in the United States, a superior craftsman writing in the most advanced style.” He didn’t think much of Ives’ student work and couldn’t even remember him years later, in a letter to Wooldridge’s father. Although Wooldridge acknowledges, “Who all remembers the names of the great composers’ teachers?,” he can’t resist the chance to give Parker his posthumous come-uppance:

Why pick on Parker?

FOR ONE REASON ONLY. Parker was a fluent, competent, intelligent musician who ought to have been able to recognize a NEW VOICE when he heard it. No one asked him to acknowledge Ives as America’s musical Messiah–though he’d have enjoyed that privilege. He didn’t have to like what he heard. He even could have hated it. And he didn’t. He wasn’t even listening.

And I mean REALLY listening–not just letting the ears lie back on a bubble-bath of agreeable, ready-made sound. Musicians, precisely the fluent ones, make the poorest listeners, because they get bemused by the sound of their own voices–singers, players, composers–cannot understand there is anything more to it than fluency of sound, accuracy of sound, opulence of sound, refinement of sound. And sound has so little to do with music–nice, agreeable, chromium-plate sound.

This passage provides ample evidence of Wooldridge at his most idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. Elsewhere in the book he launches into a rant about THE SYSTEM that brings one right back to the spirit of 1960s student protests. I imagine Wooldridge saw himself “sticking it to the Man” in writing this book.

Which was certainly one reason the book dropped into obscurity moments after being published. I doubt this kind of writing held much appeal for many of Wooldridge’s most likely buyers. Nor does it age well. Fortunately, such passages are rare.

The more striking and interesting aspect of From the Steeples and Mountains is Wooldridge’s approach to the narrative of Ives’ life and work. I may be going too far out on a limb with this, but I think there’s an important clue behind his use of the Charles Olson quote about Melville, and that clue leads to the work of Paul Metcalf–Melville’s great-grandson and a student of Olson’s.

As his Wikipedia entry puts it, Metcalf’s “work generally defies classification.” Best known–for those who knew his work at all–for his 1965 novel, Genoa, Metcalf relies extensively on the use of original texts, weaving slender threads of his own narration to create a unifying theme. As with Metcalf’s books, there is barely a page in From the Steeples and Mountains comprised solely of Wooldridge’s own words. And like Metcalf, Wooldridge uses quoted text for visual as well as narrative effect. He tosses in snatches and bursts of texts from letters, newspaper articles, songs, poems, concert programs and advertisement like Ives tosses musical quotations into his own pieces, very deliberately creating the semblance–but only the semblance–of a “slam-bang racket.”

Metcalf’s work is very much a meditation upon history, particularly American history, and particularly American history of the 19th century. And like Metcalf, Wooldridge is constantly drawing links between Ives and figures such as Melville, Emerson and Thoreau, highlighting the uniquely American nature of their voices and world views. He draws heavily on Ives’ own writing, including Essays Before a Sonata (1921) and the extensive marginalia in Ives’ compositions, which include such gems as the following, from a score-sketch of The Fourth of July:

Mr. Price: Please don’t try to make things nice! All the wrong notes are right. Just copy as I have–I want it that way …

As Wooldridge tells the story, Ives’ creative energies were worn down by a combination of ill-health and distress at the development of American politics and the entry into World War One. A prolonged recovery after a series of heart attacks in 1918 led to his eventual abandonment of composing entirely. His wife found him in his studio one morning in 1925 “with tears in his eyes, saying he couldn’t seem to compose any more–nothing went well–nothing sounded right.”

Ives’ failure, to Wooldridge, is America’s failure:

. . . . . Ives the composer remains, still in largely silent reproach of a nation’s music-making, its way of life, the way of life of music-making as a whole. Still largely silent, because few have ventured his music to be properly heard, or, being properly heard, accorded proper attention. But the world cannot wait while America gets it together, and now the sound, impatient, is gone out into other lands. Charles Ives is the FERMATA. Full stop/half circle. End and beginning.

I’m not sure David Wooldridge succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do in writing From the Steeples and Mountains. If he intended to use the story of Charles Ives to send a message to America about the need to look past the “establishment sop we use to salve our consciences in, 99%, lip service,” America clearly took less note of Wooldridge’s message than it did of Ives’ own work.

In the process, however, he did create a portrait that does a remarkably effective job of setting Ives’ life and work into a cultural context and in conveying a sense of his character and his musical sensibility that irresistibly leads the reader to becoming the listener. I defy anyone to read From the Steeples and Mountains and not find oneself soon downloading and enjoying Ives’ music. And I also expect to dig out my copies of Paul Metcalf’s books and immerse myself again into the sounds of another uniquely American voice.

From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, by David Wooldridge
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974

7 thoughts on “From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, by David Wooldridge

  1. Brilliant review – and much appreciated
    I used to borrow ‘From the Steeples and Mountains’ from my local library – almost on permanent loan…and have just managed to find a second hand copy in East Sussex. There’s a very caustic review By Bob Zeidler over at Amazon – but I actually love the book!!

    I have read ‘Essays before a Sonata’ and John Swafford’s ‘Charles Ives – A Life with Music’ – but much prefer the somewhat eccentric Mr Wooldridge…

  2. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one to appreciate the qualities of this somewhat unusual book. It certainly inspired me to find and listen to more of Ives’ music than I’ve ever done in my life up to now.

  3. My copy arrived in deepest Yorkshire this morning – and it’s just as good as I remember from the early ’80’s.
    Thanks again for the great review…and a superb website

    Kindest Regards


  4. Brilliant review; David was a guest professor at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN, when I was a senior there, and I had the privilege of taking his class on Charles Ives. I wrote a term paper for David, and he enjoyed it so much he submitted my paper for Citation, which was granted me by the College and for which I was very grateful and proud. David and I became friends during that semester, and I would say close friends as far as that goes, he taking the time to drive all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico from Bridgewater, CT, to attend my wedding a year after we’d both left Wabash. I tried many times over the years to find him, and was never able to do so. It appears from my searching that he died in 1998; I don’t know if you can shed any light on that for me, but if so, I would appreciate it very much. He was an inspiring soul, a kind hearted person, and very much the iconoclast you described.

  5. Thanks for the note. I’m afraid I have no more information on his life and career after publishing this book, but I’m pleased to hear that my assessment bears up under the weight of scrutiny from someone who knew Wooldridge.

  6. My friend and mentor David Wooldridge had an aneurysm in the early 90s. He slowly deteriorated over the next few years. I resided with him and his lovely wife Shirley for a time and helped nuture him to a reasonable state of self management. We lost track of each other after I married but Shirley sent me a notice upon his death.

    I had/ may still have some of his cassette recordings around the house somewhere … and his music “owl and the pussycat ” … they were great cat lovers.
    The man was an absolute sponge for music. I myself am a guitarist and I play slide guitar on occasion. He heard me play something and proceeded to pick my brain on the technique. He thought is sounded like birds singing. Next thing I knew he was charting a new piece requiring slide sounds.

    At any rate the Ives thing was obsessive with him … his home had Ives material all over the place. He was a brilliant man, David was. If I can shed any light on his story please contact me.

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