Inspired by German Romanticism, transcendentalism had its roots in the writings of Immanuel Kant. Hoping to see beyond the surface of things, transcendentalists ultimately rejected all things European, shed the stilted confines of the 19th-century Unitarian Church, and eschewed the cold, calculating gaze of the Enlightenment. It was a refreshing way of moving forward intellectually, spiritually, and artistically in the New World.
In the decades preceding the American Civil War, a colorful and eccentric group of New England intellectuals that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Orestes Brownson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Louisa May Alcott began the transcendentalist movement. They were determined to create a uniquely American philosophy that would translate well into all spheres of human communication: literature, poetry, sculpture, architecture, rhetoric, theology, painting, and music.
Transcendentalism focused on a new way of being that included intuitive thinking, the importance of creativity, and passionate discourse. It also focused on spiritual progress, social reform, strident individualism, optimism, and the appreciation of natural beauty. This movement resonated with a broader circle of creative and intellectually gifted Americans and spread quickly past the Concord and Boston town lines. Nowhere was this transcendentalist verve more evident in the 20th century than in the experimental classical composer Charles Ives.
Born in a small town in Connecticut in 1874, Ives graduated from Yale with a degree in music. There, he was a first-rate organist and even composed a symphony for his senior thesis. After graduating, he was wildly successful in a business start-up, but his first passion was music. His compositions were uniquely American, a proud precursor to jazz and baseball.
Ives used a musical language that was complex and often dissonant. He often integrated parts of religious hymns, band marches, patriotic songs, ragtime, and popular melodies, in a deviation from the traditional European models. He borrowed old tunes and layered sounds to create something vibrant, beautiful, and new. His pieces had unusual harmonic structures, all of which paralleled the American transcendentalist vision of a raucous individualism, a rejection of formulaic methodologies, a fostering of creativity, and an elevation of the spiritual harmony found in nature.
Most prolific from 1908 to 1918, Ives composed the soundtrack of an intellectual moment. Some of his most noted works include Variations on America, Calcium Light Night, Three Places in New England, Central Park in the Dark, The Unanswered Question, and Sonata No. 2 for Piano – otherwise known as the Concord Sonata. The four movements of this sonata are named after five of the prominent founders of the Transcendentalist Movement -- Emerson, Hawthorne, the Alcotts, and Thoreau. In 1927 he stopped composing altogether due to a debilitating illness.
While composers and conductors like Aaron Copland, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Leonard Bernstein greatly valued Ives’s unique contributions to experimental and classical music, American audiences were somewhat baffled by his unconventional compositions. Sadly, his works were all but ignored in his lifetime; they lived mostly in his mind and on paper. It would not be until after his death that audiences, musicians, orchestras, and conductors would begin to understand and boldly praise his music as the invention of a genius. Current American orchestras and chamber ensembles pay tribute to Ives’s original works by playing and recording them. Ives is now considered an American icon who custom-made a form of Transcendentalism with his cacophony of rhythms, luminous sounds, and adopted melodies.
Charles Ives, the man who found consolation in his happy marriage and the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, persevered and created a body of American music, all while running a successful insurance company, raising his daughter, and financially supporting struggling composers. That alone is revolutionary and sublime.