By Jeremy Eichler
WEST REDDING, Conn. — It is a sad day when an American musical treasure turns up on the Coldwell Banker real estate website. I kept staring at the listing last week in disbelief — the photos, the eight-digit MLS number, the chipper description: “Marvelous opportunity. Turn-of-century home of composer Charles Ives on 18+ acres … original charm still intact. … Property dividable.”
Surely some kind of joke, you might imagine, a cyber-prank with some heavy-handed message about national artistic patrimony for sale to the highest bidder, or about the shallowness of American cultural memory.
But no, sorry to say, this is the real thing: The Connecticut home of the country’s first great composer — designed by Ives, completed in 1913, and used as a retreat where he worked on some of his most important music — is being sold to an undisclosed private party. In recent weeks, a cacophonous Ivesian outcry has rippled across the Internet, where a petition has gathered over 2,000 signatures, yet no reprieve is in sight. The deal is moving forward. And so, on Monday morning, convinced that I needed to see the home before it was gone, I loaded up my iPod with Ives’s soulfully rugged music and started on my drive.
It is a scenic trip of about 170 miles between Boston and West Redding, Conn., and at least on this occasion, the landscape had a way of participating in the journey.
This, after all, was Ives’s prime canvas: the gentle hills, craggy mountain faces, and town squares of a vanishing 19th-century New England. Ives heard music in a Civil War memorial on Boston Common, in the transcendentalism of Concord’s most famous denizens, in the sound of a church choir drifting over the Housatonic River at Stockbridge. It has become fashionable to praise Ives for his pioneering modernism, but Ives’s art is also, profoundly, a music in which both personal and collective memory are mapped onto a deeply rooted sense of place.
I think this is why, at bottom, the current sale resonates in a singular way. Plenty of musicians’ haunts have disappeared or stand in plain view without even a plaque, such as the Los Angeles home of Igor Stravinsky. But Stravinsky cultivated an image that was studiously cosmopolitan. How different it is to watch the un-placing of Charles Ives, our own musical poet of place.
It’s true that Ives’s birth house in nearby Danbury is now owned by a local museum. But the house’s state of disrepair has forced its closure from public view, and, in any event, Ives lived there only as a child. Nor have any of the composer’s New York residences been preserved or even marked. No, this quietly regal Arts and Crafts-style home is the real Ivesian spot, the place he lived with his wife and worked on iconic pieces such as the “Concord” Sonata and “Three Places in New England.”
The house has remained in the Ives family since the composer’s death, in 1954, and his grandson, Charles Ives Tyler, working with the scholar James Sinclair, had arranged Ives’s composing studio on the main floor so convincingly, as one visitor described it to me, that it was like a time capsule, as if the old man had just stepped out to pull some weeds from his garden.
When I arrived at the home on Monday, I met Tyler himself, a tall man of somber mien in his mid-60s. We sat in chairs on the same lawn where Tyler’s parents were married, in 1939. The son of Ives’s daughter, Tyler is a retired English teacher who now lives in Florida. On this occasion, he was a man of few words. He told me that it was an emotional sale, but that he no longer has any personal use for the home and cannot afford to keep it.
What has baffled so many onlookers, however, is why Tyler, after responsibly tending to his grandfather’s legacy for decades, has rejected a seemingly competitive offer to sell the West Redding home to the Charles Ives Society, which, working with local partners, could have turned it into a public museum or a center for visiting artists in residence. I posed the question in as many different ways as I could think of, but he declined to elaborate.
The next owners, he assured me, intend to respect the property and keep it as a summer home. I asked what happens if the new owners decide to sell the property. There was no answer.
Our conversation having run its course, Tyler brought me inside to view the music room off the parlor. The first impression is one of chaos, as the room is currently being dismantled. A bed bisects the small space at an odd angle, and the bookshelves had already been mostly cleared.
Yet plenty of remarkable Ivesian objects remained. The composer’s father was a bandleader in the Civil War, and sitting there on the shelf was one of his old cornets, along with Ives’s battered hat, two metronomes, a weather-worn “BALL FIELD” sign, and a tattered American flag crumpled in the corner. The studio’s two doors apparently served as the composer’s own gigantic scrapbooks, and each is covered with concert programs, newspaper clippings, photographs. There is a commuter train schedule from 1881 and a childhood baseball team picture showing Ives as a pitcher in uniform.
Intriguingly, on the unfinished back of his old upright piano, Ives had affixed a portrait of Brahms. The anxiety of influence felt hard to miss: a European musical forefather kept reassuringly close at hand but also just out of sight. I lingered in the space for as long as I could, making sure to take in the serene view Ives must have enjoyed out one window over the hills toward Danbury.
The long drive back to Boston left plenty of time to think about what it is exactly that we seek — and what we sometimes find — in such pilgrimages. It turns out that Tyler has donated the contents of Ives’s music studio to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which has plans to meticulously re-create the studio, down to the radiator piping, on 155th Street in Manhattan. This of course is welcome news, and yet I can’t help wonder how the studio could retain the same power when transported so far from its natural habitat.
It is, after all, the direct contact with the music’s place of birth that can sometimes leave the most lasting impressions. I will never hear the opening of Mahler’s Third Symphony in quite the same way after visiting Mahler’s lakeside composing hut in the Austrian mountain town of Steinbach, and seeing with my own eyes the terrifyingly sublime cliffs whose music he sought to capture.
Sometimes a visit can tweak your image of a composer. (Who knew Wagner was buried in Bayreuth with his dog Russ?) Sometimes it can alert one to the complicated politics of memory surrounding a musical figure (Serge Koussevitzky’s Lenox grave is marked with an appreciative memorial from the Israel Philharmonic, yet nothing from the Boston Symphony Orchestra).
Upon returning home I sought some context by thumbing through “Calling on the Composer,” a guide to European composer homes and museums, written by Julie Anne and Stanley Sadie. It turns out one need not be a pioneering composer of international reputation to earn the preservation of one’s home in Europe. Fans of Levko Revutsky, Sigismund Toduta, Heikki Klemetti, and Wilhelm Peterson-Berger should not worry — their spaces have been protected as memorials to their art. So has the Moscow apartment of the pianist and composer Aleksandr Goldenweiser, who was apparently so eager to participate in his own posterity that he opened his home as a public museum while still living there.
More broadly, the medium of music may play some role in this whole strange business of composer museums. With a painting or a sculpture, the art object itself can carry its own seductive aura, that one-of-a-kind thing-ness that draws us to museums in distant cities. But music’s greatest monuments are erected and disassembled nightly in concert halls across the land without a trace remaining the next morning. Could it be that such a resolutely incorporeal art nurtures a deferred hunger for the tactile, for something to see and to hold, even for a glimpse of the objects of a composer’s everyday life?
Perhaps that’s why, beginning in the 19th century, these objects began to be preserved and fetishized to a point that can sometimes border on the comical. Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow, brought with her to America not just her husband’s scores but also his prized lock of Beethoven’s hair, a gift from the Vienna Philharmonic. The Sadies’ book makes clear that the diligent musical tourist in Europe can also train his gaze on Brahms’s slippers, Elgar’s golf clubs, or Donizetti’s traveling toiletries kit.
But with Ives, none of the items left in his music room are indulgently quotidian; they feel seared with Ives’s own artistic personality. The ball field sign, the cornet, the tattered flag — these are of course Ivesian totems, equivalents of the plainspoken hymn tunes and patriotic ditties he layered so complexly in his music, showing how the same art can be at once supremely nostalgic and supremely modern.
It’s some small consolation that, in the end, the public will be able to glimpse this studio in New York after the sale of the house. But how much more meaningful it would have been to preserve this studio in its original home, thereby honoring Ives’s own gift for evoking in music the fragility of memory, the history of place.
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This article was published in the Boston Globe on September 29, 2012 under the headline “Charles Ives’s last journey.”