Classical Music and Opera
Here we highlight two of America's greatest musicians: composer Charles Edward Ives and singer Marian Anderson. These artists forged new musical paths and set high standards of excellence both in their work and in their personal lives.
Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954)
Clara E. Sipprell (1885-1975)
Photograph, gelatin silver print, circa 1947, NPG.82.185
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Bequest of Phyllis Fenner
Historians agree that Charles Ives was one of America's most brilliant, if enigmatic, musical minds. Even those who question the artistic value of his work recognize his status as the first distinctly American composer of classical music. Up to the end of the nineteenth century, European forms and composers dominated the American concert hall. Ives was the first to combine classical forms with America's own cultural richness, beginning a tradition then carried on by composers such as Aaron Copland and George Gershwin. However, during much of Ives's own lifetime, his music was disparaged as an oddity by the few who knew of it. Truly, Ives's unconventional musical sensibilities were ahead of their time. More information about early musical instruments can be found by visiting the National Museum of American History.
Ives's father, a Connecticut gentleman and military bandmaster, taught him to find the inspiration for his compositions in everyday surroundings and occurrences. Also expressed in his music was a strong love of his country, a resistance to blind tradition, and a sometimes caustic wit. Ives showed considerable musical talent from a young age and was especially good at improvising on the keyboard. As a teenager, he composed pieces for his father's band and served as the organist for a local church. At Yale University, Ives put all his energy into music, nearly failing every other subject. Under the tutelage of composer Horatio Parker and others, Ives composed his first symphony and string quartet as well as numerous smaller pieces. After college Ives worked in the insurance business and composed music in his spare time.
One of the distinctive characteristics of Ives's work is the way that it often features, quotes, or borrows from other pieces of popular American music. Some of the better-known examples include variations on "My Country 'Tis of Thee," written for the organ, and the final movement of his Second Symphony, which quotes "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean." In addition, Ives was often inspired by American places or people, as in "Three Places in New England" and the "Concord Sonata" for piano. Several of his compositions anticipated practices that became common later in the twentieth century, such as polytonality, dissonance, and twelve-tone composition. Other pieces can only be described as joyfully anarchic, such as the second movement of "Three Places in New England," which recreates the sensation of two bands converging on a village square from opposite directions, each blasting away in a different key and tempo.
After 1918, ill health restricted Ives's ability to write music. Instead, he began to publish his compositions, the majority of which were still unknown to the public. By 1947, Ives had earned a Pulitzer Prize (for his Third Symphony) and the respect of musicians and critics alike. Today, Ives's popularity continues to grow as more of his music is discovered, published, performed, and recorded.
Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888-1964)
Oil on canvas, 1955, T/NPG.67.76.03
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Today, it would be difficult to imagine an American music scene bereft of African American performers. But although Marian Anderson was one of the most talented contralto singers ever, she was also the first African American musician to gain widespread popularity with mixed audiences in this country. Before Anderson embarked on her singing career, black musicians were not welcome on the American concert stage.
Anderson began singing in the choirs of the Union Baptist Church in her native Philadelphia by the time she was seven years old, and practically from the outset, she was recognized as an unusually promising talent. Unfortunately, the pinched finances of her family, which worsened substantially after her father's death when she was about twelve, often made procurement of good vocal training difficult. Ultimately, however, she met voice teacher Mary Saunders Patterson, who provided her with free lessons. When Anderson was in her early twenties, the church raised funds that enabled her to study with Giuseppe Boghetti, a vocal instructor of high reputation in both Philadelphia and New York.
Anderson's first break occurred in 1925, when she won a singing contest and a chance to perform solo with the New York Philharmonic. Following that triumph, however, racism generally confined her to performing in black communities and kept her from winning broad recognition in the American musical world. In 1931, in hope of breaking out of that constraint, she went to Europe, where she developed her signature concert mix of classical songs, arias, and African American spirituals. There, her powerful, rich voice, with its extraordinary three-octave range, drew unstinting praise and won her a large following. After witnessing one of her performances in Salzburg, Austria, conductor Arturo Toscanini told her,"A voice like yours is heard only once in a hundred years."
After 1935, in the wake of her European success, Anderson gained broader acceptance in the United States. The fact that she had not completely broken the race barrier, however, was dramatically proved in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Protesting the snub was, among others, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the organization and convinced Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to allow Anderson to give an Easter Sunday concert on the steps of Washington's Lincoln Memorial instead. The concert was a huge success, with both live and radio audiences, and Anderson suddenly found herself at the center of the American music scene. When Anderson made her opera debut with New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1955, it was the first time an African American had performed with the company. In 1965, after twenty-five years of touring in the United States and abroad, Anderson gave her final performance at Carnegie Hall.
Anderson's career did much to achieve equality for African Americans in the performing arts. However, hers was not a political crusade. Rather, her success was due to unflagging determination and the sheer weight of her talent. She recalled in a 1991 television documentary: "I hadn't set out to change the world in any way. Whatever I am, it is a culmination of the goodwill of people who, regardless of anything else, saw me as I am, and not as somebody else."
Charles Edward Ives