Charles Ives was born in the town of Danbury, Connecticut, on October 20, 1874. During the Civil War, his father, George Ives, had been the Union's youngest bandmaster, his band called the best in the army. When the war ended George returned to Danbury and became the most influential musician in the region. After receiving his first instruction in piano and other instruments from his father, Charles was turned over to more advanced keyboard teachers. Charles took up organ study, and by age fourteen he had become the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut. Though he worked at music with remarkable discipline for his age, he also resented the demands of his training. Needing an antidote to the isolation and social anomaly of an intense education in music, Charles began playing outfield for a local youth baseball team. He began composing at around age thirteen; his first pieces were short marches, fiddle tunes, and songs for the church. During this time, George continued to challenge Charles and his brother Joseph musically. He would have the boys sing in one key while he accompanied in another; he built instruments to play quarter-tones; he played his cornet over a pond so Charles could gauge the effect of space; he set two bands marching around a park blaring different tunes, to see what it sounded like when they approached and passed by. By his late teens, Charles had written studies in polychords and polytonality, in addition to practical music he was composing for use in church and for his father's ensembles. When Charles left Danbury for New Haven in 1893 to prepare for Yale at the Hopkins Grammar School, he was already an expert composer of conventional short works, a few of which would be published in the next few years. He began studying with Horatio Parker, a German-trained American who had recently come to fame. As a freshman, Ives became organist of Center Church in New Haven, earning the most prestigious keyboard position in town, and wrote a good deal of choral and organ music for the institution. George Ives died a year into Charles’ time at Yale, which greatly affected his academic performance for the remainder of his studies.
Upon graduation, Charles, acting on some of his father's last words of advice, decided to forgo a musical career and go into business. When he left Yale in 1898, he headed for New York to begin as a $15-a-week clerk with the Mutual Life Insurance Company. As he put it, “If a composer has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let them starve on his dissonances?" During his first years in New York City, Ives held organist/choirmaster posts in two prominent churches, played recitals, and composed a number of choral works and instrumental sonatas, as well as his second symphony. In 1902, Ives resigned his final organ post, though he continued composing in an ever-more experimental style involving musical superimpositions of material in different meters and keys. By 1906, Ives was writing in collage-like planes of contrasting styles. At the same time as Ives was composing revolutionary pieces of mounting audacity and confidence, he continued to compose relatively conventional songs, sonatas, and other smaller pieces. He suffered a physical breakdown, believed to be the result of a heart attack and associated depression. In spite of this setback, his star rose precipitously in the insurance trade, which led to the formation of Ives & Co. in 1907, in conjunction with partner Julian Myrick. Its successor, Ives & Myrick, would become the largest agency in the country. He also married his wife Harmony Twichell in 1908 following two years of courtship. Between 1908 and 1917 Ives composed at a rapid pace, while his insurance agency was also burgeoning. From these years comes the completion of much of his greatest work. In these pieces Ives found the "music of the ages" that he had been seeking since his youth: not only unifying vernacular and cultivated traditions and carrying his experiments to a prophetic level of imagination and sophistication, but finding a language to convey the spirit and fervor he had always felt behind the notes in amateur music-making. Filled with a wide range of musical quotes, Ives' mature work is music about music, or rather music as a symbol of human life and striving and spirituality. During these years Ives constantly showed his work to musicians, hired groups to play over pieces, revised the music based on what he heard, and had much of his music expertly copied. Yet, the nearly unanimous reaction of musicians to it was somewhere between laughter and outrage. By 1917 Ives had an adopted child and a new obsession: working to support the American war effort (despite his earlier outspoken objection to the war). With the strains of parenthood and campaigning for war bonds added to the already exhausting demands of his business and creative life, and with the drain of steady rejection from performing musicians, Ives' health collapsed. In October 1918 he had a serious heart attack just before his 44th birthday. Neither he nor his work ever completely recovered. Ignoring lingering weakness from his heart attack, Ives kept to his usual frenetic pace in the early 1920s, now spending a great deal of time promoting his work, cultivating friendships with musicians, joining and supporting organizations that promoted progressive music. By this time, the Modernist movement was gathering steam in the U.S., much of the musical part of it spiraling around the energetic young composer Henry Cowell, who took up Ives' cause and remained one of his champions. Starting with songs and the Violin Sonatas, Ives' music began to be played in the 20s, largely in "Ultra-Modernist" forums. But Ives' infirmities steadily eroded his energy, creative and otherwise. Finally one day around 1927 Ives came downstairs in tears and told his wife, "I can't seem to compose any more. I try and try and nothing comes out right." Three years later he resigned from the insurance agency he had built. For the rest of his life Ives was an invalid. Yet through decades of physical misery Ives remained the same optimistic, vibrant spirit he had always been. When he was able, he saw to the practical side of being a composer: writing letters to those interested in his work, editing pieces for publication and overseeing editing by others, and supervising the copying of his pieces. The wealth he had earned in business not only supported his own work, but flowed steadily into the cause of progressive music all over the U.S. The rise of Ives' reputation was slow, but important musicians admired him and some–Henry Cowell, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Lou Harrison among them–devoted significant parts of their lives to his work. Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, and pianist John Kirkpatrick gave important performances of his music in the 30s and 40s, earning Ives glowing reviews and a Pulitzer Prize (1947). Charles Ives died in May 1954, just as Henry and Sidney Cowell completed their pioneering biography of him. It was not until a decade later that the musical mainstream really began to take Ives seriously. For many, the long-posed question of whether Ives is the greatest American composer had been answered in the affirmative.