Saving a piece of American music history

Charles Ives ca. 1946 outside his home in West Redding, CT

Charles Ives ca. 1946 outside his home in West Redding, CT [credit: Halley Erskine]. Courtesy of Yale Library, editorial use only.

A few weeks ago, Associate Professor of Music Robert Eshbach found out that the house that belonged to Charles Ives (American composer, 1874-1954) was about to be sold and possibly torn down. He couldn’t stand by as this great piece of American history was lost.

“Charles Ives is our great American composer,” says Eshbach. “With an emphasis on ‘American.’ His music memorializes places in New England, as well as people like Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. It speaks to the American character. It is full of popular songs, hymn tunes, etc.—life as it was lived in 19th and early 20th century America.”

Ives had done much of his composing in his Arts and Crafts style house in West Redding, Connecticut.

“The Ives family has lived in the house ever since but has kept parts of it, including Ives’s music room, much as he left it when he died. Until just recently, his hat and canes were still on the desk, together with his music and papers. His piano is there… it’s sort of a time capsule,” says Eshbach.

Eshbach decided to get involved. With friend Paul Marotta, he started the “Save the Charles Ives House” Facebook page as well as a small working group to come up with a plan. They contacted the Charles Ives Society, which was initially reluctant to take on the project because of other commitments but has now embraced the effort.

One idea is to buy the house and turn it into a retreat for musicians and scholars. Another more ambitious idea is to emulate what has been done at the Aaron Copland House in New York, which sponsors composer residencies, hosts performances, and conducts educational and community outreach programs.

“One of the things that interested me about this project was that I have twice been a resident scholar at the Brahmshaus in Baden-Baden, Germany,” says Eshbach. “The Brahmshaus was in a similar situation to that of the Ives house. That house was slated for destruction when a group of interested people got together and bought it, forming the Brahmsgesellschaft to maintain it. Brahms’s rooms in the house are now a museum, and there is also an apartment for visiting scholars, with an impressive library of books, scores and recordings relating to Brahms and his circle, and a Bechstein grand piano. Working in such surroundings is truly inspiring, and the time I spent there was very productive. I think it would be wonderful if the Ives house could become something similar—a place dedicated to creativity and scholarship in American music.”

Read more about Eshbach’s project in The Wall Street Journal.

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