Essays Before a Sonata

Author: Charles Ives


The futility of attempting to trace the source or primal impulse of an art-inspiration may be admitted without granting that human qualities or attributes which go with personality cannot be suggested, and that artistic intuitions which parallel them cannot be reflected in music. Actually accomplishing the latter is a problem, more or less arbitrary to an open mind, more or less impossible to a prejudiced mind.

That which the composer intends to represent as "high vitality" sounds like something quite different to different listeners. That which I like to think suggests Thoreau’s submission to nature may, to another, seem something like Hawthorne’s "conception of the relentlessness of an evil conscience"—and to the rest of our friends, but a series of unpleasant sounds. How far can the composer be held accountable? Beyond a certain point the responsibility is more or less undeterminable. The outside characteristics—that is, the points furthest away from the mergings—are obvious to mostly anyone. A child knows a "strain of joy," from one of sorrow. Those a little older know the dignified from the frivolous—the Spring Song from the season in which the "melancholy days have come" (though is there not a glorious hope in autumn!). But where is the definite expression of late-spring against early-summer, of happiness against optimism? A painter paints a sunset—can he paint the setting sun?

In some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones—when the diatonic scale will be as obsolete as the pentatonic is now—perhaps then these borderland experiences may be both easily expressed and readily recognized. But maybe music was not intended to satisfy the curious definiteness of man. Maybe it is better to hope that music may always be a transcendental language in the most extravagant sense. Possibly the power of literally distinguishing these "shades of abstraction"—these attributes paralleled by "artistic intuitions" (call them what you will)-is ever to be denied man for the same reason that the beginning and end of a circle are to be denied.


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Chicago: Charles Ives, "1," Essays Before a Sonata, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in Essays Before a Sonata (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2023,

MLA: Ives, Charles. "1." Essays Before a Sonata, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in Essays Before a Sonata, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Ives, C, '1' in Essays Before a Sonata, ed. . cited in 1909, Essays Before a Sonata, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2023, from