October 04, 2012


The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: The True Story of a Famous American Composer. By Joanne Stanbridge. Houghton Mifflin. $16.99.

The Giver. By Lois Lowry. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

      Gifts, and those who give them, come in many forms, both in real life and in fiction.  Charles Ives (1874-1954), one of the most extraordinary American composers who ever lived – indeed, one of the most extraordinary composers, period – gave gifts that began to be appreciated only years after his death.  A part-time composer (he was a successful insurance executive), he wrote almost nothing after 1920, when he found he could not make the notes pay attention as they had.  But what wonders he created in the decades before that!  Anticipating trends that were far in the future – aleatoric music, musique concrรจte, music juxtaposing real-world sounds with those of the concert hall, music combining “high” elements with “low,” music written in multiple keys and multiple rhythms so complex that for many years his Symphony No. 4 could be performed only by two conductors – Ives took what was essentially a simple New England sensibility, steeped in history and religion, and turned it inside-out, into something wondrously complex but still, at its deepest core, heartfelt and approachable.  Getting to that core, though, is no small feat, as Joanne Stanbridge demonstrates in a small way in The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives.  This is not a book about Ives’ life and not really a book about his music as a whole.  It is a somewhat fictionalized account of a single piece, From Hanover Square North, that Ives wrote after learning of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and after hearing the reactions of ordinary Americans to the disaster.  Stanbridge tells the story of the torpedoing of the ship by a German submarine, and the response of New Yorkers, in a simple, straightforward way, showing Ives among fellow citizens trying, with them, to make sense of what has occurred.  And she incorporates into the tale – in wordless pages that are deeply affecting – the story of a six-year-old survivor who was rescued by a Canadian journalist.  Stanbridge thus personalizes the event on two levels, through Ives and through the unnamed child; and then she explains that Ives created his music after returning home to Connecticut, although the work was not heard until 13 years after Ives’ death.  A brief conclusion notes that Ives influenced many later composers, including Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland and John Adams, and this is certainly true in some ways.  But those ways are largely superficial.  In fact, Ives was unique, his propensities for polytonality, for incorporation of nonmusical sound into traditional harmonies, his utter disregard for form and structure except when he felt like obeying the rules (which he did quite well when he chose), all marked him as an American original and a composer who really has no direct successor.  Stanbridge’s book barely scratches the surface of the man and his music, but it scratches it well.  If only it had included a CD to let children hear what Ives actually wrote!  But The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives is certainly a start toward appreciating a most unusual genius who is still not as well-known as he deserves to be.

      Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the first book in what became a quartet of novels, is about as well-known as any book for young readers, and as well-regarded.  It won the Newbery Medal and a host of other awards, and even today, nearly two decades after its first publication in 1993, it stands as powerful testimony to just how deep and complex a story a skillful author can create for the youth market.  Unremittingly dark, but moving inexorably (at least in retrospect) toward affirmation, the book stands effectively on its own and does not need its sequels, Gathering Blue, Messenger and Son, although they do broaden and extend the story.  But The Giver is self-contained in all important respects.  The initial presentation of 12-year-old Jonas’ society as utopian, the gradual revelation of it as a dystopia, the consequences of removing emotional depth from life in an attempt to get rid of pain and strife, and the history of the society that Jonas learns after being appointed “Receiver of Memory,” are all part of a coming-of-age tale quite different from others.  These and other plot points set up Jonas’ eventual uncovering of the power of knowledge, including forbidden knowledge, and his ultimate dilemma: whether to stay with the community or run away in the hope of living a full life somewhere else.  Jonas’ discoveries, through the agency of the previous Receiver of Memory – the “Giver” of the title – are as stark and startling as ever.  And the book has just as much real-world application now as it did when first issued: if people are happy because they do not know of the possibility of a better life, who, if anyone, has the right to take that life from them in the name of the greater good (if it is a greater good) of knowledge and awareness of history?  The handsome new Houghton Mifflin edition of The Giver provides a fine opportunity for readers to rediscover the novel, or encounter it for the first time.  It is a book that gives much while also taking much: thoughtful readers will be far more likely to question government largesse and centrally planned, artificial happiness when they have finished the book.  Not nearly as bleak and doom-laden as George Orwell’s 1984, Lowry’s novel nevertheless deals with similar themes at levels more appropriate for preteens and young teenagers.  It is not and never was a book to be taken, or given, lightly.

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