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American Music from A to Z in the NLS Music Collection: I—Charles Ives and the Concord Sonata

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In our continuing A to Z survey of American music in the NLS Music Collection, we have come to the letter I. This is such a coincidence, as I recently came across one of my favorite compositions, the Piano Sonata no. 2 “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860” by Charles Ives (1874-1954), otherwise known as the Concord Sonata. One of the responsibilities of a librarian in the NLS Music Section is to digitize our collection of more than 23,000 braille music scores. As you can imagine, this is a long, ongoing process, but the results are priceless. Not only are we able to digitally preserve the collection, but we are also able to make these holdings available to our patrons on BARD (Braille and Audio Reading Download). The Concord Sonata has proven itself to be a worthy addition to our digital holdings.

According to an essay by musicologist Drew Massey, Leonard Bernstein described Ives as America’s “Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson of music.” In addition, one could say that Ives was the original “side hustler,” selling insurance by day at Ives and Myrick (part of the Mutual Life Insurance Company) in New York City and composing music in the evenings. Ives, the son of a Civil War Union bandmaster, was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874. He began composing at around age thirteen, and his first pieces were little marches, fiddle tunes, and songs for church. These melodies made up the soundtrack of his childhood, the kinds of sounds he heard and played around Danbury. He would go on to study at Yale with Horatio Parker, showing up to one of his first lessons with a fugue in four keys (all four keys simultaneously!). Parker was not thrilled, asking him not to bring in any more such “manifestations.” In 1901, Ives began work on his First Piano Sonata, which took him 8 years to complete and would not receive its premiere until 1949.

American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) in 1947. In this rather dark picture he is seated, facing right, with light coming in from a small window in the background.
Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954), full length portrait, seated, facing left. 1947. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540.

The Concord Sonata was composed during the most productive period in Ives’s compositional life. In 1908, he married Harmony Twichell, the daughter of the Reverend Joseph Hopkins Twichell, a well-known citizen of Hartford, Connecticut, and a close friend of Mark Twain. Harmony provided encouragement to her husband for the composition of new works, and her optimism and enthusiasm for literature and social commitment propelled Ives’s development as a composer. The sonata was to paint impressionistic pictures of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, provide a playful and gentle sketch of the Louisa May Alcott home, and display a ragtime scherzo to reflect a lighter side of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The “Thoreau” movement even has a flute part, representing the writer’s meditations at Walden Pond. According to Ives’s biographer Jan Swafford, “The Alcotts” was created from a 1904 sketch of an Alcotts Overture, “Hawthorne” came from a 1909 idea based on Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” and “Emerson” was based on Ives’s 1907 idea of an Emerson Overture/Piano Concerto. He also was piecing these ideas together for a work called “Men of Literature,” which later became the Concord Sonata.

Ives began work on the Concord Sonata around 1911, and the first version was published in 1920. He would revise it many times over the years, with the more definitive edition being published in 1947. Ives’s productive years 1908-1917 yielded several large works, including Three Places in New England, Second Orchestral Set, and the Fourth Symphony. In October 1918 he had a serious heart attack just before his 44th birthday. Neither he nor his work ever completely recovered. According to Swafford, 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 and retired from work completely.

Would the Concord Sonata ever be performed? An anonymous review in The Musical Courier in 1921 stated, “We are sore afraid we shall never know whether or not we can stand his music. Unless Charles drops into our sanctum some time and insists upon playing [it] … we know we shall never know, for nobody else will ever be able to play it for us.” In 1927, John Kirkpatrick, a 22-year-old American piano student studying with Nadia Boulanger in France, wrote to Ives, “Would I be troubling you too much to ask you how I could obtain a copy of your ‘Concord, Mass.’ Sonata? I am an amateur musician on the brink of becoming a professional, and very much interested in anything concerning American music.” Kirkpatrick received the score from Ives, but would still not meet him for another 6 years (despite living only one hour apart!). After the pianist gave his famous Town Hall performance in New York City in 1939, he began collaborating with Ives on a second edition. Kirkpatrick recorded it for Columbia records in 1945 (it would not be released until 1948), and again in 1968. Kirkpatrick played the Concord Sonata hundreds of times in concert, and found it a work that always remained fresh no matter how long he studied it. Later in life he didn’t say that he was “playing” the “Concord,” he said that he was “playing at” it.

The recently digitized braille transcription here at NLS includes a few “extras.” Along with the Concord Sonata, Ives published the accompanying “Essays Before a Sonata,” which are included in the preface of the transcription. There also contains the following note from 1981, which no longer applies to our borrowing rules (NLS Music Section patrons can keep titles for 3 months), but is left in for historical interest:

“Dear Reader: This book is a limited production item and very few copies are available for loan. Please return this book as soon as possible, but no later than four (4) weeks after you receive it. Many other readers are waiting for this book and they appreciate your promptness. Thank you for your cooperation.”

We hope you enjoyed learning more about the Concord Sonata by Charles Ives. It is a work that yields new discoveries at each reading or performance. We have also recently digitized a compilation of Twelve Songs from Ives’s 114 Songs. For further reading about Ives, or to peruse more of his music, please enjoy these selections from the NLS Music collection.

Please note that while many of the materials listed below are available to download from BARD, you can also contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected]. If you are new to BARD, you may find the following links helpful: Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) and BARD Access.


Bernstein, Leonard. Leonard Bernstein Discusses Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Eroica symphony, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the Music of Charles Ives. (DBM00705)

Highet, Gilbert. Fascination with what is Difficult: Man in the Grey Velvet Suit. Highet discusses the lives of two composers, Charles Ives and Erik Satie. He explores the influences that shaped their compositions. Cartridge only. (DBM01509)

Perlis, Vivian. Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History. Interviews with family, friends, neighbors, business associates, and musicians combine to form an in-depth portrait of an original and creative musical mind of the twentieth century. (DB 10338)


Ives, Charles. Adeste Fidelis: in an Organ Prelude. Bar over bar format. (BRM22811)

____ At the River. For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM36473)

____ Eleven Songs and Two Harmonizations. Edited by John Kirkpatrick, a lifelong advocate of Ives’s music. (BRM26501)

____ Psalm 90. For mixed chorus, organ and bells. First tenor part only. (BRM24698)

____ The Sixty-Seventh Psalm. For SATB a cappella. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM24336)

____ Some South-Paw Pitching. For piano in bar over bar format. (BRM22906)

____ Thirteen Songs for Voice and Piano. Bar over bar format. (BRM23992)

____ Twelve Songs for Voice and Piano. Line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM26104)

____ Variations on “America”. For organ in bar over bar format. (BRM22307)

____ Walking. For voice and piano in line by line and bar over bar formats. (BRM25930)

Swafford, Jan. Charles Ives: A Life with Music. Portrait of an innovative composer and insurance executive whose work affected the course of twentieth-century classical music. Recounts his youth and early influences that shaped his life and music. Traces his career as a radical composer up to the gradual acceptance of his music in the concert hall after World War II. (BR 11059)

Large Print

Rossiter, Frank R. Charles Ives and his America. Biography of Charles Ives. (LPM00461)

For further reading, here is another NLS Music Notes blog post about Ives’s life and music. You can also read more about another work by Ives, Some South-Paw Pitching.

For further listening, here are some recordings from the Music Division concerts from the Library of Congress:

“Memories” by Charles Ives, performed by baritone Thomas Hampson from a concert in 2004. You can also listen to a performance by Hampson of Ives’s “In Flanders Field” from 2005.

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