Cleaning Out Ives’ Closet

The tricky task of preserving an artist’s life and work.

Ludwig van Beethoven

In the 1990s, when I was working on a biography of American composer Charles Ives, I visited what had been his summer house on Umpawaug Road in West Redding, Conn. Our host was his adopted daughter’s son, Charles Ives Tyler, who had restored the place to the condition it was in when his grandparents lived there.

When we opened the double doors to Ives’ studio the first things I saw were his battered hat on a shelf, beside it his bandmaster father’s cornet. His cane leaned in the corner. An ancient dusty sign proclaimed BALL FIELD, a relic from his days as a teenaged pitcher in Danbury. On the back of his upright piano a picture of Brahms hung on a nail. At that moment I had a small biographical insight. A friend had written Ives after a visit, “I remember Brahms dancing on your piano.” I thought he meant that Ives was playing Brahms. In fact, it was the picture of Brahms that danced as Ives pounded the keys.

Most of his papers had been taken out and archived, but his library and many keepsakes remained. On the shelves sat biographies of Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Franck, and Scriabin. On the double doors Ives had tacked up a random collage of pictures and clippings that documented his life: a herd of dark-suited insurance executives, performers, concert programs, pictures of Brahms and Franck, a school football team with Ives holding the ball. A huge French concert poster (the program including Three Places in New England) was crumbling off the wall. All the stuff hanging up was yellowed and falling apart, too far gone to save.

I opened one of the books of Ives’ songs sitting on top of his piano and nervously tried one on the keyboard. In my head I could hear Ives shouting, Stop playing like a sissy! The songs had been lying on his piano maybe since 1954, when he died. A lot of the pages had his pencil sketches of revisions and ideas for orchestration. I opened a drawer in his desk and found that not quite all his papers had been removed. There lay one of his trademark memos on a yellow legal sheet. One side had a blistering critique of Hindemith’s harmonic theories as laid out in The Craft of Musical Composition. On the other side was a note from his wife, Harmony Ives: Charlie—your lunch is in the pantry under wax paper. Don’t forget to feed Kitty. That’s when I choked up.

This month, after more than 50 years of devoted preservation by the Tyler family, the Charles Ives house and land in West Redding is up for sale. The asking price is $1.5 million. Charles Tyler is retired and can’t support the place anymore. A team of Ivesians has cleaned out the studio; the furniture in the rest of the house, much of it original, is going to the Tyler children.

The unassuming but highly distinctive shingle house sits on 18 acres in an area that used to be farmland and dirt roads. Now the lots on Umpawaug Road are prime real estate filled with McMansions. There’s a good chance that any buyer who can afford the Ives property will tear down the house and put up something grander. In his day job Ives was a major insurance executive, co-founder of the largest agency in the country; he was, if not super-rich, quite well off. But he left most of his money to his family and a little to support his music. So for the skimpily funded Charles Ives Society, the current keeper of the flame, there’s no way to save the house because there’s no money, no money, no money.

This is an increasingly common story with artists’ legacies. Even when there’s an interest in preserving things, there’s not enough money and not enough space to save a steadily accumulating mountain of artists’ stuff. A few examples will illustrate.

Back in the ‘80s, Yale got the Benny Goodman papers after that jazz legend died. * One day I was browsing in the open stacks of the Music Library and noticed a worn clarinet case sitting on a shelf. What’s that, I asked. It’s Benny Goodman’s clarinet, I was told. They don’t have anyplace to put it yet. It could have been his second- or third-string instrument, but nobody knew. In any case, maybe the most famous clarinet in history was just sitting there, waiting for a home. Twelve years ago my friend Fran Gillespie, an established and admired painter if not a particularly well-known one, offered to leave her paintings and papers to the Smith College Art Museum, who had just mounted a retrospective of her work. Sorry, no room, the museum said. Fran died soon after. With no repository of her art and life, her reputation struggles to survive, and the chances aren’t good.

If you’ve cleaned out your parent’s house after they died, as I have, you’ve discovered what happens after most of us exit the scene. Our tangible souvenirs, our treasures, all our pretty things, become so much junk and fodder for dusty estate sales. Your kids will scratch their heads over a stack of photos of unknown people, then throw them out. They’ll save a few keepsakes, some pictures of you, maybe some diaries for laughs, and they’ll argue over the good furniture. Otherwise, bags and bags of stuff that once encompassed your life will go to the dump.

When the deceased is in some degree famous, the process is not as different as you might think. You don’t have room for most of your parents’ stuff, and nobody has room for most artists’ stuff. One day at Yale I discovered that much of the library of the recently deceased John Kirkpatrick, the pianist who premiered Ives’ Concord Sonata and kept the flame for decades, was for sale on a table in the Music Library. Some of those books and scores were borderline historic. When it comes to property like the Ives house, it’s not going to be preserved unless the artist or his family arranges for it themselves, or that person is really, really famous. The Aaron Copland estate is beautifully preserved, and, as he wished, his foundation hosts composers who work in his house. He had a lot of money and left it for various musical causes, including a fund for recording American composers. But Copland was better known than Ives, and he paid attention to the practical part of his legacy—at least, he did before Alzheimer’s claimed him.

The preservation of the houses of celebrated people is a relatively recent idea. Back in the ‘50s in Northampton, Mass., they tore down the 17th-century home of the town’s most famous resident, the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards, author of the delightful “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” A guy in the neighborhood told me he remembered workmen breaking the 250-year-old crown glass of the windows on rocks. In place of the Edwards house they put up a particularly dreary church.

Robert Frost was and remains really, really famous. There are two Frost house museums, one in Vermont and the other in New Hampshire. A few years ago another Frost residence maintained by Middlebury College was vandalized by a gang of teenagers while it was unwatched in winter. Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s antebellum house in, and now operated by, the town of Oxford, Miss., stood neglected for years. If you wanted to look at it you could go to the university and they’d lend you the key. Most of his library walked off. Only recently was the Faulkner house well-restored and made a tourist destination as a museum.

Ives was luckier than most in the preserving of his creative work. After he died his musical manuscripts went from a drawer in his barn to the Yale Music Library. Now they reside in the Beinecke Rare Book Library on campus, which also houses some two dozen boxes of his papers. The catalogs of Ives’ manuscripts and papers are some of the best in existence for any artist—better, for example, than exists for Beethoven. For one thing, all the Ives material is in one place, while after Beethoven’s death his manuscripts, papers, sketchbooks, conversation books, library, and everything else were scattered to the wind. Most of his sketchbooks were dismembered for souvenirs and curiosities. A good deal was lost. The manuscripts of J.S. Bach, who died known mostly as a musical leader in Leipzig and a cult figure elsewhere, were claimed by his composer sons. C.P.E. Bach preserved and published his father’s work; the alcoholic W.F. Bach lost or pawned off a lot of what he had. None of J.S. Bach’s nine or so surviving children thought to preserve Dad’s letters and other papers.

Now preservation is supposedly the norm, but only in theory. The reality is that artists’ legacies are preserved mainly if, like Copland, they arrange for it themselves and have the money to finance it, or if they have champions after they die. The latter mainly means that in one way or another, people can make a living on your legacy. In the case of composers, the question is how many performers and scholars your work helps pay the rent for. That’s why Beethoven, for example, looms so large. Millions of people love his music and pay tens of thousands of musicians to play it; on the periphery a small army of academics employ themselves variously shoring up Beethoven’s legacy or trying to knock him off his pedestal. In practical terms, this process constitutes most of what music is. A friend of mine has made an academic career of studying the life and work, and editing the scores, of Gottfried van Swieten, a Viennese music fancier and sometime composer who knew and promoted Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. She insists that his music is pretty good, but since she’s virtually the whole Swieten industry, there’s never going to be much profit or fame involved.

As for the Ives house, it’s not only historic but a true creation of the artist who designed and built it. The house is completely Ivesian: quietly attractive but unpretentious, with no façade but rather every side an entrance, the doorless first floor flowing from room to room. There are five bedrooms. In the living room a picture window looks out over the hills, a perfect place for sitting at sunset and reading aloud, as Charlie and his wife used to do. The Charles Ives Society is hoping somebody will buy the property who wants to keep the house—maybe sell off a parcel of land, and/or get a tax break for preserving a piece of history. In lieu of funds, hope is all the flame-keepers have.

What the Ives house like other legacies of artists constantly needs is champions, whether or not there’s money to be made. These things do happen. Walden Pond outside Boston is a lovely wooded oasis in the middle of suburbia and industrial developments because of one guy, Henry David Thoreau, and a few people who cared about him even if in Boston he’s less famous than Larry Bird and Whitey Bulger. Violinist Hilary Hahn is releasing an album of Ives violin sonatas next month; she and other performers are spreading the word about the danger to the house.

Concerning the issue of legacies, posthumous reputations, flame-carriers, and the like, one story sticks in my mind. A couple of decades ago a Catholic priest made it his personal business to elevate a particular person to sainthood. He established a small office in Manhattan and got to work raising awareness and, of course, money. What was in it for the priest? I would imagine satisfaction, reputation in the hierarchy, and a nice handshake someday from God. When he succeeded and the Vatican declared his guy was definitely in heaven, the priest noted in an interview, “These days it takes about $100,000 to make a saint.” By now I bet it’s a million.

Correction, Sept. 22, 2011: This article originally stated that Benny Goodman died in the 1970s. He died in 1986. (Return to corrected sentence.)