Balanchine choreographed Ivesiana to a series of unrelated Ives orchestral pieces shortly after the composer’s death in 1954. The complex music of this Connecticut-born artist, incorporating extensive use of atonality, clashing meters, and quarter-tones, had rarely been performed prior to its use in this ballet.
The ballet is notable for an intense theatricality created through the juxtaposition of sections that contrast starkly in mood, movement, and lighting, each presenting a dramatic situation in the manner of a tone poem.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) was born in Danbury, Connecticut. His early musical training was with his father, and he began composing at age twelve and continued until about 1925. During his lifetime he was known more for his career in the insurance business, an economic necessity, as his musical ideas were ahead of his time. His early resetting of hymns and psalms, and an interest in New England transcendentalism, lent a religious and philosophical tone to much of his work. Harold Schonberg described Ives’ works as “a fiendish mixture of crazy polytonalities and polyrhythms… of unparalleled density, complexity and technical difficulty…. At the same time, nearly every work is a tone picture of a vanished America — a grab-bag of gospel hymns, popular music, ragtime, jazz, patriotic tunes from ‘Yankee Doodle’ on.” Other works set to music of this most American of composers include Calcium Light Night by Peter Martins, Ives, Songs by Jerome Robbins, and The Unanswered Question by Eliot Feld.