The Unanswered Question- Charles Ives

Born October 20, 1874, in Danbury, Connecticut

Died May 19, 1954, in New York City

The work was originally composed in 1906 for offstage string quartet, solo trumpet, and woodwind quartet.  Ives later revised the work from 1930-1935 in order to yield a version for chamber orchestra. This version is scored for 4 flutes (or 2 flutes, oboe, and clarinet), trumpet (English horn, oboe, or clarinet can replace trumpet), and strings.

Originally, The Unanswered Question formed the complementary companion to another work; both pieces were paired by Ives as: I. “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter, or The Unanswered Question”, and II. “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious, or Central Park in the Dark in the Good Old Summertime.”  This offsetting of opposites was but one of the characteristics of Ives’ vaunted modernist style.

From the beginning of his career, Ives was publicly known as a prophet who had discovered the elements associated with modern music: atonality, polytonality, polyrhythm, free dissonance, quartertone harmony, and spatial music, most of them already present in The Unanswered Question, which was written in the first decade of the 20th century. But a long time went by before people began to ask themselves whether Ives was being an innovator for the sake of innovation or whether he was trying to reach the public at a deeper level.

Ives believed in the redeeming power of art and aimed, as he wrote, for a “conception unlimited by the narrow names of Christian, Pagan, Jew, or Angel.  A vision higher and deeper than art itself!”  He also believed that the human spirit evolved, with the rest of nature, toward perfection, and that each individual’s journey of discovery was also part of the journey of all human kind.  Music, he wrote, played a prominent role in those journeys, and he believed in its moral and spiritual importance, even insisting that the writing of music should always be accompanied by depth and substance.

Viewed in this way, The Unanswered Question represents one of the most serious works of the twentieth century offered as an example of the universal religion Ives conceived.  Throughout the piece, we hear three different layers of sound. Although several interpretations on the meaning of each of these three layers of scoring abound, Ives himself described the work as a “cosmic landscape” in which the strings portray “the silences of the Druids.” Over that quiet background the solo trumpet phrase asks “the perennial question of existence.” In response to each instance, the quartet of winds Ives called the “fighting answers” seeks a reply but become more agitated and in a sense, frustrated, until the trumpet states the question one final time, only to be answered by silence.  Through The Unanswered Question, Ives makes a philosophical statement: in the immensity of creation, a question speaks louder than an answer.

– Program notes written by Silvia Santinelli, Co-Founder



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