Charles Ives ‘The Unanswered Question’: A Cosmic Soundscape

Day I has arrived readers, and what a treat of a composer and work I have to share with you today! I knew which composer I wanted to discuss on this day way in advance as he is too good to not listen to! So without any further ado day I is for…Charles Ives! This blog will be discussing his simply breathtaking work, The Unanswered Question. 

Charles Ives was born in Connecticut (US) in 1874, and his father was a USA Army bandleader. Due to this day-to-day influence of music, Ives grew up surrounded by music. He also took unique music lessons, and by unique I mean not your average ‘composer learns piano and harmony’ kind of lessons. Ives was encouraged and taught how to be experimental with harmony and tonality, with his teacher introducing him to polytonal harmonies. Ives then began to learn the organ, which he picked up quickly, and by age 14 he became a church organist. Ives enrolled at Yale University, where he studied composition. Whilst studying in higher education, Ives was a prominent figure in both his subject, but also sports.

After graduating in 1902, Ives moved to New York City, where he and his friend, Julian Myrick, formed their own insurance agency (Ives & Myrick). Ives did exceedingly well within the insurance industry, but his peers were surprised that he was also a composer. After a series of health issues, both mentally and physically, Ives composed in his most creative way to date. Ives pursued his insurance company, whilst still being a prolific composers, which ended up with him suffering from several heart attacks, which left him too weak to compose much thereafter. After 1927, his wife documented that he “could compose no more” because “nothing sounds right.” Its still quite a mystery today as to why Ives went so silent in his later life when it came to music. Instead of writing new music, he instead revised old ones. Ives died in 1954 after suffering a fatal stroke.

Interestingly, its only since his death that his music has actually been performed, recorded or written about. During the times where he actively composed, most of his works were ignored. Contemporaries such as Elliott Carter, Gustav Mahler Aaron Copland were supportive of Ives’ work, but alas it did not reach any sort of surface with the general public. The obscurity of Ives throughout his lifetime makes his works and life even more interesting now.

The Unanswered Question was initially composed in 1908, as part of a duo of pieces called Two Contemplations (the other piece being Central Park in the Dark). However, in Ives’ later life, he revised it and it now performed as a stand-alone piece. Similar to the rest of Ives’ repertoire, The Unanswered Question was discovered a long time after his death, and only recently has it become popular. The instrumentation for the work is very unconventional as it is scored for a string ensemble, a woodwind quartet and a solo trumpet. To create an overall effect, the strings are to play off-stage, whilst the winds are placed around the stage, where they probably will not see each other. To create a vague narrative for this work, Ives offered some short text to help with interpretation. Shown below are the texts and how they are represented within the work:

“The Silence of the Druids – who know, see and hear nothing” – Sustained strings

“The Perennial Question of Existence” – Solo trumpet

“Fighting Answerers” – Woodwinds (Who, eventually “realise a futility and begin to mock ‘The Question'”

“Undisturbed Solitude”

This piece may only be about 6 minutes, but it is incredibly complex in the messages it’s trying to present. It may take a few times to listen to it for it to fully grow into fruition, but I promise you its worth it. The piece begins with a 13-bar progression which feels incredibly static. There is no sense of metre here, nor key (it could be in either C or G major, most likely the latter though due to the occasional F# passing tones). The opening is supposed to represent the timelessness of the druids. Due to the diatonic feel of this opening, it feels like a melancholic continuum that Ives described as a “cosmic landscape.” Ives use of voice leading is incredible, and creates a sense of spatial separation (so much so that we can distinguish the layers within the strings). The extreme register that the upper strings are playing in, as well as being marked pp, make this opening very eerie. However, this atmospheric passage is used as a foundation throughout the whole of the piece. The strings never gain speed, dynamic or anything that could affect the infinitely sustained chords. The strings are never affected by ‘The Question’, unlike the woodwinds. In the grand scheme of the piece, the strings are rather impassive.

The solo trumpet asks ‘The Question’ for the first time (out of seven), using half and quarter tones. There is an emphasis on the minor third interval within the trumpet part. The Question is also incredibly isolated from the string part, which to me, is incredibly prevalent. The trumpet repeats this question seven times throughout the course of the work. Each time it asks the question, it becomes more rhythmically displaced, louder and more agitated in tone. The ‘answerers’ are the woodwinds, who play chromatic motifs, which become more and more animated. Interestingly, the question and answers lack any sort of connection, however, which creates isolation and hopelessness. There is an unbridgeable gap between the question and answers, which emphasises the growth of the piece. The rhythmic ambiguity of the whole piece resonates within the dissonance and displacement of the deeper meaner behind the work. The piece ends with a silence after the last question asked by the trumpet. The piece falls into ‘Undisturbed Solitude’ and the strings calmly end the work.

Austin Frey reviewed this piece claiming it “poses the eternal question of existence against a haunting background of strings, finally to be answered by an eloquent silence.” He further comments that “Ives was over half a century ahead of his time, writing in collage-like planes of contrasting styles.” The work offers placidity, yet uncertainty through the medium of instrumentation, which is ingenious. Copland was inspired by this piece, saying that it is “among the finest of works ever created by an American artist.”

Ives believed that the human spirit evolved with the ever-growing realm of nature. Music play’s a prominent role in any journey and this brings depth and substance to human life. The Unanswered Question reflects this universal ‘religion’ that Ives was exploring himself. The stratified linear events that pan out within the music also reflect the idea that the question (even though it coexists with the answer), bears no relationship with it. Ives makes a deep philosophical statement about this work, claiming “in the immensity of creation, a question speaks louder than the answer.”

This really is a fantastic piece of music and I hope you can find some time to give it a chance and let it take you to the ‘cosmic landscape’ that Ives was trying to create. Enjoy!

Happy Reading!

Recommended Recordings:

This is a fantastic recording by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (Conducted by Leonard Bernstein)

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