The Unanswered Question, by Charles Ives

question marks. The Unanswered Question by Charles IvesOne thing Charles Ives learned at Yale: he had no chance of earning a living as a professional musician if he wanted to be true to his own ideals.

Not only did his musical idiom confuse his teachers, it also confused his fellow students. He went into the insurance business and composed music as a hobby.

After a long day at the office, he composed during the evening in his Manhattan apartment. He spent quiet weekends at a cabin in Connecticut, meditating, writing, and planning new compositions.

Ives began two new works in 1906, both called Contemplation. In later years, he had forgotten whether he intended them as a single two-movement piece or not.

The full titles reveal both similarities of intention and profound differences in character: A Contemplation of Nothing Serious; Or, Central Park in the Dark in the Good Old Summer Time and A Contemplation of a Serious Matter; Or, The Unanswered Perennial Question.

Apparently, all of his weekend meditations on the meaning of existence had not given him any satisfactory answers. He decided to express the question in what he called a “cosmic landscape.”

Ives’ program

He had the piece printed in 1941, but it is not clear if it was performed at that time. The definitive edition, with the familiar shorter title The Unanswered Question, appeared in 1953. Ives explained the piece in his foreword to that edition:

The strings play ppp throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent “The Silence of the Druids–Who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial  Question of Existence,” and states it in the same tone of voice each time.

But the hunt for “The  Invisible Answer” undertaken by the flutes and other human beings, becomes gradually more active, faster and lower through an animando to a con fuoco.

This part need not be played in the exact time position indicated. It is played in s somewhat of an impromptu way; if there be no conductor, one of the flute players may direct their playing.

“The Fighting Answerers,” as the time goes on, and after a “secret conference,” seem to realize a futility, and begin to mock “The Question”–the strife is over for the moment. After they disappear,

“The Question” is asked for the last time, and “The Silences are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Solitude.”


Ives / Morlot / Seattle Symphony – Ives: Symphony No. 4; The Unanswered Question


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