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Charles Ives
The Unanswered Questions

Charles Ives

Charles Ives

  • Born: October 20, 1874, Danbury, Connecticut
  • Died: May 19, 1954, New York City

©National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The Unanswered Question

  • Composed: 1906, rev. 1930–35
  • Premiere: May 11, 1946, New York’s Juilliard School, Theodore Bloomfield (offstage) and Edgar Schenkman (onstage) with a chamber orchestra of Juilliard graduate students.
  • Instrumentation: 4 flutes, trumpet, strings
  • CSO notable performances: First Performance: January 1959 with Max Rudolf conducting. Most Recent: October 2020 livestream concert with Louis Langrée conducting.
  • Duration: approx. 8 minutes

Brief and relatively unassuming as it is, The Unanswered Question is one of the key musical works of the 20th century. Written in 1906 and revised in the 1930s, it was not performed until 1946. Clearly, the musical world was not ready for the novelties of the score.

Yet The Unanswered Question, far from being incomprehensibly complex, is actually a very simple piece, once you let go of any expectations based on the musical conventions of the 19th century. Ives’ main discovery, in this piece, is the direct and immediate musical expression of the characters he described in his commentary (see below); he totally bypassed conventional harmony, and phrase structure to arrive at his goal. At the same time, there is nothing arcane or contrived in his innovations, no modernity for modernity’s sake. If the different members of the ensemble play in different keys or tempos, it is because the point of the piece was precisely to represent various characters, attitudes, or planes of existence and to express their irreconcilable differences.

The title The Unanswered Question comes from the poem “The Sphinx,” by one of Ives’ greatest sources of inspiration, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also memorialized in the first movement of Ives’ celebrated Concord Sonata for piano. The original, full title was A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Question. It was intended to be paired with another work, A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in “The Good Old Summer Time,” now known simply as Central Park in the Dark

Ives about The Unanswered Question

The strings play ppp [very softly] throughout with no change in tempo. They are to represent “The Silences 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 louder through an animando [more animated] to a con fuoco [with fire].... “The Fighting Answerers,” as the time goes on, and after a “secret conference,” seem to recognize 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.”

—Peter Laki