The Unanswered Question

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This article is about the Charles Ives composition. For Eliot Feld's 1988 dance, see The Unanswered Question (ballet).

The Unanswered Question is a musical work by American composer Charles Ives. Originally paired with Central Park in the Dark as Two Contemplations in 1908,[a] The Unanswered Question was revived by Ives in 1930–1935. As with many of Ives' works, it was largely unknown until much later in his life, and was not performed until 1946.

Against a background of slow, quiet strings representing "The Silence of the Druids", a solo trumpet poses "The Perennial Question of Existence", to which a woodwind quartet of "Fighting Answerers" tries vainly to provide an answer, growing more frustrated and dissonant until they give up. The three groups of instruments perform in independent tempos and are placed separately on the stage—the strings offstage.

Composition[edit]

The Unanswered Question is scored for three groups: a string ensemble, a solo trumpet, and a woodwind quartet.[2] The groups' play in independent tempos[3] and are placed in such a way that they might not be able to see each other;[4] the strings play offstage.[5]

Ives provided a short text by which to interpret the work, giving it a narrative as in program music.[6] Throughout the piece the strings sustain slow tonal triads that, according to Ives, represent "The Silence of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing". Against this background, the trumpet poses a nontonal phrase[7] seven times[8]—"The Perennial Question of Existence"—to which the woodwinds "answer" the first six times in an increasingly erratic way. Ives wrote that the woodwinds' answers represented "Fighting Answerers" who, after a time, "realize a futility and begin to mock 'The Question'" before finally disappearing, leaving "The Question" to be asked once more before "The Silences" are left to their "Undisturbed Solitude".[7]

The strings twice repeat a pianissimo thirteen-bar progression, so slowly it has a static feel. It uses voice leading, passing tones, and ornamental notes in a manner reminiscent of a hymn or chorale. After the repetition, the strings' part varies in subtle ways that are difficult for the listener to detect. In contrast to this ever-changing but seemingly regular "Silence", the trumpet repeats the same "Question",[9] the first six times each louder than the last;[8] it is the woodwinds' atonal answers that change in obvious ways,[9] growing increasingly agitated and dissonant.[5] After the woodwinds finally give up, the trumpet poses the question quietly one last time.[8]

History[edit]

Originally Ives wrote The Unanswered Question in 1908 (though it is often erroneously dated 1906).[1] In 1930–1935, he revised it to include a 13-bar introduction and make the woodwind parts more dissonant, and add further dynamic and articulation indications.[10] He also made a small but significant change to the "question motif," which had originally ended on the note that began it, but now remained unresolved.

Ives polished the score in 1908,[citation needed] then from 1930-1935 he worked on a version of The Unanswered Question for orchestra. The premiere performance of this version occurred on May 11, 1946, played by a chamber orchestra of graduate students at the Juilliard School and conducted by Theodore Bloomfield. The same concert featured the premieres of Central Park in the Dark and String Quartet No. 2. The original version of the work was not premiered until March 1984, when Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra performed it in New York City.[11]

In 1985, Paul Echols and Noel Zahler produced an edition of The Unanswered Question that included both the original version and the revised 1930–1935 edition. Echols and Zahler were fortunate in that sufficiently complete sources were available to work from for both scores.[10]

Views[edit]

Linda Mack called The Unanswered Question "a study in contrasts. Strings intone slow diatonic, triadic chords; a solo trumpet asks the question seven times; the flutes try to answer the question, each time getting more and more agitated and atonal." Leonard Bernstein added in his 1973 Norton Lectures which borrowed its title from the Ives work that the woodwinds are said to represent our human answers growing increasingly impatient and desperate, until they lose their meaning entirely. Meanwhile, right from the very beginning, the strings have been playing their own separate music, infinitely soft and slow and sustained, never changing, never growing louder or faster, never being affected in any way by that strange question–and–answer dialogue of the trumpet and the woodwinds.[12] Bernstein also talks about how the strings are playing tonal triads against the trumpet's non tonal phrase. In the end, when the trumpet asks the question for the last time, the strings "are quietly prolonging their pure G major triad into eternity".[13] This piece graphically represents the 20th century dichotomy of both tonal and atonal music occurring at the same time.

Another view of the piece was written by Austin Frey:

The 'cosmic landscape' of The Unanswered Question, a trumpet repeatedly poses ‘the eternal question of existence’ against a haunting background of strings, finally to be answered by an eloquent silence. By that work of 1906, Ives was over half a century ahead of his time, writing in collage-like planes of contrasting styles. In 1951, the Polymusic Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Will Lorin, first recorded the piece.[14]

Henry and Sidney Cowell add that silence in the form of soft slow-moving concordant tones widely spaced in the strings move through the whole piece with uninterrupted placidity. After these tones have establish their mood, loud wind instruments cut through the texture with a dissonant raucous melody that ends with the upturned inflection of the Question.[15]

A black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged man in a suit.
Ives may have been quoting the line "Thou art the unanswered question" from Emerson's 1847 poem The Sphinx.

Wayne Shirley believed that The Unanswered Question shared "imagery, structure, and worldview" with The Sphinx (1847) by American Trancendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and that the title derived from a line from the poem: "Thou art the unanswered question". While at Yale, Ives wrote his senior essay on Emerson, and shortly after composing The Unanswered Question, he composed his Emerson Overture, parts of which were later incorporated into the Concord Sonata.[1]

Reception and legacy[edit]

Ives' biographer Jan Swafford called the piece "a kind of collage in three distinct layers, roughly coordinated."[16] Aaron Copland, who often conducted the composition, considered it to be "among the finest works ever created by an American artist".[citation needed]

Ives use of separate groups of instruments placed apart on the stage and playing in independent tempos influenced the work of American composer Henry Brant.[3]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Unanswered Question is often erroneously dated 1906. The original sketch has "The unanswered Q??" marked above it.[1]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c McDonald 2004, p. 267.
  2. ^ Bernstein 1976, p. 269.
  3. ^ a b Slonimsky 2004, p. 92.
  4. ^ Kostelanetz & Brittain 2001, p. 311.
  5. ^ a b Ford 2011, p. 17.
  6. ^ McDonald 2004, p. 266.
  7. ^ a b Bernstein 1976, pp. 268–269.
  8. ^ a b c McDonald 2004, p. 269.
  9. ^ a b Losseff & Doctor 2007, pp. 103–104.
  10. ^ a b Massey 2007, p. 623.
  11. ^ Mortensen 2005
  12. ^ Bernstein 1967
  13. ^ Bernstein 1976, 269
  14. ^ Swafford 1998
  15. ^ Cowell 1955, 177.
  16. ^ http://www.charlesives.org/ives_essay/

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]