The Unanswered Question
The Unanswered Question is a work by American composer Charles Ives. It was originally the first of "Two Contemplations" composed in 1906, paired with another piece called Central Park in the Dark. As with many of Ives' works, it was largely unknown until much later in his life, being first published in 1940. Today the two pieces are commonly treated as distinct works, and may be performed either separately or together.
Ives' biographer Jan Swafford called the piece "a kind of collage in three distinct layers, roughly coordinated." The three layers involve the scoring for a woodwind quartet, solo trumpet, and offstage string quartet. Each layer has its own tempo and key. Ives himself described the work as a "cosmic landscape" in which the strings represent "the Silences of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing." The trumpet then asks "The Perennial Question of Existence," and the woodwinds seek "The Invisible Answer", but abandon it in frustration, so that ultimately the question is answered only by the "Silences".
Ives polished the score in 1908, 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.
Aaron Copland, who conducted this composition quite often, considered it to be "among the finest works ever created by an American artist."
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. 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”. 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.
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.
Recordings and use in popular culture 
The piece is featured prominently in the film "Run Lola Run."
- Bernstein, Leonard (1976). The unanswered question : six talks at Harvard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Cowell, Henry, and Sidney R. Cowell (1955). Charles Ives and his music. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Bernstein, Leonard (1967). New York Philharmonic Young People's Concert 3 (December 12, 2005)
- Jaffe, David A (1996). Wanting the Impossible (echos of Ives' Unanswered Question). (December 8, 2005)
- Kennedy, Michael and Joyce Bourne (1996). Biography of Charles Ives (December 12, 2005)
- Mack, Linda (2003). Charles Ives (1874-1954) The Unanswered Question (December 8, 2005)
- Mortensen, Scott (2005). The Unanswered Question Notes (December 8, 2005)
- Swafford, Jan (1998). Charles Edward Ives bio (December 8, 2005)
- The Unanswered Question at YouTube