Classical Bites: Charles Ives, “The Unanswered Question”

Note: I plan to do these here on MG going forward. These are quick, and somewhat random, selections that I want to share to the wider audience. They’re obviously smaller, shorter, and more pointed than my longer articles on classical music, which you can see in previous posts.

‘Nuff said. To the music.


Today’s selection is from Charles Ives, who was born in the late 19th century and lived until the middle of the 20th. Coming from a prominent Connecticut Yankee family, who were also abolitionists; attending Yale University; and being instrumental in the insurance industry, where he pioneered the practice of estate planning, Ives wasn’t a professional musician. He did it on the side while he worked in insurance, much in the same manner as another prominent early 20th century amateur artist, Wallace Stevens, did for poetry.

Ives is best known for two things: introducing American themes and subjects into his compositions and experimentation with dissonance. Dissonant music is a hallmark of early 20th century music, as many composers in both Europe and the US strove to break free of Classical and Romantic molds to try something different, something radical, and something original. Ironically, though Ives was a prolific composer during his lifetime, the public ignored his work, and it took some years afterwards for it to gain an audience. The dissonant quality didn’t help.

“The Unanswered Question” has three main sections:

  1. The strings, playing an ethereal ground representing “The Silence of the Druids.”
  2. The trumpet, which is asking “The Perennial Question of Existence.”
  3. The flutes, which provide answers; first calm, then more agitated, and then stopping in frustration.

If you’re not familiar with it, dissonance takes some getting used to. But, with “The Unanswered Question,” there’s enough, in my view, in the strings’ grounding to provide some calm as you listen to it. Indeed, the ground is, musically, the ocean of sound and consciousness that we all hear and that we all experience. The question we’ve also heard — time and again. And, the answers we provide, we’ll continue to do so until the end.

But, this is just a piece of music, right? No deeper meaning here, right?

For an excellent lecture on this piece, click here.

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