"The Unanswered Question" by Charles Ives


Charles Ives was relatively unknown as a composer throughout his life. Likely the earliest of the American experimentalists, Ives's music challenges a listener's conceptions of beauty and order. His works often have a deep philosophical component that reflects Ives's keen awareness of the social and moral issues of his day. In this work, Ives's addresses existential questions through three distinct layers or groups. Each of these groups performs in different time (requiring a conductor for each group) and place. The first are the strings, representing the "Silence of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing" positioned offstage. The second is a solitary trumpet poses the "perennial question of existence" in a repeated nontonal phrase. The third consists of woodwinds that struggle to answer the question posed. Their answering becomes more erratic and mocking until they finally surrender. 

Below are several links to various recordings of this piece. 

The following is the score for this musical work. Although you may not be able to read music, the graphical nature of the score may help you perceptualize the work's various elements. 

Questions to Consider

  1. How does this work suggest the futility of memory?
  2. In what ways does this work engage with the philosophy that inspired the impressionists? 
  3. What elements of music does Ives employ to communicate his message? 

Previous Citation(s)
The score referenced here is made available through IMSLP.org at https://imslp.org/wiki/The_Unanswered_Question_(Ives%2C_Charles)

This content is provided to you freely by Ensign College.

Access it online or download it at https://ensign.edtechbooks.org/new/the_unanswered_question_by_charles_ives.