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Composed: 1908; 1934

Length: c. 6 minutes

Orchestration: 4 flutes, trumpet, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 2, 1959, with Herbert von Karajan conducting

About this Piece

“Thou art the unanswered question;
Couldst see thy proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh;
And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
Time is the false reply.”

– from “The Sphynx,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

In his book America’s Music, Gilbert Chase writes that Charles Ives suffered from “congenital originality in a climate of conformity.” Drawing sustenance from his father’s bold, unorthodox approach to music as well as his transcendentalist heroes Emerson and Thoreau, the staunchly independent thinker synthesized the American folk tunes and hymns of his childhood with his own aesthetic – he used devices such as bitonality and polyrhythms decades before they entered the standard 20th-century composition toolbox – into a personal voice.

The Unanswered Question is one of the few works of Ives, however, that does not quote or somehow incorporate traditional folk songs and hymn tunes. The musicologist Wayne Shirley has suggested the work was inspired by Emerson’s poem “The Sphynx,” in which the title phrase appears. Ives viewed Emerson as rising “to almost perfect freedom of action, of thought and of soul, in any direction and to any height.”

Frequently labeled “program music,” The Unanswered Question is more aptly described as a piece of philosophy expressed in music. In the foreword to the score, Ives outlines the conceit of the work as dealing with humanity’s “perennial question of existence.” He constructs the work in three layers – a solo trumpet (in many performances played offstage), four flutes, and strings – which never quite sync up.

The trumpet poses the question as a five-note motive, beautiful and stately if slightly off-kilter. The flutes, playing the role of humanity, seek an answer, first softly and slowly, picking up segments of the trumpet’s motive. Ives portrays the frustrating inadequacy of their frenetic and ultimately empty search for answers with increasing rhythmic density, decreasing unity, and more intense dissonances.

The strings, meanwhile, provide the backdrop, playing serenely throughout the work in G major. With almost no perceptible beat or meter, the strings continue what Ives called his “endless melody” – the answer to the noise of relentless wondering and seeking, always there in the background, in stillness. It is Ives’ sonic representation of silence, wherein lies the answer.

— Meg Ryan