The Unanswered Question
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.
The Unanswered Question is scored for three groups: a string ensemble, a solo trumpet, and a woodwind quartet. The groups’ play in independent tempos and are placed in such a way that they might not be able to see each other; the strings play offstage.
Ives provided a short text by which to interpret the work, giving it a narrative as in program music. 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 seven times—”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”.
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”, the first six times each louder than the last; it is the woodwinds’ atonal answers that change in obvious ways, growing increasingly agitated and dissonant. After the woodwinds finally give up, the trumpet poses the question quietly one last time.