Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question

Wow! Wow! And Wow again. I discovered this piece about two years ago and was completely blown away. Listening to it again stuns me. How did I in my 57 years on this earth miss it? Starting out stately with a sense of inexorable direction, every so often, its sonority and solemnity is periodically punctured, at first by a questioning horn, but increasingly by little explosions of woodwinds.

Written in 1906, “The Unanswered Question” serves as a kind of gateway between the traditional classical era and the flood of modernism that would soon sweep through the world. 1906. Think about it–7 years before Rites of Spring. My late best friend David Hendrickson told me 35 years ago about the wonders of Charles Ives, but I completely ignored him. Now I see I have a lot of catching up to do. Ain’t it wonderful?


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

8 Responses to Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question

  1. kvennarad says:

    A superb piece of music.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. G.H.Bone says:

    I love Charles Ives. I discovered him back in the early 1980s. I went with a friend to a Prom at the Albert Hall here in London. We went to hear Holst’s Planets Suite and heard a tremendously good performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in great shape but augmented by a violent storm that passed over the Hall during the performance, providing great crashes during the loud music and receding in mysterious rumbles during the mystical pianissimo final pages. The conductor (the late Sir John Pritchard) acknowledged this peculiarly musical contribution of Nature a couple of times by holding up his hands in thanks towards the firmament. But for me the REAL lightning bolt hit before that beguiling performance. The first half of the concert was given over to a performance of Ives’s 4th Symphony. Before the concert, my friend said to me “so who is this Ives person, and what’s his music like”. I replied, sniffily, “oh, he’s just some American composer, don’t worry about it”. But then I heard music that entirely confounded my ignorant views. The Ives 4th is a sublime masterpiece: wayward, wild, now pugnacious, now heart-breakingly tender. It is a bizarre amateurish hotch-potch that somehow, almost despite itself, arranges itself into a dramatically satisfying, architecturally sound, whole. In short, it is a SYMPHONY. It made me cast aside my silly prejudices and I became a great lover of American music in general, but of Ives in particular.

    Thanks for posting the Unanswered Question. I hadn’t heard it for many years, It is a tremendous piece, and the title is perfect to apply to the composer himself: cussed, intractable and adorable.


    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks for the great memory. Have you ever heard a piece by Ives that simulates two different marching bands playing different songs that crash into one another? The guy obviously had a sense of humor and when I heard this piece, I knew where Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach got much of his inspiration. That and Haendel’s Acis and Galatea. All the best.


  3. G.H.Bone says:

    Hi Kurt. Ah yes: the incident in which Ives’s father arranged to have two marching bands approach one another to create a bizarre cacophony finds echoes throughout Charles’s music. The 4th Symphony has numerous passages in which different tunes, in different keys and time signatures are set against one another. The effect is intoxicating. Some conductors like to have assistant conductors during the performance to keep some sort of rhythmic (dis-)order. The performance that I saw used three conductors during the really complex passages. If you don’t know the 4th already, do seek it out. The slow movement is especially beautiful and moving (and, by Ives’s standards, fairly orthodox).

    One of my favourite Ives stories concerns a memo that he wrote to a copyist who was trying to make sense of the scores that Ives was sending him. The copyist was, good-naturedly, trying to correct the obvious musical errors in what he was seeing. In frustration, Ives sent him a memo saying: “Please don’t try to make things nice! All the wrong notes are right … I want it that way.”

    I’ve been tinkering with a piece about Ives for my blog for more that a year now, but it’s so difficult to set down, with any clarity, my thoughts about the man. So, I’m grateful to you for giving me this opportunity at least to express my great enthusiasm for the music. I listened again to the Unanswered Question performance that you posted. Wild and beautiful stuff! Thank you.


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