Work: The Unanswered Question
About This Work
One of Ives' most striking and original works, The Unanswered Question(1906) is the first half of a diptych titled Two Contemplations (which is rounded out by the well-known Central Park in the Dark). As with much of Ives' music, The Unanswered
Question is marked by a deep philosophical undercurrent. The musical discourse unfolds among three distinct entities. A small ensemble of strings provides a hymnlike yet ethereal foundation with a warm, glacially paced chorale. A solo trumpet provides a recurrent "eternal question of existence," a short, enigmatic motto which is mockingly answered each time -- except, significantly, for its last appearance -- by an increasingly shrill and belligerent quartet of flutes. In performance, the three musical entitities, each with a distintive melodic and rhythmic profile, are spatially separated, enhancing the sense of philosophical distance among them.
Throughout his insular, unconventional compositional career, Ives continued to experiment with the superimposition of several layers of seemingly disparate musical materials, sometimes resulting in textures of near-unimaginable complexity. This technique indeed became one of the most distinctive hallmarks of his music, reaching its zenith of sophistication in works like the Orchestral Set No. 2 (1909-1915) and the Symphony No. 4 (1909-1916).
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