In Poland, the 5000-zloty banknote has native composer Frédéric Chopin on the front. If the United States were to do something similar, Charles Ives would have to be included somewhere. (And not on the never-used $2 bill, dammit – though that gives new meaning to the phrase “two buck Chuck.” Ahem, anyway.)
Ives’s goal (insofar that he had a single ‘goal’) was to create a body of work that was distinctly ‘American.’ Ives was adamant that American musical culture could not advance if composers didn’t move beyond mere imitation of Germans. Lazy writers often slot him as a postmodernist, but in reality he had stopped composing long before the postmodernist movement began and he hardly considered himself part of the avant-garde.
His body of work sounds nothing like composers that preceded him and very little like the actual modernists that followed. Ives’s music distinguishes itself with its borrowing from other sources. His compositions are peppered with melodies referenced from folk tunes, church hymns and early ragtime melodies as well as Beethoven and his beloved Brahms. Motifs are swiped, altered and offered back with bristling and energetic polytonality. His compositions are emotional and earthy, a far cry from the academic steeliness of real postmodernism.
“The Unanswered Question” (written in 1906, revised in 1934) is a program piece scored for one trumpet, four flutes and a compliment of strings. The strings are supposed to represent silence (wrap your head around that) while a solitary man contemplates the meaning of life, the perennial question of existence, or some other weighty matter. The trumpet asks a five-note theme that is slowly answered by the flutes. Unsatisfied with the response, the trumpet repeats its plangent query. The flutes respond again, more frantic and dissonant than before. This process of question and increasingly discordant answer continues over and over until the flutes, exasperated, can do nothing more but blurt out incoherence. The trumpet concludes with the original theme that is not responded to; the question remains unanswered, The Unanswered Question.
Because of the simplified instrumentation and relatively digestible content, “The Unanswered Question” is one of Ives’s most often performed compositions. But a single piece is obviously not enough to give an accurate depiction of a composer. For the curious listener, I’ve uploaded some more performances into one convenient folder HERE for you to peruse at your own leisure. Included are the companion piece “Central Park in the Dark”, the Symphony of Holidays, Orchestral Sets #1 and #2, and for the really adventurous, his Fourth Symphony. Enjoy. It’s about time we got a little classical music into this blog.