The Unanswered Question

By Charles Ives
Composed in 1906

Ives is one of America’s most intriguing composers. He began his musical studies under his father (a bandmaster), became an organist for a Connecticut church, and began composing around the turn of the 20th century. After graduating in 1908 from Yale University, Ives went into a successful career in the insurance business, but continued his composing activities.

Widely ignored until the end of his life, Ives is now an established American composer. His style is pioneering and eclectic, and runs the gamut from beautiful melody to wild dissonances and polyrhythms.

He wrote his original version of The Unanswered Question around 1906, and revised it between 1930 and 1935. The work is scored for strings, solo trumpet and wind choir (2 flutes, oboe, and clarinet).

While the strings play a slow soft chorale, the solo trumpet asks a series of “questions.” Each time, the wind quartet answers the trumpet. While the first “answers” are slow, they rapidly increase in intensity, tempo and urgency. After a final shrill burst from the winds, the trumpet repeats the question, letting it hang in the air until the end of the piece.