The Unanswered Question is a work by American composer Charles Ives. It was originally the first of “Two Contemplations” composed in 1906, paired with another piece called Central Park in the Dark. As with many of Ives’ works, it was largely unknown until much later in his life, being first published in 1940. Today the two pieces are commonly treated as distinct works, and may be performed either separately or together.Contents [hide]
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The full title Ives originally gave the piece was “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter” or “The Unanswered Perennial Question”. His biographer Jan Swafford called it “a kind of collage in three distinct layers, roughly coordinated.” The three layers involve the scoring for a string quartet, woodwind quartet, and solo trumpet. Each layer has its own tempo and key. Ives himself described the work as a “cosmic landscape” in which the strings represent “the Silences of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet then asks “The Perennial Question of Existence” and the woodwinds seek “The Invisible Answer”, but abandon it in frustration, so that ultimately the question is answered only by the “Silences”.
Ives polished the score in 1908, then from 1930-1935 he worked on a version of The Unanswered Question for orchestra. The premiere performance of this version occurred on May 11, 1946, played by a chamber orchestra of graduate students at the Juilliard School and conducted by Theodore Bloomfield. The same concert featured the premieres of Central Park in the Dark and String Quartet No. 2. The original version of the work was not premiered until March 1984, when Dennis Russell Davies and the American Composers Orchestra performed it in New York City.