“The Unanswered Question” is one of the most frequently performed works by Charles Ives. His biographer Jan Swafford says: “The Unanswered Question” is what he called a 'cosmic drama' in which these very beautiful distant strings play this beautiful chorale and the trumpet intones over and over again what Ives called the 'Question of Existence.' And a group of winds called 'the Fighting Answers' run around after every question trying to find an answer and getting more and more angry and frustrated until they reach a scream of rage."
"And," says Swafford, “the trumpet asks the question one more time and is answered by silence because Ives believed a question was greater than an answer.”
Charles Edward Ives was born on October 20, 1874 in the small manufacturing town of Danbury, Connecticut. Although educated in music, he made a living as a businessman and composed on the side. Swafford says he was equally creative in both endeavors: “Over the years, he became one of the most important insurance people in the country, considered to this day one of the founders of the modern insurance industry. And at the same time he was writing music of growing audacity and experimental quality which, on the other hand, was really designed to capture the feeling of small town communities, of community life and the way music expresses our lives, embodies our lives.”
Ives wrote most of his music from the late 1890's to the early 1920's. Although he lived in New York City most of that time, the titles of many of his works testify to his continued inspiration from small town America, for example: “Three Places in New England,” “Concord, Massachusetts,” “The Bells of Yale,” “The Camp Meeting” and “New England Holidays.” Swafford notes that Ives’ music styles ranged from simple and straight forward to complex, dissonant and even confusing: “He could write a simple little traditional parlor song that was absolutely heart-felt in the Victorian tradition and he wrote some of the wildest music ever put on tape that just sounds like raving pandemonium at times. And that’s what’s most associated with Ives, but the reality is that he wrote all kinds of music in just about every conceivable style, and did well at all those styles.”
For example,“The Fourth of July,” a movement from Ives’ symphony called “New England Holidays,” employs bits and pieces of well-known tunes, hymns, songs and marches familiar to Americans and combines them in intriguing ways. So experimental was much of his work that his contemporaries had little appreciation of it. His Symphony Number Three, composed between 1901 and 1904, was first performed in 1946 and was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.
Swafford places Ives among the top American composers of the 20th century, along with George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Duke Ellington. But he concedes Ives may never achieve the popularity of the other three since his music is not easy listening: “Ives is certainly the least slick of those groups. He is the least predictable. He is the most unconventional and eccentric at times. So it’s the combination of wildness and familiarity that kind of boggles people about Ives. Everybody knows where Copland’s coming from and Ellington and Gershwin. Ives is really on its own tack. Even though he was trying to write the ultimate democratic music, music about community, about American life, the language that he developed to tell those stories was peculiar to himself.”
Some of his compositions include off-key singing, screeching of the violin or wheezing of the harmonium.
Ives identified with the so-called Transcendentalists of the northeastern New England region, men of letters like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who combined high ideals with an aloofness from the rest of the world, including Europe.
“He is in the American maverick tradition," says Swafford. "If you want to compare him to other people, it would be people like Thoreau, who was his great idol, but also the Wright brothers -- sort of lonely individualists, doing remarkable and brilliant things, somewhat apart from the mainstream.”
Like his fellow Transcendentalists, Ives went his own very American way. No wonder then that so few classical music fans can name any of his works and many don't even know about him.