It is February 28, and the Brooklyn Philharmonia’s ‘American Marathon’ has already made its way through a good many chamber and choral works and a Stephen Foster medley. Now it is time for the Charles Ives ‘Unanswered Question.’ Lukas Foss leans over to the microphone, apparently feeling a need to somehow underline the special importance of this work. He says simply that it is a prophetic piece which, though written in 1908, prophesies in many ways the beginning of new music.
‘Is there a work that prophesies the end of new music?’ comments a disgruntled man in the row behind me.
There is a small string orchestra at the front of the stage, and at the rear we see the backs of the four woodwind players, facing the assistant conductor. Foss gives the downbeat and the wonderfully ethereal string music begins. But no one is playing. All the musicians are sitting quietly with their bows in their laps. Apparently a few other players have been ensconced off stage somewhere. It is a nice touch.
My thoughts drift back to the very first time I heard this piece. It was in a record store in Denver, one of the old-fashioned kinds that used to have listening booths for customers to sample records. I was 15 or 16 and had never heard of ‘The unanswered Question,’ but I had heard something about Ives, and I asked to listen to it. I was transfixed by what I heard. So clear, so simple, so poetic. I didn’t know that it was program music, and that Ives had assigned specific symbolism to the ethereal background of the strings, the question of the solo trumpet, and the fitful nonanswers of the woodwinds. I didn’t know that this was the prophetic moment in history when Western music discovered the beauty of static repetitious processes. I didn’t know that this was the first indefinite composition—the first score in which the exact coordination of different elements was not specified. All I knew then was that no music had ever touched me quite so deeply.
Now the trumpet comes in with the first statement of the question. Wilmer Wise plays the haunting six-note melody as well as anyone could, and it has a special effect since it drifts down from one of the boxes at the side of the opera house. The intervals sound as strange as ever. As many times as I’ve heard this piece, I never can quite remember what those five pitches are. But whenever I hear them, they sound familiar.
Now the strings on stage join the invisible players, and their slow-motion chorale takes on a lusher quality, but it is still very soft, and the curious harmonies are still unpredictable. Now the conductor at the rear of the stage gives a downbeat, and we hear the first scrambling woodwind answer to the trumpet’s question.
Someone laughs. Do they really think the piece is funny? Maybe they are just amused at the idea of listening to woodwind players who have their backs turned to the audience. Or maybe the music is really getting to them, and this is nervous laughter—an attempt to keep in contact with the everyday reality they are used to.
My thoughts go back to the Ives score, which suggests that all the string players perform behind a screen, and I begin wondering why conductors never seem to do it that way. It doesn’t matter, I guess, as long as there is some attempt to place the three musical elements in independent situations, and Foss’s solution is probably as good as any.
I recall an issue of Soundings where Philip Corner devoted several pages to trying to analyze ‘The Unanswered Question.’ His subjective poetic comments did seem to say something, and they have perhaps influenced my own perceptions of the piece. But even those who know Ives’s music as well as Corner does can’t really explain the odd chord progressions of the string music, or the curious tonality (or is it atonality) of the trumpet line. The piece is an unanswered question in more than one way.
We are up to the fifth statement of the trumpet’s question already, and the piece seems to be going by faster than it ever has. Could Foss have taken some cuts, or sped up the string music? More likely, it is only my own sense of timing which is different now. When I first heard the piece it seemed to suspend itself forever, and time almost stopped with the magic of the music. But of course, I had never heard static nondevelopmental music before. By now I have heard a lot of it, and I suspect that a conductor would have to do a 20-minute version of this eight-minute piece in order to recreate for me now the extreme timelessness which I sensed when I first heard the work.
My thoughts go back to the late Alvin Etler, and to a conversation we once had when I was studying composition with him. I had brought up the subject of ‘The Unanswered Question’ for the umpteenth time, and said in my cocky, studentlike way that I would like to be able to answer it some day. He was fond of the piece too, but he had already discussed it with me about as much as he cared to, so he gently pointed out that it would be more fruitful if I put away my dog-eared Ives score and studied some Stravinsky or Webern or something for a while. He was right, of course. Obsessions seldom pay off. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling then, and even now, that any composer who really understood the machinations of that piece wouldn’t find it necessary to study all the others.
‘The Unanswered Question’ ended and the man behind me continued complaining to his wife, who had apparently dragged him to the concert. ‘He could have put more Gershwin and stuff. It didn’t have to be like this.’