I don’t normally publish my program notes here, but this one has already been seen online and is about to get an Australian reprise. I’m quite fond of it, because it’s one of those occasions where I’ve been able to craft a piece of writing that in its structure and rhetoric mirrors some aspect of the music itself.
The work is Charles Ives' Unanswered Question, and the note goes like this:
Q. Who was Charles Ives?
A. Ives came from a well-off New England family with its fair share of eccentricity (‘…odd, but in a nice way,’ said his wife). He studied music at Yale then became a successful life insurance salesman who composed for the love of it. This freed him to be completely original without needing to court publishers and concert presenters. He didn’t belong to a particular stylistic school but he was hugely influential as the father of modern American music. When his Third Symphony won the Pulitzer prize he said ‘Prizes are for boys – I’m grown up!’ (He was 72.)
Q. What were his musical influences?
A. When Charles was a boy his father, a leading bandmaster, made him sing songs in one key while he accompanied him on the piano in a different key, which seems to have given him a healthy disdain for conventional harmony. Similarly, he was fascinated by things that we would call ‘wrong’: a mis-harmonised hymn tune, or the competing sounds of town bands marching in different directions, each playing their own music.
Q. What kind of music did he write?
A. Ives wrote in nearly every genre, including symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, organ music and songs. He often quotes hymns and popular tunes, and the influence of folk music is strong. But the risk of sentimentality is countered by playful experiments with harmony and rhythm.
Q. How did he come to write The Unanswered Question?
A. The Unanswered Question was one of a pair of pieces, first performed as interludes in a New York theatre (the other was Central Park in the Dark) and together known as Two Contemplations. The flexibility of the theatre-orchestra tradition is reflected in the instrumentation: trumpet (which can be replaced by English horn, oboe or clarinet), flute quartet (third and fourth flutes replaceable by oboe and clarinet) and string orchestra or string quartet. Another theatrical aspect of the piece emerges in the staging instructions, which include placing instruments offstage.
Around this time, 1906, Ives was busy experimenting with new musical ideas. He revised The Unanswered Question in the 1930s and composer Elliott Carter arranged for its formal premiere in 1946.
Q. What does the title mean?
A. The original title was ‘A Contemplation of a Serious Matter’ or ‘The Unanswered Perennial Question’. (Central Park in the Dark was ‘A Contemplation of Nothing Serious’.) Ives’ own comments suggest metaphysical themes behind the music:
The quiet strings…represent the conventional life. We get up, and go to the office, and come home again, have dinner with the family, sit around in the evening…But sometimes there comes a Question: Is this all my life is good for? Shouldn’t I be doing something courageous for the good of humanity? This question crosses the conventional life, doesn’t fit with it. The flutes and other people try to answer, more and more intensely, but can’t seem to get through. Meanwhile the conventional life goes on, and when the Question is asked for the last time, it is still not answered.
Q. What will it sound like?
Yvonne Frindle ©2008