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Ives used a variety of titles for this work including:
  • "Largo to Presto: The Unanswered Question: A Cosmic Landscape"
  • "A Contemplation of a Serious Matter"
  • "The Unanswered Perennial Question"

Ives also paired this work with "Central Park in the Dark" and called the set "Two Contemplations." "The Unanswered Question " served as movement No. 1.

Commentary

Along with Three Places in New England, this is Ives most popular work. It's also starkly revolutionary, especially considering its composition date (1906). Biographer Jan Swafford comments:

In the 1930's, when he was rummaging for new pieces to put before the public, Ives picked up "The Unanswered Question," carefully revised it, and attached a program something like what must have been on his mind in 1906. The strings are "the silences of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing"; over this indifferent universal background the trumpet repeatedly poses "the perennial question of existence"; the winds are the "fighting answerers" who, for all their sound and fury, get nowhere. ... The program also encompasses a philosophical idea that Ives would address incomparably in his music and in his writings: in contemplating the sublime mystery of creation, a question can be better than an answer [180-81].

Composition History

Ives composed the "The Unanswered Question" circa 1906. He also made revisions to the work some time around 1930-35. The revised version (also known as Version 2), became the most well known version.

Premiere Performance

The premiere performance of "The Unanswered Question" (Version 2) occurred on May 11, 1946. A chamber orchestra of graduate students at the Juilliard School performed the work. Theodore Bloomfield conducted the ensemble. The same concert featured the premieres of "Central Park in the Dark" and String Quartet No. 2.

Version 1 of the work was not premiered until March 1984, when Dennis Russell Davies and American Composers Orchestra performed it in New York City.

Premiere Recording

The first recording of this work was released in 1951. (This was Version 2.) Will Lorin and the Polymusic Chamber Orchestra performed the work on the Polymusic label. Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago SO made the first recording of Version 1 in 1986.

 

 


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Original text copyright Scott Mortensen 2002