Skip to page content

Composed: 1908, ca. 1934
Length: 6 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes, trumpet, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 2, 1959, Herbert von Karajan conducting

After Ives resigned his post as organist at the Central Presbyterian church in New York - his last professional music job - in 1902, he embarked on a remarkable period of compositional experimentation. The Unanswered Question is characteristic of Ives' work at that time: three musical planes carefully defined by contrasting sonorities, textures, and space, supporting a philosophical program. The question is the "Perennial Question of Existence," and it is posed, with increasing urgency, by a solo trumpet. A woodwind quartet represents humanity's fruitless and cynical efforts to answer the question. Underlying these exchanges is a soft, sustained field of sound from off-stage strings that represents the silence of seers who may know the answer but cannot reply. The spatial separation emphasizes the philosophical distance between the three groups. The combination of such sharply divergent, superimposed elements, masterfully treated here, became one of the hallmarks of Ives' music.

- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Director of Publications