Week 58: “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives

Since June is graduation time, I’d like to nominate this song for valedictorian of the 20th century. I know the 20th century graduated a while ago, but things like this are easier to think about with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight.

The piece is simple enough: a string section plays a soft, slow sequence of chords. A trumpet “asks a question” in a completely unrelated key. A flute quartet “answers the question”. The trumpet repeats the same question several times, and each time, the flutes’ answer becomes more and more jumbled and frantic. Finally, they give up, and the trumpet’s question is left unanswered. The strings, meanwhile, seem completely unconcerned, and resolve in a nice little cadence.

So what makes “The Unanswered Question” the best musical representative of its century? Well, first of all, it’s very different from most music that came before it. Composed in 1906, many of its modern elements foreshadowed what was to come in 20th century music. In fact, it was so ahead of its time that it wasn’t publicly performed until 1946. Despite taking a while to catch on, it was still relevant enough at the end of the century to be included on the movie soundtrack for the pre-millennial classic “Run Lola Run” in 1998.

And if you’ll allow me to get philosophical for a second, I think that the 20th century was a jumble of contradictions, a collage of the best and worst of human kind: progress vs. world war vs. civil rights vs. environmental destruction vs. technological innovation. With a bit of creative listening, I think you can hear those contradictions summed up perfectly in this piece.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Loud vs. Quiet

2. Calm vs. Frantic

3. Harmony vs. Dissonance

Recommended listening activity:

Sitting in the quietest part of the biggest library you can find.

Buy it here.