Amazing Moments in Timbre #7

In 1908, American composer Charles Ives composed The Unanswered Question for string orchestra, solo trumpet (or English Horn) and four flutes (or three oboes and one clarinet). This piece inspired Leonard Bernstein’s famous Norton Lectures of the same title at Harvard in 1973 and continues to capture the imaginations of musicians and audiences today.

Part of its intrigue undoubtedly lies in the clarity of its extramusical references, stated explicitly in the forward of the score. But the reason that its metaphorical meaning can be transmitted so successfully is that the piece is a masterclass in orchestration, specifically in stratification between orchestral layers. It is well-nigh impossible for listeners to confuse the three distinct layers (the strings, the solo, and the woodwinds), due to clear separations in basically all musical parameters, including timbre, register, dynamics, tonality, harmony, melodic structure, rhythmic profile, spatial positioning, and formal deployment.

Most listeners would probably need a verbal prompt to apprehend the specific ideas denoted by the composer, but the directness of emotional expression in this music is immediately striking with or without the program, and once the extramusical ideas behind each layer are named, their musical characterizations seem uncannily appropriate: 

[The strings] are to represent “The Silences of the Druids—who Know, See and Hear Nothing.” The trumpet intones “The Perennial Question of Existence,” and states it in the same tone of voice each time. But the hunt for “The Invisible Answer” undertaken by the flutes and other human beings becomes gradually more active, faster and louder... After they disappear, “The Question” is asked for the last time, and the “Silences” are heard beyond in “Undisturbed Solitude.”[1]

By Jason Noble

[1] Charles Ives, The Unanswered Question for Trumpet, Flute Quartet, and Strings, ed. Paul Echols and Noel Zahler, critical edn. (New York: Peer International, 1985), p. 10.