Left: Charles Ives. Right: Gustav Mahler.
Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs
The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives, 8:00 PM September 19, 2014 at the Chapel Performance Space.
On a weekend in 1906, an insurance salesman living in New York named Charles Ives (1874-1954) wrote a short, unusual piece of music that was made up of three disparate elements: an offstage muted string quartet playing a slow, simple tonal chorale; a solo trumpet that plays a curiously wandering five-note atonal melody, repeated seven times; and a quartet of flutes or four woodwinds that follows every trumpet call but the last with short, blustering bursts of notes, each outburst becoming more and more frustrated and irritated. It was through the trumpet’s plaintive cry that Ives voiced a universal question confronted in the works of many composers and philosophers. Ives called it “the perennial question of existence.”
Of course, Ives the insurance salesman was a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for he was in fact one of the most inventive American musical minds in history. Trained at Yale and highly regarded for his unique use of different instrumental combinations and techniques and experiments in bitonality (where music in two opposing keys is played together at the same time in a given piece) and atonality, Charles Ives’ works were secretly breaking new ground in music at the beginning of the 20th
century, years before Arnold Schoenberg and the Serialist composers of the Second Viennese School were to break free from the bonds of the tonal system completely. A deeply philosophical man, he was a close personal friend of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and was the first life member of the Thoreau Society. It is not sufficient to say that his musical and philosophical thought were influenced by one another; rather, they were one and the same, and informed by the views of the Transcendentalist movement. This philosophical and religious movement that protested the strangling of intellectualism and cultural views of nature and spiritualism in America in the 1830s strove to bring to light such difficult problems such as the perennial question of existence, and to promote a belief in the essential goodness of people and nature. Nature finds its way into many of Ives’ works, and in his Unanswered Question
, Ives describes the strings as depicting "the silences of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing." According to Ives, the trumpet repeatedly poses "the perennial question of existence" and the winds are “fighting answerers,” a humanity that continually fails to answer the echoing question, as nature continues innocently around them, indifferent to their frustration.
Charles Ives was not the first great composer to have pondered such a question. Gustav Mahler’s obsession with the meaning of life and death first manifested itself in his Second Symphony, “Resurrection.” Mahler himself associated a number of slightly different programs to the symphony, but all encompass death, judgment, and finally salvation and resurrection, posing the question: “Why do we live? Why do we suffer?” This frustrated, answer-less query is manifested most literally in Mahler’s music not by a questioning trumpet call, but by two screaming blasts of full-orchestra sound: one at the end of the third movement, and one to begin the climactic final movement. The third movement scherzo
of Mahler’s Second is derived from the music of his song “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes), one of his settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
(The Youth’s Magic Horn
, a collection of German folk poetry), where St. Anthony famously preaches to fish in the sea, who listen intently and then carry on eating each other. It is this depiction of the coldness and indifference of nature portrayed by an impetuously grinding waltz that leads to the scream of frustration, where the whole orchestra seems to cry out in agony at the apparent pointlessness and insignificance of life and death.
Mahler would often quote songs of his own creation within his symphonies to give the music special meaning without adding words. Similar to the Second, the third movement of his Third Symphony quotes music of the song “Ablösung im Sommer” (“Changing of the Guard in Summer”) from the Wunderhorn
lieder, a song that innocently portrays the irrelevance of death in nature: a cuckoo dies, but a nightingale is there to sing in its place. The melodic line on the words “cuckoo is dead” is repeated, as if mocking the significance that humans associate with death. However, this music is interrupted multiple times by a quiet interlude, where an offstage posthorn plays a slow, “taps”-like solo. Could it be that this posthorn, an instrument never found in an orchestral setting, is used in the same way an early German postal carrier would play a mournful call when passing by the grave of a comrade, as if portraying the human experience of death in stark contrast to the banality of animal mortality? Is the use of the faraway sonority of offstage instruments designed to help express a special philosophical significance, such as in Ives’ Unanswered Question
Just as the prose of Emerson and Thoreau was their vehicle for philosophic discourse, Mahler’s was the symphony. He continued to address the question of the meaning of life and death throughout his symphonies, but unlike Ives, he went far enough to offer his own personal answers. The resolutions manifested in his music took the form of an outpouring of love in the conclusions of the Second, Third, and Eighth Symphonies, and a youthful innocence and naiveté in the song that ends the Fourth, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life,” also from Wunderhorn
). At the end of Das Lied von der Erde
, the Ninth Symphony, and the unfinished Tenth, the music seems to reflect a resolution to the great question with a final, heartbreaking acceptance of Nature’s all-conquering beauty, as Mahler comes face-to-face with the fragility and transience of his life, and of all life.
“If a composer could say what he had to say in words, he would not bother trying to say it in music,” Mahler said. “Music begins where words end,” Goethe supposedly said. Certainly music has the power to express answers to profound questions that cannot be put into words; it is left for the musician and the listener to experience what the composer has to say. However, great composers never hesitated to offer their audience’s ears a respite from such heavy, thought-provoking music. Just as Beethoven bares his soul to the listener in the coda of the final movement of the “Eroica,” where all the darkness of his inner torment as a musician losing his ability to hear is made clear, he is aware of his audience and chooses to end the work with an almost comical stampede of musical levity that brings the curtain plummeting down. Mahler’s final works were composed with such abandon that he no longer felt the need to bring the audience’s feelings to a positive resolution, but in his first five symphonies, no matter how dark the topics his music confronted, he always managed to bring each gargantuan work to a fittingly uplifting conclusion. Even in the late symphonies, Mahler’s scherzos offset his gravity with a wry, self-deprecating humor that forces us not to take him too
seriously. Charles Ives was certainly never one to be taken too seriously. In fact, Ives’ Unanswered Question
was never really meant to stand alone. A tone-poem depicting a summer night in NYC called Central Park in the Dark
, which Ives dubbed “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious,” was paired with The Unanswered Question
, contrastingly dubbed “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter.” For, after all, what concertgoer seeks to attend a musical performance only to be beaten over the head with heavy philosophical questions? For composers and philosophers like Ives and Mahler, soul-searching depth, pastoral contemplation, and sharp-witted humor were all part of the experience.
Geoffrey Larson is the Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra, and Assistant Music Director at 98.1 Classical KING FM.