The Unanswered Question

New England ChurchIn the virtual isolation of early twentieth century New England, an organist and insurance salesman named Charles Ives (1874-1954) was imagining shocking and innovative new music. Ives created atmospheric collages of sound. He poured fragments of American folk songs and other material into a musical melting pot to create an exciting cacophony. Much of his music became widely known only decades later when other composers embraced similar techniques.

Previously, we listened to Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day from Ives’s Holidays Symphony. Now let’s hear The Unanswered Question, written in 1908 and later revised. Ives described this piece as a “cosmic landscape.” As you listen, pay attention to three distinct and independent musical layers: the strings, the trumpet and the woodwinds. Which voice do you think is asking the question? What is the response? What do you think the question might be? What feelings does the music evoke?

I grew up listening to this great recording with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony. Close your eyes and become one with the sound, giving the music your full attention:

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Three simultaneous but contrasting realities exist in The Unanswered Question. The strings remain placid and unchanging throughout the piece with chorale-like music built on triads. The trumpet enters with an atonal statement which emerges from a completely different sound world. The woodwinds react, at first calmly and then with increasing agitation.

There are several ways of interpreting the question and its response and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts in thread below. The trumpet may be asking “The Perennial Question of Existence,” as Ives wrote. The woodwinds may be saying, “I don’t know!” with increasing impatience. Or maybe, as Ives suggests they begin to realize the futility of the question and start to mock it. The strings represent an eternal and unchanging reality. In the end, the question remains. It’s stated one final time by the trumpet as the strings’ G major chord fades into eternity.

These lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 poem, “The Sphinx” may have inspired Ives:

[quote]Thou art the unanswered question;
Couldst see thy proper eye,
Always it asketh, asketh;
And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
Time is the false reply.
[/quote] 

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]From the Steeples and the Mountains[/typography]

Here’s another interesting piece by Charles Ives. In From the Steeples and the Mountains Ives musically depicts the glorious cacophony of church bells ringing out from various steeples and then echoing off the mountains. Listen to the way Ives creates a collage with layers of sound. You may also hear echoes of Taps. This is from a recent recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Christian Zeal and Activity[/typography]

Like Charles Ives, contemporary American composer John Adams (b. 1947) traces his roots to New England. Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity seems to pay homage to The Unanswered Question, although it ends up going in a different direction. Adams uses the hymn tune, Onward , Christian Soldiers, but slows it down and alters it in a way similar to Ives. In an interview with Edward Strickland (American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, pg. 185) Adams explains:

[quote]In any hymn the voices tend to move in blocks, so I went in and unhinged the hasps and let the four voices float in a dreamlike space so that they only rarely come together, and the effect was very beautiful. At moments it almost sounded like some unwritten Mahler adagio. I didn’t mean it to, but it just ended up sounding that way.[/quote]

Above these string lines, we hear the taped voice of an evangelist. Adams cuts up the tape and repeats fragments. His emphasis is on the expressive sound of the voice rather than the meaning. Listen to Christian Zeal and Activity and consider the ways it reminds you of the Ives. What emotional impact is created by the seemingly disparate combination of the strings and the recorded voice?

This is the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Edo de Waart:

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The Rite of Spring Turns 100

Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso
Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential pieces. It was written as a ballet score for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris and originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky.

The Rite of Spring was revolutionary. Its dissonant sounds, complex rhythms and ferocious musical primitivism had never been imagined. The first audience, expecting the elegant classical ballet of the nineteenth century, was rudely confronted with the violent cacophony of a new twentieth century reality. The premier on May 29, 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was so shocking that a riot broke out. You can read the New York Times’s account of the evening here.

The Rite of Spring shakes off the civilized world and offers a glimpse at raw nature in all of its earthy, potent glory. In this clip from a rehearsal, Leonard Bernstein suggests that the music conjures up primal feelings of connection to a living earth-the feeling of laying on the grass and hugging the earth on a warm day or wrapping your arms around a tree trunk. Disney’s use of the music in the soundtrack of Fantasia suggests something equally primordial. Stravinsky said that his unifying idea was “the mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring.”

Let’s listen to an excellent concert performance by conductor Jaap van Zweden and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (video below). Elements of the music may remind you of jazz and even rock. Early jazz musicians were influenced by composers such as Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. At the same time, composers were becoming interested in the music of Asia and Africa which fed into jazz. You might also hear music that reminds you of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Many of Stravinsky’s melodies for The Rite of Spring grew out of folk music from the most rural reaches of Russia. You may notice that the music is often constructed on an ostinato, or repeated motive or phrase. Listen closely to the way Stravinsky layers chords to create shocking new harmonies. Most importantly, enjoy the feel and groove of the rhythm. At times you will hear Stravinsky layer competing grooves on top of each other to keep us feeling off balance. For one especially exciting example of this, listen to the base drum beat at 13:30 and what follows.

The Rite of Spring is divided into two parts, The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice (starting at 16:03). Listen to the way the piece grows out of a single high bassoon line. More and more instruments join and interrupt. Consider the mood that is set in this opening. Do you feel a sense of anticipation, as if something shocking is just around the corner? Does the music take sudden turns which surprise or even scare you? Can you feel a sense of motion and raw emotion in the music?

The second part centers around the tribe’s selection and sacrifice of a young girl (16:03). Listen to the way Stravinsky musically builds tension and anticipation as this ritual unfolds (25:44). The ballet ends with a Sacrificial Dance as the girl dances herself to death (29:09).

For more background and analysis of The Rite of Spring, watch this episode of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Keeping Score. Also hear the thoughts of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez and watch this video. Share your own thoughts about this monumental piece in the thread below. Tell us what you heard. What aspects of the music do you find particularly interesting? What emotions do you feel as you listen? What are your favorite moments in the piece?