The CSO, conducted by Susanna Mälkki—who, by the way, is participating in a fascinating-looking Ideas Week lab, an open rehersal with the Civic Orchestra on Sunday—is headlined tonight by Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. You’ve probably heard it, most likely from 2001: A Space Odyssey or one of innumerable parodies (here’s a nicely-edited video showing how the piece is put together). But I’m most interested in the little, complimentary piece that kicks it off: Charles Ives’s six-minute The Unanswered Question.
When Ives wrote The Unanswered Question in 1908, as Leonard Bernstein explains in the video below (helpfully set to begin where Bernstein starts to discuss the work), tonality was collapsing in the hands of composers like Mahler and Schoenberg. And in the hands of Charles Ives, a bandleader’s son who was running an insurance agency—quite well—in New York City. He inherited a punkish attitude and sense of humor towards classical and American popular music from his musically gifted father, who once got his band and another to march around the town square in opposite directions playing different tunes, to the less-than-delight of onlookers. As Alan Rich writes:
Asked by another musician why, with all his musical training, he persisted in drawing so much dissonance from his long-suffering piano, George replied, “I may have perfect pitch but thank God the piano doesnt.”
After graduating Yale, Charles Ives moved up in the bourgeois insurance world while composing wildly forward-looking, almost completely unperformed music in his spare time. Ives claims that the piece is about the “Druids,” the questioners, and the “fighting answerers” in a cosmic drama.
The strings are “the silences of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing”; over this indifferent universal background the trumpet repeatedly poses “the perennial question of existence”; the winds are the “fighting answerers” who, for all their sound and fury, get nowhere. … The program also encompasses a philosophical idea that Ives would address incomparably in his music and in his writings: in contemplating the sublime mystery of creation, a question can be better than an answer.
Bernstein reinterprets The Unanswered Question in musical terms: “the dilemma of the new century… on the one hand, tonality and syntactic clarity; on the other, atonality syntatic confusion.” It’s a lot going on in a little, profound piece, but it’s also funny, like a lot of Ives.
The CSO is also performing Ives’s Three Places in New England, which is a better introduction to his work generally. As Lee Sandlin wrote when John Adams conducted it with the CSO:
He was up against a tougher challenge with Three Places in New England, which offers a more sustained exposure to the blast furnace of Ives’s imagination. Adams was cunning about limiting the potential damage. He gave a long introductory lecture, had the epigraphs to each movement intoned with impressive solemnity by guest speaker George Shirley, and laid a heavy orchestral stress on the introductory scene setting. Yet all of this provided a strong, even stultifying context to contain the wild, torrential rhapsodies that followed. The whole experience was frustrating. Adams seemed to be deliberately misleading the audience into thinking this was some kind of benign and goofy historical pageant–though I have to admit it was impressive that he could get them to like it on any terms. But then American audiences are willing to put up with almost anything if they think it’s patriotic.
I’m not denying that Ives was a patriot. His saturation in American pop culture, American music, American values and ideology and philosophy was so profound it amounted to a kind of religious ecstasy. The falseness lies in presenting him as a nice guy. He was just as American in his hair-trigger anger and furious xenophobia, and the radical originality with which he treated the forms of classical music sometimes seems prompted by a hatred of everything civil, decorous, traditional, and European. The turmoil of his music–the vast storm fronts of marches, hymns, jigs, ballads, hornpipes, and anthems–is really a kind of patriotic road rage, an urge to sweep away all traces of the foreign with blasts of pure homegrown energy. This can make him come off as nothing more than a foul-tempered crank, though it also resulted in the soaring grandeur of his Fourth Symphony, the Moby-Dick of American music.
I actually thought of Ives yesterday when I read “The Creative Class is a Lie,” an essay about the struggles of artists in the current economy. Ives’s lack of artistic success and recognition caused no small embitterment during his life, but there was another side to his day job besides mere sustenance (or, in Ives’s case, wealth):
My business experience revealed life to me in many aspects that I might otherwise have missed.
In it one sees tragedy, nobility, meanness, high aims, low aims, brave hopes, faint hopes, great ideals, no ideals… And it has seemed to me that the finer sides of these traits were not only in the majority but in the ascendancy.
The fabric of existence weaves itself whole. You cannot set an art off in the corner and hope for it to have vitality, reality and substance. There can be nothing exclusive about a substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of experience of life and thinking about life and living life.
My work in music helped my business and work in business helped my music.