A Question is Better than an Answer

In Charles Ives's most famous work The Unanswered Question, a miniature he called a "cosmic drama," one finds distilled his revolutionary means, and more importantly the ends of his singular art. The piece is a kind of collage in three distinct layers, roughly coordinated. In the background a quiet and hauntingly beautiful chorale of strings represents, said Ives, "the silence of the Druids." Over that silence a solo trumpet proclaims, again and again, an enigmatic phrase representing "the perennial question of existence." In response to each question, a quartet of winds Ives called the "fighting answerers" runs around in search of a reply, becoming more and more frustrated until they reach a scream of rage. Then the trumpet proclaims the question once more, to be answered by silence.

From the beginnings of his public career, Ives was proclaimed a prophet in discovering on his own, before anyone else, most of the devices associated with musical Modernism: polytonality, polyrhythm, free dissonance, chance and collage effects, spatial music, and on and on-most of them already on display in The Unanswered Question, written in the first decade of the 20th century. It was a long time before people began to ask whether Ives was innovating for the sake of innovation or getting at something deeper.

He was indeed getting at something, and that too is part of The Unanswered Question. Entirely with tones and a simple dramatic program, Ives makes a philosophical point: a question is better than an answer, in the immensity of creation. And those determined to force the answers are apt to look foolish in the face of that immensity. In all his work Ives was getting at something, always in his singular way. In The Unanswered Question we see the elements of his art in a nutshell: a work at once timeless and revolutionary, spiritual and concrete, comic and cosmic.

On a larger canvas one finds the same kind of point in the grand pandemonium of the second movement, called Comedy, of Ives's masterpiece the Fourth Symphony. In the vertiginous climax of the movement he stacks up a brass-band march, Yankee Doodle, bits of The Irish Washerwoman, snatches of ragtime, atonal fistfuls of piano, and an assortment of other freelance manifestations. In the concert hall, those masses of sound tumbling and crashing in air are sui generis and jaw-dropping. The whole movement feels rather like being transported into the moil of Manhattan in a particularly riotous rush hour. Such a cityscape, as a matter of fact, is the picture Ives the long-time Manhattanite intended to paint. It is a memorable specimen of his singular Impressionism. Debussy's Impressionism is about nature, wind and waves; much of Ives's music, busy or simple, wild or sentimental, is about scenes in the life of families, communities, and nations: cityscapes, holiday parades, barn dances, camp meetings, football games, the polyrhythmic patter of feet passing on the street. Ives composed all those and a good deal more-including a number of sweet songs right out of the Victorian parlor.

In the Fourth Symphony's Comedy, the astute listener will notice something remarkable about this apparent bedlam: in its outlandish fashion, with sometimes a dozen and more separate parts roaring along together each on its own path, all this grand and glorious noise is somehow going somewhere, moreover going somewhere together, in the same direction. It's an epic pandemonic chorus of individual voices in an unaccountable but unmistakable march toward the same transcendent somewhere. Each part marches in its own way, own style, own tempo, own key, and maintains that individuality in the climax – here The Irish Washerwoman, there a brass band, in the distance a ragtimer, and Yankee Doodle in the middle.

In the mystical finale of the Fourth, just before the coda's evocation of an old tune, myriad murmuring voices coalesce around a chord progression such as an organist would use to introduce a hymn. Then a chorus enters on "Nearer, My God, to Thee" in a cloudy D major, that key and hymn the foundation of the symphony, those words its essential goal – to bring us Nearer. The chorus is wordless, because Ives wanted us to recall the words in our own hearts and minds, to complete his thought. At the end the music seems to evaporate into the stars, still searching.

In his personal life Ives was a churchgoer, and he had unbounded faith in the redemptive power of art. Ultimately he was aiming, he wrote, for a "conception unlimited by the narrow names of Christian, Pagan, Jew, or Angel. A vision higher and deeper than art itself!" Though like The Unanswered Question some of the Fourth Symphony is wonderfully comic, the whole is nonetheless one of the most serious and ambitious works of the twentieth century, offered as a step toward the universal religion Ives conceived.

Ives believed it is a divine law that the human spirit evolves along with the rest of nature, toward perfection. Each of us is engaged in a heroic individual journey of growth and discovery that is part of the upward journey of all humanity. And music, Ives believed, plays an essential role in those journeys large and small. Whether the music is coming from a symphony orchestra or a band on the march or a ragtime piano or a stonemason bawling a hymn, the essence is the same, if it is earnest and authentic. "The Music of the Ages," Ives called them all, because an external sound is the imperfect manifestation of the eternal inward spirit. "Music," he wrote, "is life." Ives determined to echo that music of the ages. Thus his unique and irreplaceable merging of high European tradition with the everyday voices of everyday Americans.

Perhaps some of Ives's ideals appear outmoded. But so much of Ives's vision remains prescient and vital. And in a time when in the West many seem to resist the idea that music ought to have depth and substance, it's worth recalling how much Ives believed in its moral and spiritual importance. Meanwhile if he wrote some works of Wagnerian ambition, Ives rejected the Wagnerian model of the artist as high priest in the religion of art. He simply played his part in the parade.

One finds the same modesty and the same boundless democratic faith in Ives's day job, the life insurance business. A founding partner of Ives & Myrick, the dominating insurance agency of its time, he was no ordinary boss. His employees remembered Ives as an unforgettable figure who somehow, in his shy and retiring way, was able to galvanize them with his ideals. "When [Ives] talked with someone," recalled one employee, "he elevated them.… It's very hard to describe, but he made everyone feel important." He preached to his employees that "There was not a service that I could render to my fellow man that was more important than the business of life insurance, because it instilled in the soul and mind of my fellow man the responsibility of meeting his obligations."

Community for Ives began with family and ascended from there to towns, countries, the insured, the globe, the universe. Many of his artistic and spiritual ideals started in business, especially as he studied actuarial science and began to see human life in large terms, in masses of people from the cradle to the grave. In famous paragraphs he wrote,

"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."
The latter paragraph in particular deserves to inspire generations of artists. In all his works large and small, complex and simple, radical and traditional, Ives pursued that ideal. We have been describing here a paradoxical man, and paradoxical is a word long attached to Charles Ives. In paradox, he found more than simple contradiction. Paradox is a dialectic of opposites. You can get somewhere with paradox. A simple apparent truth is narrowing, encourages you to sit down and stop searching.

So Ives thought and composed in paradoxes, all founded on those in his own life: a young organ prodigy who practiced hard but would rather be out playing baseball, a socialistically inclined businessman who got rich in the insurance industry, an individualist who exalted community, a fierce democrat who sometimes wrote fiercely challenging music, a Romantic idealist who conceived a music of the future. As has been written, the best description of Ives is Ivesian.

And yet nowhere but in America could somebody like Ives have turned up and made such a splendid go of it. We are a paradoxical people with paradoxical ideals. In his ideals, in his business and his art, Ives was the quintessential American-only more so.

He is the ultimate democrat, the musical Whitman embracing any and all as long as they're real, a model of pluralism, a prophet not only of Modernism but of Postmodernism. And in all those respects Ives is still himself, still forging beyond any ideology, still ahead of us-but looking back to encourage us all with a shout or a laugh to find our own way.

Even if we've forgotten what community used to mean in an era of small towns, forgotten many of the words to the tunes Ives quotes in his music, we can still catch, if we're open-eared and open-minded, the gist of what he is getting at. And even if he created his greatest work in isolation, it is impossible to imagine contemporary music without him. Composers all over the world draw from Ives's vision and his courage. He took on the mantle of the European tradition went after the ambitions of Beethoven and the others, but did it, as he liked to say, by finding his own path up the mountain. He is the great maverick of Western music. In that, Ives is American to the core. We admire our mavericks, and we need them.

-Jan Swafford

Jan Swafford's books include Charles Ives: A Life With Music (W.W. Norton and Company, 1996) and Johannes Brahms: A Biography (Vintage Books, 1999).