The Unanswered Question

July 31, 2016 at 11:00 am

The Unanswered Question is probably Charles Ives‘ most famous composition. It’s equally a philosophical statement as it is a work of art. While that may sound simple, I think it’s actually quite a compositional feat. Ives has written a remarkably transparent composition that clearly conveys his philosophical idea. Compare this piece to StraussAlso Sprach Zarathustra, written only a decade before, which merely paints the mood of Nietzsche‘s book, and fails to put forth a logical argument or statement of any kind. Meanwhile, Ives’ work is perfectly clear.***

[SPOILER ALERT – skip this paragraph and listen to the piece if you want to hear it for yourself. If you want some hints, read on.] Three instrumental voices create the musical landscape. The strings, representing eternity, play slow, beautiful music. The lone trumpet asks its question: “what is the meaning of existence?” Dissonant winds provide the answer, which does not satisfy. The question is asked again and again, and the answer becomes more complicated, but never satisfactory. In the end, two things remain: the question, and eternity.

*** That is to say, I believe the meaning of the music is clear as long as the audience knows the title of the piece. If a person heard this work without knowing the title, there is a chance s/he might understand the deeper meaning, but it’s certainly less likely.


Go ahead … amuse me!

July 30, 2016 at 10:00 am

The classicists (composers from 1750-1810) were all about form. Symphonies, sonatas, concertos, operas – there were specific forms associated with all of them, which audiences expected to hear. A typical symphony would start with a sonata-form movement, then a slow rondo or theme & variations, then a 3/4 dance in trio form, then a quick rondo.

But these 18th-century wig-wearing aristocrats weren’t so stuffy that they couldn’t occasionally break away from convention. When they did, the pieces were called Divertimenti – “amusements”. These were like a hybrid between a baroque dance suite and a classical symphony: a flexible, multi-movement suite of short pieces (like the baroque suite, often more than four movements – more than a symphony), using traditional classical forms (sonata, rondo, trio – not the binary forms of the baroque).

Confused? Put more simply, this is late 18th century party music – short, flexible pieces that could be cut short if dinner was about to be served, or repeated if the cooks failed to cook the main course on time. Often they were written for smaller ensembles which could fit into smaller spaces, and often used wind instruments, which were a little louder and could be heard indoors and outdoors. Today’s piece is just this – a divertimento for wind sextet (two oboes, two horns, two bassoons). Go ahead and play it while your food is cooking; Mozart wouldn’t mind.


Hee Haw

July 29, 2016 at 10:29 am

Donkeys are universally goofy. Their iconic braying has inspired composers to set “hee haw” in a number of works. There’s the amorous braying in Mendelssohn‘s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“. There’s some good mockery in Saint-Saen‘s “Carnival of the Animals“, where the composer draws a connection between these dumb beasts and “people with long ears” … IE, music critics. There’s a charming Christmas tale by Rutter, “Brother Heinrich’s Christmas” about a donkey who wants to sing in the choir, and ends up contributing a well-timed “hee haw” to cleverly complete the carol In Dulci Jubilo.

But by far the smartest musical Hee-Haw is American composer Ferde Grofé‘s Grand Canyon Suite, which has a whole movement based on this delightful “ass-motif“. This movement perfectly paints a bumpy donkey ride in the beautiful American western landscape.