Catholic Music: Revisiting The Unanswered Question

Can there still be an unanswered question in the great competition of metaphysical ideals? It may be that we are currently living in an era where clarity is available amongst the confusion of the questions of the modern and postmodern age. Seen against the disorientation and misery of the long-term project of total self-autonomy, the truths of the faith shine like diamonds in the muck, which can now be rejected or accepted based on a far clearer understanding of what human nature is capable of. And yet ours is also an unreasonable – indeed, a post-reason – age, and therefore most people simply lack the intellectual wherewithal to assess the grandest propositions on their own merits. In this age, therefore, the perennial truth is joined once again by a sheepishly returning beauty. And beauty — a reflection of the person of Beauty Himself — long chased from the Church, and then the stage and later the screen, is resurfacing to provide a powerful antidote to the spiritually thirsty.

In this strange turn of events, it is precisely Catholic artists who lead the way. Looking backwards at the aesthetic questions of the recent past, much meandering can be encountered, but also work which remains prescient despite its modernistic striving. It is here we can turn to a miniature masterwork by an American composer which was an oracular in its metaphysical import.

Composed somewhere around the first decade of the twentieth century, composers Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question has haunted the modern imagination ever since its melancholic strains spread throughout the musical world. Ives himself was a fascinating man, much more successful as an innovator in the young American insurance industry during his heyday than as a composer, though a composer he was indeed. Born in 1874, Ives grew up as the son of a Civil War era bandmaster who exposed him to numerous strange experiments with sound. One such legendary experiment was when the elder Ives marched two bands towards each-other from a distance, while each band was playing a completely different song. He wanted to hear what would happen when the bands, first far apart and perceivable as separate entities, would draw closer to each-other, passing by in cacophony, and separating into separate musical entities once again. It was, in a strange and novel way, another approach to the central question of tension and release in music, and it is such pre-modernist avant-gardism which was part of the musical milk Ives drunk as a child. Little wonder, then, that his later adult improvisations at the organ were considered a bit too unsettling for American protestant ears!

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