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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!

The adult Ives composed a large body of serious work which was largely unheard in his lifetime, all while his gruff Yankee work ethic and transcendentalist views lead him to achieve great (and historically remembered) success in the insurance industry in New York City. As his musical works were discovered towards the end of his life, they were met with equal parts enthusiasm, confusion, and even scorn, as Ives the isolated American composer had somehow managed to presage the great European musical modernist experiments by decades. Yet what is equally fascinating about Ives is that despite his astounding pushing of the boundaries of musical language, his work remained accessible to the untrained, something which set it apart from the musically gnostic ideas of the European avant-garde. Take, for instance, the short art song “Like a Sick Eagle”, composed in 1920. It is perhaps the most successful depiction of the ravages of disease and old age, setting the first five lines of John Keats’s poem On Seeing the Elgin Marbles:

“My spirit is too weak—mortality

Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.”

The music of Ives is as complex as it is evocative, and certainly will not be everybody’s cup of tea. But one work of his – The Unanswered Question – fell like an unlikely lightning bolt onto western culture and music. Scored for strings, solo trumpet, and woodwinds, this short little piece is an ample representation of the emerging modern era, and it remains as a monument to the spiritual confusion therein. While the work is a brilliant patchwork of fighting ideas – like much of Ives’s oeuvre – here the clear separation of these elements as beings in opposition make it imminently approachable to the lay listener. The strings in this work are seemingly representative of the majesty and permanence of eternity, sustaining a repeating chorale-like passage just barely above a whisper, like the sound of existence suddenly perceived on a quiet seashore: it is as if it represents the reality which is listening to you. The trumpet then enters, playing in a key just slightly off from the strings, keening a mournful question. In response, the woodwinds enter, representing the competing ideas about eternity, ultimately ending up in an offensive blitz of argumentative cacophony. The question is stated once more, and eternity fades away, the question unsatisfied, and the listener is left in the dark.

Musically speaking, this is adult food. And if music can be prophecy, then the brief musical expression of The Unanswered Question certainly qualifies. In it we see Ives– who once shouted at a rude concertgoer to “take his dissonance like a man!” – looking with distance at the emerging religious, political, and aesthetic hyperplurality of our times, and wondering to where it all might be leading. Decades later, after the full disorienting onslaught of two world wars and the profound cultural reactions therein, the American conductor Leonard Bernstein was invited to give six lectures at Harvard. Still haunted by what he had lived and witnessed, he titled them “The Unanswered Question.”

While Bernstein’s lectures are brilliant in their ability to unite the musically trained and untrained audiences in a far-ranging conversation about the nature of musical reality itself, the questions still remain: wherefore music? To where is the world heading? And then, in an anguished cry of one who perceives himself to be an orphan in the modern age: Quo Vadis, Domine?

Yet moving back to “Like a Sick Eagle”, one sees that Ives only took the first part of the poem in for his setting, leaving its more metaphysically robust solution unset. He was apparently a man fond of asking the deep question, though one can also perhaps discern the unease and even disorder of the age – asking questions for their own sake – in this type of aesthetic approach. Who does not know of a person who has the (sometimes even juvenile) tendency to think they have undermined the entirety of an ancient truth system simply by asking questions that a common man cannot readily answer? Perhaps, like me, you have been this young man?

If questions can come so profoundly in music, so can answers. It was years after my musical studies and my first fascinating encounters with Ives that I received a CD of Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets. Late in the night, as I listened while drifting into a half-sleep, I was suddenly snapped awake by the surprising presence of a single trumpet line within these sacred – and liturgically oriented – choral motets. The work – In Splendoribus Sanctorum – shocked me into waking in this thin place where the composer had trod. My thoughts went back immediately to the questioning trumpet in Ives – now a cultural trope – and I could not help but think that whether wittingly or unwittingly, MacMillan had prophetically composed a musical answer to Ives’s equally prophetic musical question. Here, the work seemed to say, is your answer. You have tried all else. Now come encounter the eternal God, the person of Beauty, in his liturgical home:

The competing ideas now have sharper edges, and a diamond is visible among them. Catholic artists who embrace the cutting clarity of this diamond will find new fruit, and Catholic listeners who hear such music with an open heart will discover a potent new sacramental to enrich their lives and help them stay ever-focused on the eternal goal. If there is to be another renaissance in the world, this is the only shape it can take and still keep its shape.


For those interested in hearing from MacMillan himself, The Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship recently hosted Sir James for a talk amongst other rising Catholic composers:

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