In recent years, discussions of narrative in music seem to have fallen into decline. This circumstance might register the effects of the strong stances taken by a few influential writers in the early 1990s regarding the extent to which music can be understood as narrative. This article shifts focus to a different concern, the extent to which music can be related to narrative metaphorically. Using narrative as flexible conceptual framework, it considers Charles IvesÕs The Unanswered Question, a piece whose foundational narrative impulse few would dispute. The central narrative aspects include compositional techniques particular to the twentieth century, such as reordered chronologies and the layering of seemingly independent material. These features suggest comparison with various aspects of narrative structure and narration in literary and filmic narratives. The comparison suggests new ways of conceptualizing IvesÕs music, showing how new techniques intersected with narrative forms, and it suggests that a broader case could and should be made for the continued utility of narratological approaches to music of many different kinds. Particular attention is given to IvesÕs short programmatic note of the early 1930s. The existential program, as expressed through this text and amplified by the music, intersects with the language, imagery, structure, and worldview conveyed in Ralph Waldo EmersonÕs poem The Sphinx and IvesÕs "Emerson" essay from Essays before a Sonata. These connections strengthen the notion that both the program and the music were creative reactions to EmersonÕs writings and that some protoversion of the 1930s program existed in Ives mind on composing the 1908 version of the piece. Seeing the presence of Emerson behind IvesÕs original conception of The Unanswered Question helps us to understand the origins of the distinctly narrative aspects of the work and suggests other potential narratives besides the familiar one offered in IvesÕs note.
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Matthew McDonald; Silent Narration? Elements of Narrative in Ives's The Unanswered Question. 19th-Century Music 1 March 2004; 27 (3): 263–286. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2004.27.3.263
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