The "Unanswered Question"
Though not as clearly documented by the composer himself, connections between Ives and Emerson can also be found in one of Ives’s most famous pieces, The Unanswered Question. Matthew McDonald notes similarities between this piece and Emerson’s poem The Sphinx, including the fact that the title (The Unanswered Question) comes from a line in Emerson’s poem (McDonald 281). It is not clear whether Ives was consciously invoking Emerson when writing this piece in 1908, but additions to the program in the 1930s suggest that at least later, Ives put thought into creating connection between the poem and his piece (McDonald 281).
In his article Silent Narration? Elements of Narrative in Ives’s The Unanswered Question, McDonald suggests that The Unanswered Question shares a similar worldview to The Sphinx. "Each work divides the universe into three distinct entities: (1) a harmonious, unified element; (2) “man,” whose existence is fundamentally flawed and who experiences a profound existential crisis; and (3) a higher entity that poses the existential dilemma to man" (McDonald 282-283).
McDonald notes several other textual and musical comparisons between the piece and the poem, and ultimately posits that Ives most definitely (perhaps unconsciously at this point) drew on Emerson when creating the program for The Unanswered Question in the 1930s (McDonald 283). He notes that the presence of elements of The Sphinx in the piece suggests that Ives had Emerson in mind while composing the piece in 1908 (McDonald 283). Finally, McDonald states that while Emerson cannot be given sole responsibility for Ives’s interest in the nature of human existence, the idea of creating a musical dialogue to explore this concept most likely came from the transcendentalist himself (McDonald 284).