Ralph Shapey

Beginning in the early 1950s, the American composer, conductor, and teacher Ralph Shapey (born 1921) devoted himself to the cause of new music. His own powerful and complex compositions reflecta personal vision uncompromised by rapidly changing trends.

Ralph Shapey was born on March 12, 1921, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At age seven he began studying the violin, which he continued later under Emmanuel Zeitlin. He rose through the ranks of the Philadelphia National Youth Symphony Orchestra, first as a playing member, then as youth conductor, and finally as assistant conductor (1938-47). The later years also included study with his principal composition teacher, Stefan Wolpe.

After three years in the army he moved to New York City in 1951. Here, through the early 1960s, Shapey established himself by composing, conducting, and teaching both privately and at the Third Street Music Settlement. His conducting abilities, especially in new and difficult works, led to other assignments with orchestras and chamber groups in Buffalo, New York; London, Ontario, Canada; New York City; and Philadelphia. From 1963 to 1964 he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1964 he accepted a post at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Contemporary Chamber Players. Maintaining this post, later as professor of music, Shapey achieved considerable success both with his own compositions and with the ensemble, whose performances have become the major impetus for new music in the Midwest.


"The Concept of It Is, Rather than the Traditional It Becomes"

Rugged independence and raw emotional power— perhaps reminiscent of the American composer Carl Ruggles—characterize his music. It acquires its boldness and immediacy through the initial presentation of ideas in their completely developed form, which Shapey calls the concept of 'it is', rather than the traditional 'it becomes'." While his works are atonal, not all of them adhere strictly to 12-tone principles, and none is as minutely controlled as the compositions of Milton Babbitt and other contemporaries. Shapey achieves order through diminutions of the musical image, and form often results from the initial image exploding into its own various states of being, juxtaposed against itself in ever new focuses." To aid the definition of these juxtaposed images or mosaics, Shapey very often divides his ensemble, both in terms of timbre and in actual placement on the stage. Larger ensembles may be broken into as many as seven distinct groups, as in Ontogeny for orchestra (1958).

In other respects Shapey's music closely follows the Schoenberg tradition. Except for a few compositions, such as Songs of Ecstasy for soprano, piano, percussion and electronic tape (1967), he uses traditional instruments sounded in their normal manner. Notation, too, is for the most part traditional. He has been called an Abstract Expressionist, no doubt after the painters with whom he associated in New York, but this label is misleading in that music is inherently an abstract art and Shapey's is certainly no more so than other Expressionists such as Schoenberg. Aleatoricism plays only a small part in Shapey's compositions, usually in the form of improvisation between worked out sections, as in the second movement of Rituals for orchestra (1959), or in one group playing material similar to another's, but at a different or unfixed tempo, as in Dimensions for soprano and 23 instruments (1960).


"A Protest Against All the Rottenness in the Musical World"

In addition to his teaching duties at the University of Chicago, Shapey was active as an educator in composing didactic pieces. In the late 1960s he contributed music to the University of Illinois String Research Project in an effort to fill the gap in contemporary music that is suitable for the early stages of string instruction.

In 1969 Shapey requested a moratorium on the performance of his works as a protest against all the rottenness in the musical world and in the world in general." A performance of his oratorio, Praise, for bass-baritone, double chorus, and ensemble (1971) in 1976, marked his return before an ever-increasing public.

Other important compositions by Ralph Shapey include the Violin Concerto (1959); Evocation for violin with piano and percussion (1959); Incantations for soprano and ten instruments (1961); Discourse for four instruments (1961); String Quartet Number 7 (1971-1972); Fromm Variations for piano (1973); Songs of Eros for soprano and orchestra (1975); Oh Jerusalem for soprano and flute (1975); Passacaglia for piano (1982); Double Concerto for violin and cello (1982); and the Mann Duo for violin and viola (1983).

Recognition for his work has come in the form of numerous awards, grants, and commissions including the following: Alma Morgenthau Commission (1953) for String Quartet Number 4; Dimitri Mitropoulos Commission (1953) for Challenge—The Family of Man; representative for the United States (1958) at the I.S.C.M. Festival in Strasbourg, France; Stern Foundation Award (1959) for Rituals; Fromm Foundation Commission (1960) for Dimensions and (1967) for Songs of Ecstasy; Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1962); Rockefeller Foundation Grant (1964); Naumburg Recording Award (1966) for Rituals; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1966); Koussevitzky Foundation Commission (1967) for the Partita-Fantasy; Fromm Music Foundation Commission (1972) for String Quartet Number 7; and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Commission (1979) for Song of Songs. Shapey's music is published by Theodore Presser and is recorded mostly on the CRI label.

In honor of his 75th birthday, a concert featuring the strikingly dissimilar works of Shapey and Brahms was conducted at Columbia University's Miller theater. As if to confirm his curmudgeonly reputation Shapey, despite his relative obscurity away from the University of Chicago, refused to provide biographical information or program notes in the timeless belief that the music be allowed to speak for itself."


Further Reading on Ralph Shapey

Little has been written on Shapey, but in the past, he has refused to provide biographical information or program notes in the belief that the music be allowed to speak for itself." Wilfrid Mellers' Music in a New Found Land and Eric Salzman's Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction both contain good but short descriptions placing Shapey in historical context. Good biographical coverage appears in David Lewin's American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary. To get beyond surface detail and into the music itself one must take recourse to periodicals, newspaper articles, and record jackets. Of these, Donal J. Henahan's articles in The Musical Quarterly, LII (1966) and LIII (1967), and in the New York Times (January 26, 1984); John Rockwell's article in the New York Times (January 13, 1984); and the liner notes for the recording of Evocation (CRI-141) are especially informative.