Carl Ruggles

At age 4, Charles Sprague ‘Carl’ Ruggles started learning the violin. Two years later, he built his first instrument. It was a ‘violin’ he had constructed from a cigar box. Three years later, he appeared as local prodigy in a concert given for President Cleveland. (On this occasion he used a real violin.) He went on to study at Harvard and afterwards directed the Winona Symphony Orchestra in Minnesota. He was throughout this time a reasonably successful, if unremarkable, professional musician, spending much of his time teaching.

And that’s about all we know about the young Carl Ruggles. He destroyed all the pieces he wrote at the time, which mostly consisted of trite parlour songs. But at about the age of 40, after failing to write a planned opera, he composed a little song for his son’s fourth birthday. Take a listen:

From Toys onward, Ruggles only composed this kind of dissonant, contrapuntal, modernist music. His output would total less than an hour-and-a-half’s worth of music. And let’s be honest, if he had produced twenty hours of this music instead of just one-and-a-half, it would probably be intolerable. His had one musical trick and he pretty much exhausted it.

And what was that musical trick, you say? Ruggles was minimalist of sorts. We always use the term ‘minimalist’ to refer to Steve Reich et al. But their music is extremely busy. When we use the word ‘minimalist’ to describe it, we actually mean it lacks movement, mainly harmonic movement. It is motionless music. The real, literal minimalists are the composers whose aesthetic desire was to be as austere as possible. Ruggles went by the principle that there must be absolutely no excess notes. He would therefore write each piece excruciatingly slowly, spending possibly weeks writing many iterations of a single bar.

He adapted this style to the compositional method of dissonant counterpoint (not unique to Ruggles; Ruth Crawford Seeger used it too, and her work is well worth checking out). Counterpoint is quite simply one musical line against another. Traditionally, one studies counterpoint so as to make simultaneous musical lines sound harmonious. Dissonant counterpoint is an academic exercise in doing the exact opposite. So when coupled with his ideal of simplicity (especially compared to his fellow modernists), Ruggles is, in a way, the anti-Palestrina.

The interesting thing about dissonant counterpoint, as opposed to many other 20th century musical systems, is that you are guaranteed to have some consonance, in the same way you are guaranteed to get dissonance in Bach. Ruggles’ music can actually be quite beautiful. Angels is my favourite piece. Before listening, I should also point out another main component of Ruggles’ music, that he generally avoided repeating a note until a certain number had passed. The later his works, the more severe this got. Angels is peculiar in that it partially discards the principle of no pitch class repetition. (Notice the Bb repeats in bars 2 and 4 on the second trumpet; and the C repeats in bars 5 and 7 on the first trumpet). And because he’s not using a deliberately atonal system like twelve-tone serialism, there is always the slight hint of a root note. One could argue, as composer Lou Harrison did, that Angels is in Ab major.

The last characteristic of Ruggles music is the wave-like structure, with its huge dynamic swells. The result is music that sounds massive — almost tectonic. And the pieces are even more powerful given that most have a strong pulse. Below is Men and Mountains. At the premiere, fellow composer and his good friend Charles Ives reportedly chastised a heckler, shouting ‘you God damn sissy … when you hear strong masculine music like this, get up and use your ears like man’.  The piece has another connection to Charles Ives. Listen to the violent third movement, ‘Marching Mountains’, and at the end you’ll hear the Beethoven 5 rhythmic motif on the brass. Of course, Ives was obsessed with this, what he would consider ‘masculine’ theme, making it central to his great Concord Sonata. 

Nicolas Slominsky describes ‘Marching Mountains’ as ‘growing more discordant with every bar, scaling heights, plumbing depths, proclaiming polysyllabical millennia’. The unfavourable take, as one critic described another Ruggles work, Sun-Treader, is that the music sounds like ‘bowel constrictions in an atonal Tristanesque ecstasy’. Take your pick:

There has been something of a cult of personality developed around Ruggles. He was undoubtedly a character. He would write his scores with coloured crayons on large sheets of heavy butcher’s paper spread across the floor. You’ll often see him described as stubborn, temperamental or irascible. And he was undoubtedly an unpleasant man at times, with many accounts justly describing him as anti-Semitic and racist. (Though other accounts also depict him as a charming and likeable.)

There are plenty of anecdotes about Ruggles. A particularly delightful one was told by composer Henry Cowell:

One morning when I arrived at the abandoned school house in Arlington where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer’s voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. “I’m trying over this damned chord,” said he, “to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings.” “Oh,” I said tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value.” “The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!”

Ruggles got the idea of dissonant counterpoint from Henry Cowell, who in turn got it from Ruth and Charles Seeger. There seems to have been a close relationship between American composers of the time. Ruggles, Cowell and the Seegers would even gather to sing folk songs in loft of Thomas Hart Benton.

Ruggles was good friends with Benton too, such that Benton painted a remarkable portrait of him. Titled The Sun-Treader, the portrait has to be among the best of any composer. The pouting lower lip, the curl of the eyebrows, the meditative look, the disorderly, slouching scores, the way he’s tucked away in the corner of a room, and the heaviness of his clothes’ fabrics. It’s brilliant:


Ruggles found composing painfully difficult. Throughout his life he was also a painter, and this came much more naturally to him. Nevertheless, his character was such that he felt compelled to take the harder path. When he stopped composing in the late 1940s and retired to Vermont, he spent much of his time on abstract paintings until his death in 1971. An example, Flowers:


Although he had stopped composing, he did write a little hymn, Exaltation, when his wife died in 1958. It isn’t like his other works. It’s essentially tonal but with several Ivesian wrong notes. Nor does it follow the dissonant counterpoint or ‘wave’ structure of all his other available work. It’s a nice piece, with an effective humming section at the end:


Adorno the Right-Winger?

Theodor Adorno, despite his Marxist credentials, seems to get mistaken for a conservative rather often. I recall being in a politics seminar in which we discussed his idea of a ‘culture industry’ — that popular culture is a capitalist industry pacifying the working classes. Admittedly, I doubt anyone read the chapter in any depth. But the general impression was something like, ‘man, this guy’s conservative’. If you don’t like Hollywood, jazz or popular culture, you must be a conservative, so the logic goes. And indeed, were he to come out with these ideas today, he would surely be vilified. It is a delicious irony, then, that Adorno and the Frankfurt School have since been used to validate popular culture. You have to love the way history sweeps men and their ideas from any intended course.

I write this because I just started reading Philosophy of New Music. One should know one’s enemies and all that. Actually, that’s somewhat unfair. I kind of like Adorno, once past the ideological guff. He’s definitely not a conservative, but he might just be a reactionary underneath it all. I’ll leave you with an extract from his Minima Moralia, which is a collection of brief but interesting reflections in this vein. Compared to this, I’m a liberal:

Melange. – The usual argument of tolerance, that all human beings, all races are equal, is a boomerang. It opens itself up to easy rebuttal by the senses, and even the most compelling anthropological evidence for the fact that Jews are not a race at all, will in the case of a pogrom hardly change anything at all, since the totalitarians know very well who they want to kill and who not. If one wished to proclaim the equality of all those who bear human features as an ideal, instead of establishing it as a fact, this would be of little help. The abstract utopia would be all too easily reconcilable with the most devious tendencies of society. That all human beings would resemble each other, is exactly what suits this latter. It regards factual or imagined differences as marks of shame, which reveal, that one has not brought things far enough; that something somewhere has been left free of the machine, is not totally determined by the totality. The technics of the concentration camps was designed to turn prisoners into guards, the murdered into murderers. Racial difference was absolutely sublated, so that one could abolish it absolutely, if only in the sense that nothing different survived anymore. An emancipated society however would be no unitary state, but the realization of the generality in the reconciliation of differences. A politics which took this seriously should therefore not propagate even the idea of the abstract equality of human beings. They should rather point to the bad equality of today, the identity of film interests with weapons interests, and think of the better condition as the one in which one could be different without fear. If one attested to blacks [Neger], that they are exactly like whites, while they are nevertheless not so, then one would secretly wrong them all over again. This humiliates them in a benevolent manner by a standard which, under the pressure of the system, they cannot attain, and moreover whose attainment would be a dubious achievement. The spokespersons of unitary tolerance are always prepared to turn intolerantly against any group which does not fit in: the obstinate enthusiasm for blacks meshes seamlessly with the outrage over obnoxious Jews. The “melting pot” [in English in original] was an institution of free-wheeling industrial capitalism. The thought of landing in it conjures up martyrdom, not democracy.

Dr Marc’s Blog and the State of Blogging

This is one of the best music blogs I’ve found in a long while. Contentious, eminently readable, and always insightful. It can also be outrageously funny. Take for instance these opening lines:

It never went on to the CV, especially when applying to be a cathedral organist and choirmaster, but the more I look back on it, the more I realise it was one of the significant experiences in my musical life. I played the organ in a strip club.

Intrigued? Go read the rest of the post: Music without clothes

Of those I’ve read, probably the most interesting one is his brilliant criticism of how music gets organised into historical eras. An extract:

Bounded by the borders of the German-speaking world, the original 19th century philosophers, critics and writers on music, saw no need to include in their stylistic considerations English, French, Spanish or even Italian composers, and their descriptors of stylistic linkages referred almost exclusively to German music.  It was they, for example, who had convinced the world of the existence of a Classical Canon in which the God-like composers were Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – German-speakers to a man.  So in considering the stylistic traits common to those composers of the Baroque era, they looked only at the Germans.  To this day, there is a common belief that the greatest composers in history have all been from the German-speaking world and that composers unfortunate enough to have been born elsewhere are, almost by default, peripheral to the great march of musical history.  And that almost unthinking perception of non-German composers being peripheral to the mainstream of music continues to inform the opinions of many, much to the detriment of music itself.  This is the corrosive, destructive consequence of a view which defines musical style primarily in terms of historical era.

Why is it, do you think, that the descriptors of Baroque style are, in effect, descriptors of the music of J S Bach and others of the North German school?  What of Domenico Scarlatti, who fits neatly into the Baroque era, but is generally held to be lesser than his great contemporary because his music does not inhabit the same stylistic territory?  Virtually none of the descriptors applies to his music – although that hasn’t stopped generations of piano teachers and young pianists trying to fit his free-thinking, stylistically distinctive music into a German Baroque hat.  I read in a student’s diploma programme note that Scarlatti’s Sonatas “have none of the contrapuntal mastery of J S Bach”.  We are indoctrinated with the idea that the Fugue is the “ultimate Baroque musical genre”, and while it may have been for those living in northern Germany, it had no interest for the likes of Albinoni, Byrd, Purcell, Rameau or Alessandro Scarlatti whose collective genius lay stylistically in very different areas.

Now that’s a blog post!

Some other highlights:

  • The Cult of the Unlistenable: ‘… during the last century, it became fashionable – trendy, if you like – to regard such academic experimentation not for what it was but as a substitute for the music people wanted to hear, and to present it as the only legitimate path for music to take in the name of progress.’
  • On programmes, we are treated to some delightful curmudgeonliness: ‘By all means, attract the Millennials by addressing them through their devices, but please accept that some of us are not Millennials and in our huge, dinosaurian ignorance, we prefer something rather more tangible than a small illuminated screen to help us get to grips with music.’
  • On the strangeness of the British music exam system: ‘The fact is, graded music exams have become a self-propelling machine, driving a whole industry on the engine of a system which assumes a legitimacy which few ever think to question … it is a peculiarly British thing; possibly seen by many as typifying that British eccentricity which insists on placing every conceivable thing into clearly-defined categories. German, French, Russian and Hungarian friends, all of whom are musicians, are amazed at the graded exam system which, in their eyes, is totally misguided on placing testing and assessment above delivery and appreciation of musical performance.’
  • And if, like me, you have a soft-spot for incredibly heart-warming stories about octoganarians taking Grade 8 exams, you must check out this post.

On classical music blogging… Finding blogs is no easy task. There is no centralisation, only diffuse networks and social media interaction, search engines are too imprecise, and I get the feeling that the blogosphere was once a busier place. There is, at least in Britain, ample coverage of classical music in the papers. But it consists almost entirely of reviews and the occasional interview. It comes down to Slipped Disc to churn out actual classical music news. And one would hope that it would come down to blogs to be the pits of the concert hall, the places where the most enthusiastic people go, and moreover places of contention, and of good-natured tribalism. Blogs should popularise. They should help spread ideas. They should be advocates for the overlooked, but also the most vociferous critics and the watchdogs of the new.

But most of them aren’t. I certainly enjoy reading reviews, but the inordinate focus on concert life is a bit disappointing. It is refreshing to find a new(ish) blog like Corymbus which contains long, fascinating blogs on things like the English Hymnal or Cultivating Ignorance. Unfortunately this means the output is very infrequent. Among the more conventional blogs, the long-standing blog On An Overgrown Path is pretty exemplary. Plenty of forthright opinion and fascinating miscellanea can be found in its pages.

Searching for niche blogs can often be very fruitful, though even more difficult. I recently came across lute-maker Martin Shepherd’s blog and it contains some very interesting posts on the lute and lute music. Take his latest post, a curious piece which asks, was Dowland a composer of lute music?

There appears to be very few blogs of the type I write — hobbyist autodidact blogs. Perhaps this is a blessing! But one looks, for example, at the proliferation of ‘amateur’ political blogs and sees, despite the rotters undoubtedly out there, some really interesting work.

Anyway, take all of this for it is. I’m just thinking out loud — in fact, I’m just blogging. Dr. Marc mentioned Scarlatti in one of the extracts, so let’s end with his exciting Sonata in D Major (K. 119):

Politics at the Proms

Imagine that a conductor ends a concert with an ardently pro-British speech. Imagine that he speaks of the enduring constitution of this country, how it has provided such liberty and stability and such a rich common culture. He continues by telling the audience how we must educate people to better appreciate this. He remarks on the greatness of the nation-state and the long-established principle of national sovereignty. The audience is told that an impersonal international system that cannot animate the people of the nation will be ruinous. The conductor explains that it robs people of a sense of home and blurs the diversity that nation-states foster.

Of course such a speech would never happen. Instead, Daniel Barenboim made a speech at last night’s Proms concert against emerging ‘isolation tendencies’. He said that ‘if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do.’ The audience laughed approvingly.

When someone says, in effect, educate people so that they agree with me, they are patronising their opponents and veering dangerously towards ideological certainty. You would think musicians would be humbler about doing this. After all, they have an awful track record. For the last century, and perhaps longer, they have been among the most vulnerable to utopias and idealism.

The Proms aspires to be a national festival, one that’s diverse, welcoming and open to all. It would do well, then, not to alienate the 52% of the electorate who voted leave, and those who don’t care much either way. The Proms will invariably be a hospitable place for those liberals and leftists — Barenboim’s speech was really more a sermon. Yet it’s plausible that most classical music listeners are Leavers. And Barenboim has the arrogance to accuse them of jeopardising European culture and to tell them that they are ill-educated.

Indeed, Baronboim makes the common mistake of equating the trend away from European political union with the disintegration of European culture. This is sheer short-sightedness. Just as a nation continues to exist through revolution, invasion, and so on, so will Europe survive, as it has for millennia. Moreover, there is a great cultural danger in pursuing European political union. It promotes homogeneity and discourages diversity and local autonomy. Some would say that this bland internationalism is an unfortunate feature of post-war musical culture.

People often say music and politics shouldn’t mix. I disagree, and think that they will inevitably mix. Beethoven and Napoleon, Verdi and Italian nationalism, Shostakovitch and the Soviet Union, Peter Maxwell Davies’ anti-Iraq War string quartet, etc. But there is a substantial difference between political inspiration and political speeches. One is suitable for the concert hall, the other isn’t. A speech at a concert claims the music for one’s ideological side. It is surely wrong to be a ventriloquist for a dead composer, and arrogant to decide that music itself conforms to one’s own ideological beliefs (in Barenboim’s case, humanism and internationalism).

What If Mahler Had Premiered Charles Ives’ Third Symphony?

This is a familiar daydream for us Charles Ives fans. Mahler is supposed to have seen the score of Ives’ Third Symphony and considered conducting the premiere himself. This would have been an enormous break for Ives. Most of his music had never been performed and seldom was for decades after. The source of the story is mainly Ives himself — certainly not a dishonest man, but neither is he a reliable source. In his Memos he wrote that ‘When this [Symphony No. 3] was being copied in, I think, Tam’s [Tam’s Copying] office, Gustav Mahler saw it and asked to have a copy–he was quite interested in it.’ None of the evidence rises above this level of hear-say.

One Ives biographer fell for this daydream and made it even more fantastic. David Wooldridge was convinced that a performance, or at least a reading, of the Third Symphony took place in Munich in 1910, with Mahler conducting. This is not a claim that’s been repeated in the decades since. All other sources have the date that Mahler saw the score as 1911, and Mahler’s copy of the score is either lost or non-existent. Wooldridge’s account is almost certainly a fabrication.

But what if Mahler had premiered the work in 1911 (despite his ill health) and brought Ives to the attention of the world?

Well, Ives was an awful professional musician. He was not merely forced to become a musical recluse but also partly chose that life. In 1899 his work The Celestial Country was premiered. It is an unremarkable cantata, and obviously a student work, a fact the reviews used as faint-ish praise. It wasn’t in any way a maverick work and Ives could have quite easily continued down this staid professional path. But he chose not to, expressing his contempt by scrawling ‘damn rot and worse’ across one of the favourable reviews. It is probable that he both couldn’t stand the critics — Ives was throughout his life remarkably sensitive to criticism of all kinds — and that he was ashamed to have written such a insipid concession to the ‘old ladies of both sexes’ who made up the American musical establishment. From then on, he lost all ambition to become a professional musician and instead ended up running a remarkably successful life insurance company. This was suited well to Ives: it fulfilled his sense of Christian duty and was in line with his individualist philosophy. He retired a very rich man.

Even though his work was seldom played, he still occasionally received criticism and it could severely disorientate him. In 1914 Ives got a world-class violinist to test out his Second Violin Sonata. He didn’t even make it through the first page. According to Ives, the ‘professor’, as Ives referred to him, put his hands over his ears and said, ‘When you get awfully indigestible food in your stomach that distresses you, you can get rid of it, but I cannot get those horrible sounds out of my ears’! Ives submerged himself in doubt. It was when reflecting on this moment that Ives came out with one of his famous lines: ‘Are my ears on wrong? No one else seems to hear it the same way…’ The next violin sonata he wrote, the Third, was a musical compromise which he very much regretted. ‘The themes are well enough, but there is an attempt to please the soft-ears and be good. The sonata on the whole is a weak sister. But these depressions didn’t last long, I’m glad to say. I began more and more, after séances with nice musicians, that, if I wanted to write music that, to me, seemed worth while, I must keep away from musicians.’

Now imagine how Ives would have reacted to the unprecedented scrutiny of a Mahler-conducted premiere? Moreover, the premiere would have occurred during the most fruitful periods of his composing life, beginning round about 1907-1908 with his first series of heart-attacks and, a year later, his marriage to Harmony Twitchell. This creative outburst lasted about a decade. The Mahler premiere would have been right in the centre of this — a very disruptive turn of events. Much of the Fourth Symphony had yet to be composed, ditto the Concord Sonata and Three Places in New England — the works Ives is best known for. Who knows if these would still have been written? Time-travel fantasies always have a way of screwing everything up.

Ives finally got major premieres later in life, long after he had stopped composing new works. Oddly, the symphonies were premiered in the wrong order: 3 (1946), 2 (1951), 1 (1953), and 4 (1965). (The Holidays Symphony, chronologically his fifth, was premiered in 1954.) A year after the premiere of his Third Symphony, it won the Pulitzer Prize for musical composition. He dismissed the prize, as he always did composition prizes. Yet he nevertheless hung the certificate on his wall. Quietly, he was very proud.

On the 1952 premiere of his Second Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, we have no certain idea what he thought. Ives was not fond of the radio (he didn’t attend the premiere, and had to go to his neighbour’s house to hear the broadcast) and his hearing had become quite awful, this being two years before his death. Still, he probably came away happy. Ives biographer Jan Swafford tells the story:

He was dragged next door to the Ryders’ [Ives’ neighbours] to hear the broadcast and, unlike similar occasions, sat quietly through the whole thing. It was one of his soft pieces, as he called them; it was also perhaps the warmest audience reception of his whole life. As cheers broke out at the end everybody in the room looked his way. Ives got up, spat in the fireplace, and walked into the kitchen without a word. Nobody could figure out if he was too disgusted or too moved to talk. Likely it was the latter.

The Third Symphony is an Ives piece unlike any other, a waypoint between the oddball but quite traditional Second Symphony and the ambitious, celestial Fourth Symphony. In many ways it’s the Ives symphony for people who don’t like Ives. Enjoy: