Composer of the Day!

Today's Composer of the Day! is Ralph Shapey.


Shapey was an individualist. His music drifted and transcended styles, from serial to romantic, from atonal to lyrical. He was well-regarded as a composer, conductor, and teacher for most of his life.

Originally from Philadelphia, he landed at the University of Chicago, where he taught for 30 years until his death.

He is still relatively unknown, but I think he is one of the great American composers of the latter part of the 20th century.

His personal credo follows:

  • All great music is a miracle.
  • The music must speak for itself.
  • Great art is a mystery and creates - is - magic.
  • That which the mind of mankind can conceive will be done, to paraphrase sentiments in the Talmund.
  • A work of art must transcend in order to be art.
  • Artist: He [God] filled him with the breath and spirit of God - of the Creative Force - with wisdom,knowledge, discerning insight, and physical knowing, to paraphrase sentiments found in the Torah, in b'reshit (Genesis).
He called himself a "radical traditionalist". He is a unique figure. Sorry, but I could not find any good examples of his music to post. (Any help, Empiricus?)

You should listen to his music.


Gustav said...

Here's one of mid-century composers whose name lives on but whose music on one actually knows. Normally, I would similarly dismiss a composer such as Shapey as "just another Varese-wannabe" until I heard a concert which included Incantations for Soprano and chamber ensemble. Truly a fantastic and thoroughly engrossing work. One of the few concerts that sticks out in my memory, and that I left with my expectations far exceeded. So, nice pick, SA!

Isn't he also famous for having the Pulitizer Prize taken from him? or something like that? Seems like there was some controversy around him and the Pulitzer. (Sounds like a job for Wikipedia...)

Sator Arepo said...

Something like that. He didn't win for ages and ages, and protested or something, and they finally tried to give it to him and he refused?

Something. Somebody look up the story for me, I have to take out the trash (literally).

Joshua Kosman said...

He was nominated for a Pulitzer by the selection committee, but the full board overruled the choice and gave the prize instead to Wayne Peterson.

It'd be nice if this were a story about ol' Ralph being too original and out there for the stodgy Pulitzerians, but actually it had to do with procedure and protocol. The committee is supposed to nominate three finalists that the board then chooses among. But supposedly this committee was offended at the idea of a bunch of generalists having the final say, so they only submitted the one name. The board, in turn, rightly perceiving this as a "fuck you," came back with their best DeNiro "no, fuck you!" and gave the prize to Peterson instead. And that's how Ralph lost the Pulitzer. I gotta say, I see everyone's point of view on this one — except of course that Shapey should've won. He was, as you say, one of the 20th century greats.

My favorite Shapey story, which I've cited in print a couple of times, is about the student who asked him whether he should submit his work for a particular prize. "Absolutely!" Shapey said. "If you win you get the money. If you lose you get the prestige."

He was also a famously irascible motherfucker. When I interviewed the late Jorge Liderman (z"l), I asked him what he'd learned from studying with Shapey at Chicago. Jorge thought for a minute, and then said, "Well, I learned how to curse."

Sator Arepo said...

Thanks, Mr. Kosman, for your stories!

And yes, he was famously curmudgeonly. We were studying him when I was getting my masters; we got a nice letter from him, and shortly thereafter he died.

Good music,

Andrew Patner said...

Wow. I had missed the news of Jorge's death last month. How awful. I knew him when he was studying with Ralph. A great talent. . . .

Josh has much of the Pulitzer story right, but he downplays the aggressive and public nature of the board's stance even before their overruling of the jury. I'll dig up some other pieces but below is my obit on Ralph from the Chicago Sun-Times (below). And of course Ralph was denied a Guggenheim every time he applied (as was Schoenberg).

And you all should certainly check out David Holzman's brand new Bridge CD "Sessions & Shapey" of three Shapey piano works including "21 Variations" of 1978 and the First and Third Sonatas of Roger Sessions. Amazing notes by David H. as well.