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Ralph Shapey

By Shulamit Ran

I first met Ralph Shapey in Chicago when he emerged out of what was, at that time, the building that housed the Department of Music at the University of Chicago—to greet me, a visitor just arriving in Chicago from New York City. It was a lovely late spring day in 1973, and I had come to interview for a faculty position at the instigation of Shapey, who had heard one work of mine on an LP recording. In no time he informed me, his bright, piercing blue eyes sparkling, “I can tell you’ve heard a lot of my music.” The fact of the matter, though, was that, like him, I had only heard a single work of his up until the day before my arrival, when I went to the Music Library of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to brush up, at the last moment, on what the man responsible for my trip to Chicago had composed. Of course, the reason he had heard only a single work of mine at the time was that I was a young composer who had not even attained what is known today as an “emerging composer” stature. The reason for my scant familiarity with his music was that, in the years I lived in New York and began attending new music concerts there, during the late sixties and early seventies, Ralph was embroiled in his own self-imposed moratorium on the performance of his music. Though many interpretations had been advanced, all along, about the underlying cause for the moratorium (Ralph, whose keen sense for provoking drama mixed in with controversy being second to none, himself fueling the fire of uncertainty by giving mystery-shrouded responses), the real reason, I believe, one of numerous cited by him at different times, was his disappointment and anger at what he considered “the rottenness of the world in which we live.” If this world did not appreciate his genius, he might as well withdraw his music from the public arena, he decreed. And so, my pre­-Chicago acquaintance with Ralph’s music was confined to a single work performed by the Aeolian Chamber Players in the late sixties. The Aeolians, life-long supporters of Ralph’s music, along with a few other performers-devotees, simply ignored Ralph’s wishes and continued to perform his music after all (a fact in which he secretly delighted and recounted with some glee, as one would expect). And yes, I do remember the impression this single work left. Rugged, individual, dissonant—this was music that spoke in spite of the totally uncompromising language in which it was composed. In fact, surrounded by so much of the faceless music I was listening to on many a new music concert during that era of great experimentation, the work I heard immediately stood out in its power and humanity.

The autumn following that 1973 spring afternoon, Ralph and I became colleagues and, in no time, very close friends. Then, in the summer of 1976, having by then heard many of our common students talk about Ralph the teacher, their tales filled with awe, intrigue, and direct quotes laced with hilarious profanities, my curiosity became piqued and I asked Ralph to become my teacher as well. There was so much, I knew, he could teach me. I studied with him formally for about a year, but in the special way truly extraordinary teachers remain one’s teachers for life, he was the one composition teacher I had who was my truest and greatest mentor, till the day he died.

In his music, Shapey strove to create memorable, powerful, unforgettable sound images. “A great work of Art is a work which transcends the immediate moment into a world of infinity,” he wrote. His music, to my mind, truly defies the ephemeral nature of music, exemplifying the ideal of “music as a graven image,” about which he had often spoken. It is music that you can almost hold in your hand, it radiates such a sense of presence and concreteness.

“Music as an Object in Time and Space.
Aggregate sounds structured into concrete sculpted forms.
Images existing as a totality from their inception…”
(From the record jacket of Shapey’s “Rituals” for Symphony Orchestra and String Quartet #6, CR1 SD 275).

There was a period in his life, he told me, when he took a year off from composing, in order to devote himself to the study of the great works of the past. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart’s G minor Symphony. What is the one quality that makes the music so special and gives it its power to survive? Shapey asked himself. His answer centered around two words: inevitable, and memorable. And so was the music, and so was the man.

In an age of modernism and experimentalism, Ralph, by his own admission, might be seen as the last of the great romantics, his music residing somewhere between radicalism and transcendentalism, between the deeply expressive and the boldly experimental, resisting categorization, carving a space for itself unlike any other. People, in talking about Shapey’s music, always seem to be stretching the limits of language in an effort to describe sounds that have pushed the boundaries, and the meaning, of music. Yet words such as maverick, radical, innovator, which frequently come up in connection with Ralph the person and Ralph the composer, only tell part of the story, because above all, Ralph was a great master, a composer totally in command of his art and craft. And it is this total mastery of resources, combined with the power of his vision, that make his music of true and lasting substance.

Shapey considered each and every one of his works to be his gift to humanity. It was, in fact, his fierce and unrelenting belief in the limitless power of the human mind—“that which the human mind can conceive will be done,” he was fond of saying—that made the very notion of accessibility for its own sake unpalatable and unacceptable. He never ceased to believe in the capacity of a listener, any open-minded, unprejudiced listener willing to use his/her brain, to come to his music. His totally uncompromising musical style notwithstanding, his music was revered by many, and new works were often greeted with ecstatic critical acclaim. For someone who, for years, carried in his pocket Nicholas Slominsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invectives, a book painstakingly chronicling critics’ many missed opportunities to tell apart greatness from failure through the generations, Shapey seemed to be surprisingly affected by what critics had to say about his music. A good review was immediately photocopied on the University of Chicago Department of Music copier and sent, in triplicates, to the chair, dean, and president of the university. A bad review was, actually, rather uncommon. But I do recall one occasion when a new work was greeted with less than the usual enthusiasm by both local Chicago critics. Ralph was inconsolable. “It’s like casting pearls to a swine,” he muttered to me in great anguish. Those musicians who were life-long champions of his music often found themselves on the receiving end of Ralph’s gratitude when a package sent by mail, unannounced, turned out to contain a new concerto, or a sonata, or a work actually integrating its dedicatee’s name into its title: The Krosnick Soli (after Joel Krosnick, cellist with the Juilliard String Quartet), The Kroslish Sonata (Joel Krosnick, again, and Gilbert Kalish, pianist), The Mann Soli  (Bobby Mann, Juilliard Quartet), and so on. Paul Fromm, his great late benefactor and friend, was the dedicatee of the Fromm Variations, a huge set of 31 variations for which Beethoven’s Diabelli surely served as a spiritual precursor. And the University of Chicago, where Ralph was professor for twenty-seven years and whose composition program he built, was bestowed “Centennial Celebration” for singers and twelve players in 1991. And then there was a work for which no recipient per se was assumed. Praise, Shapey’s oratorio for bass-baritone, double chorus, and instrumental ensemble carries the dedication “to all descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses; past, present and future, unto all eternity.” In the program notes for the 1976 premiere of this work, with which Shapey chose to break his 7-year moratorium on the performance of his music, the composer wrote “In May 1973, Praise was sent to Israel in honor of its 25th anniversary.” A later large-scale work, The Covenant, composed in 1977, was dedicated to Israel’s 30th anniversary.

Lore has it that Beethoven, at his deathbed, waved a defiant fist at an uncomprehending world. Ralph Shapey, whose singular, life-long identification with Beethoven, the music genius and the symbol, was never very far from the surface, having spent most of his life in that same angry, defiant posture, died a calm, almost content man, accepting death with the most extraordinary grace and unimaginable nobility. This was, in large part, I think, a tribute to his love for, and by, his wife, Elsa Chariston, the soprano who in earlier times had premiered many of his works and who adored and cared for his every need to his last day, accepting him exactly as he was. But perhaps it was also the passage of time, the most critical element of which life and music are made, that granted Ralph, at the age of 81, the necessary introspection to look at the ebb and the flow, the sturm und drang, the Pulitzer Prize that was not to be and the MacArthur “genius” award that was, the twists, turns and ironies, and come to terms with how they all fit into the larger scheme of things.

Prophecy, it is said, was given to fools. But I will take my chance and say that history will be good to Ralph and will recognize him for the true giant that he was. Ralph, I think, knew it, too.

And, amazingly, the man who had little use for pleasantries and no desire to ingratiate himself with anyone, who could be abrasive, brusque, child-like, distrustful, at times painfully honest, could count at the end of his life not only hundreds of compositions to his name, but also a cadre of extraordinarily loyal friends, former students, and people who felt he had left a profound mark on their lives. Anyone who fell for that “tough,” “curmudgeon” exterior which he cultivated into an art-form, clearly did not know the real person. Indeed, no one could wish to have a more loving, warm, loyal, generous friend than Ralph was to those people he considered his “family.”

In conclusion, I would like to quote the late Emmanuel Ghent, composer, psychiatrist, Shapey ­student, and great friend, who wrote, on the occasion of Shapey’s sixtieth-birthday celebration at the University of Chicago: “What to say? How often does one encounter a man like you, Ralph? A man of deep passion and integrity, who stands firm for what he believes, who speaks out straight from the heart…who has given the world such a wealth of music— an array of masterpieces that makes us look in awe. Birthday greetings to the man who brought passion back to music.”

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 13, 2003.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters