Ruggles, Carl (actually, Charles Sprague)

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Ruggles, Carl (actually, Charles Sprague)

Ruggles, Carl (actually, Charles Sprague) , remarkable American composer; b. Marion, Mass., March 11, 1876; d. Bennington, Vt., Oct. 24, 1971. He learned to play violin as a child, then went to Boston, where he took violin lessons with Felix Winternitz and theory with Josef Claus; later enrolled as a special student at Harvard Univ., where he attended composition classes of John Knowles Paine. Impressed with the widely assumed supremacy of the German school of composition (of which Paine was a notable representative), Ruggles Germanized his given name from Charles to Carl. In 1907 he went to Minn., where he organized and conducted the Winona Sym. Orch. (1908–12). In 1917 he went to N.Y., where he became active in the promotion of modern music; was a member of the International Composers Guild and of the Pan American Assn. of Composers. He later taught composition at the Univ. of Miami (1938–43). Ruggles wrote relatively few works, which he constantly revised and rearranged, and they were mostly in small forms. He did not follow any particular modern method of composition, but instinctively avoided needless repetition of thematic notes, which made his melodic progressions atonal; his use of dissonances, at times quite strident, derived from the linear proceedings of chromatically inflected counterpoint. A certain similarity with the 12-tone method of composition of Schoenberg resulted from this process, but Ruggles never adopted it explicitly. In his sources of inspiration, he reached for spiritual exaltation with mystic connotations, scaling the heights and plumbing the depths of musical expression. Such music could not attract large groups of listeners and repelled some critics; one of them remarked that the title of Ruggles’s Sun-Treader ought to be changed to Latrine-Treader. Unable and unwilling to withstand the prevailing musical mores, Ruggles removed himself from the musical scene; he went to live on his farm in Arlington, Vt., and devoted himself mainly to his avocation, painting; his pictures, mostly in the manner of Abstract Expressionism, were occasionally exhibited in N.Y. galleries. In 1966 he moved to a nursing home in Bennington, where he died at the age of 95. A striking revival of interest in his music took place during the last years of his life, and his name began to appear with increasing frequency on the programs of American orchs. and chamber music groups. His MSS were recovered and pubi.; virtually all of his compositions have been recorded.


Mood for Violin and Piano (c. 1918); Toys for Voice and Piano (1919); Men and Angels {Men for Orch., 1920–21; Angels for 6 Muted Trumpets, 1920–21; perf. as Men and Angels, N.Y., Dec. 17, 1922; Angels rev. for 4 Trumpets and 3 Trombones, 1938, and perf. in Miami, April 24, 1939); Vox damans in deserto for Soprano and Chamber Orch. (1923; N.Y., Jan. 13, 1924); Men and Mountains for Chamber Orch. (N.Y., Dec. 7, 1924; rev. for Large Orch., N.Y., March 19, 1936; rev. 1941); Portals for 13 Strings (1925; N.Y., Jan. 24, 1926; rev. for String Orch., 1929; rev. 1941 and 1952–53); Sun- Treader for Large Orch. (1926–31; Paris, Feb. 25, 1932, N. Slonimsky conducting); Evocations, 4 chants for Piano (1937, 1943; N.Y., Jan. 9, 1943; rev. 1954; orch. version, N.Y., Feb. 3, 1971); Organum for Large Orch. (1944–47; N.Y., Nov. 24, 1949; also arranged for 2 Pianos, 1946–47); Exaltation, hymn tune for “congregation in unison” and Organ (1958); also several unfinished works.


L. Harrison, About C. R.(Yonkers, N.Y., 1946); T. Peterson, The Music of C. R.(diss., Univ. of Wash., 1967); N. Archabal, C. R.: Composer and Painter (diss., Univ. of Minn., 1975); M. Ziffrin, C. R.: Composer, Painter, and Storyteller (Urbana, Ill. , 1994); J. Green, C. R.: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1995).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire