All the music Carl Ruggles wrote -- that which he did not destroy -- can be played in less than 1 hour and 20 minutes. Yet this craggy Vermonter is rightly viewed as one of this country's important creative geniuses. And, at last, all of it has been released on records.
He never accepted life as he found it. He even went so far as to change his name. Born Charles Sprague, he decided one day, while a special student at Harvard, that since German musicians held a particular supremacy in the world of music, he would change his first name to Carl. When and why Sprague became Ruggles is a puzzle to which I have never seen a clue.
Fairly early in his life Ruggles discovered the same thing that led a contemporary, Charles Ives, to go into the insurance business: that his compositions were not going to keep him in food and shelter. Having studied the violin, Ruggles accepted an offer to move from New England (he was born in Marion, Mass., on March 11, 1876) to Winona, Minn., where he taught violin and composition, and founded the Winona Symphony. For reasons that remain clouded, the orchestra folded after four years. In the years immediately following, Ruggles lived for a time in New York City, moved back to New England, did some engraving, studied marine architecture, and even served for a brief period as a music critic on a short-lived paper in Cambridge, Mass.
Finally he settled on a farm in Arlington, Vt., where he spent most of the rest of his long life on his favorite avocation, painting. He was gifted enough in this field that from time to time his paintings were exhibited in New York galleries. When he was 90, Ruggles moved to a nursing home in Vermont, where he died a few months after his 95th birthday.
One day conductor-pianist Michael Tilson Thomas went to visit the old composer in the nursing home. He had been fascinated by Ruggles' music from the first time he heard "Men and Mountains" (when he was 13). He had been warned that Ruggles was irascible and probably a bit senile.
Deciding on a direct approach, Thomas simply put a pair of earphones on the composer's head and began playing a tape of Ruggles' greatest work, the orchestral tone poem, "Sun-treader."
"The first timpani stroke of the work hit the old man like a hammer," Thomas has said . "Suddenly he was sitting bolt upright, his eyes wild and open, like an eagle, his breath coming in fast, hoarse grunts and growls and gutteral noise: 'Fine. Great! Damn, damn fine work!' He kept it up right through the whole piece, sometimes singing or moaning along with the music until the end."
After that, Thomas had no trouble getting Ruggles to talk about music, on which the great old man had strong opinions. "I don't think much about that fellow Brahms. If you ask me he's just a big sissy -- always hiding behind formal development resolutions, counterpoint -- and those titles of his, Capriccio Intermezzo -- what the hell does that mean?"
Debussy -- "a genius -- nothing wrong with him that a few weeks in the open air wouldn't cure." "Oh, there are fine works all right, the 'St. Matthew Passion,' 'Missa Solemnis,' 'tristan,' 'The Ring' and 'Sun-Treader.' When I wrote 'Sun-Treader,' I knew it was great. I knew it."
Thomas ran up quite a debt to Ruggles during the visits he had before the old man died. He has now paid it off handsomely in a new, two-record set of Columbia Records, CBS M2 34591, on which every note of Ruggles' music extant can be heard in performances by musicians possessing particular insights into the thorny works. Much if not all of the music will be completely new to most record listeners, though several of the works have been recorded once or twice before. Washingtonians have been more fortunate than those who dwell in other cities because Richard Bales has often performed Ruggles numerous times on his National Gallery programs.
The new recordings enlist the services of the Buffalo Philharmonic under Thomas' direction for the orchestral pieces: "Men and Mountains," "Evocations," "Sun-Treader," "Organum," and "Portals" (the latter for strings). Soprano Judith Blegen sings Ruggles' only song, a lovely wisp of a thing that ends in a soft, high sigh on a pianissimo B Flat. Ruggles wrote it for his son Micah's fourth birthday and it talks about painted ships, choo-choo cars, and a balloon. It is Ruggles' earliest work.
Several of the compositions exist in more than one version, and the new recording includes each. "Angels" is heard from trumpets and trombones as well as in the original trumpet version. "Evocations" is played in its first version by pianist John Kirkpatrick, who also contributes invaluable notes to the set. It is also heard from the Buffalo Philharmonic in its later orchestral garb.
Although Ruggles came after the peak of the transcendental movement, his whole philosophical approach is reminiscent of those staunch giants, Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau, and their followers. His titles, often inspired either by Whitman or Browning, have the feeling of mystic inner illumination: e"Exaltation," "Angels," "Portals." The title "Sun-Treader" comes from Browning, who used it as a label for Shelley.
Most of the music was written according to rules that Ruggles, whose principal studies, were with the conservative but solid John Knowles Paine, laid down for himself: little or no repetition of tones until a series had been laid out. And this before Schoenberg had enunciated his principles of 12-tone music. Today the music has lost much of the sense of harshness that was ascribed to it when it was first heard. In the meantime, we have heard so much music that goes far beyond what Ruggles heard and preserved.
He once commented on his habbit of destroying what he had written: "Every time I've let a passage go at what I thought was good enough, sooner or later it's come right back and slapped me in the face!" That accounts for the fate of his only opera, a version of Hauptmann's play, "The Sunken Bell," (which the Metropolitan Opera gave in Respighi's music.) After working on the opera for a decade, he destroyed the full score.
In spite of the fact that his music brought in practically nothing for many years, Ruggles survived on his Vermont farm on income from various sources. It was only in the final months of his life that a letter appealing for assistance for the proud old man was circulated. It said plainly that unless Ruggles could be given some financial assistance, he would soon be in untenably straitened circumstances. Not long after that letter arrived, Ruggles died, as if to make quite clear that he was not interested in living on what he would have considered charity.
Lovers and students of American music are deeply in Michael Tilson Thomas' debt for his work of love in recording the complete Ruggles repertoire, and no less for his true charity in visiting with the old composer and bringing joy into his final months in the one way that meant the most to this extraordinary figure.