Born on March 12, 1921, in Philadelphia, PA; died on June 13, 2002, in Chicago, IL; married Elsa Charlston.

Beginning in the early 1950s, the American composer, conductor, and teacher Ralph Shapey devoted himself to the cause of new music. His own powerful and complex compositions reflect a personal vision uncompromised by rapidly changing trends.

Shapey was born on March 12, 1921, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. At age seven he began studying the violin, which he continued later under Emmanuel Zeitlin. He rose through the ranks of the Philadelphia National Youth Symphony Orchestra, first as a playing member, then as youth conductor, and finally as assistant conductor (1938-47). The later years also included study with his principal composition teacher, Stefan Wolpe, who helped the young composer find his own voice.

After three years in the Army he moved to New York City in 1951. Here, through the early 1960s, Shapey established himself by composing, conducting, and teaching both privately and at the Third Street Music Settlement. His conducting abilities, especially in new and difficult works, led to other assignments with orchestras and chamber groups in Buffalo, New York; London, Ontario, Canada; New York City; and Philadelphia. From 1963 to 1964 he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1964 he accepted a post at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Contemporary Chamber Players. Maintaining this post, later as professor of music, Shapey achieved considerable success both with his own compositions and with the ensemble, whose performances have become the major impetus for new music in the Midwest.

Rugged independence and raw emotional power--perhaps reminiscent of the American composer Carl Ruggles--characterize his music. It acquires its boldness and immediacy through the initial presentation of ideas in their completely developed form, which Shapey called the concept of 'it is', rather than the traditional 'it becomes'. While his works are atonal, not all of them adhere strictly to 12-tone principles, and none is as minutely controlled as the compositions of Milton Babbitt and other contemporaries. Shapey achieved order through diminutions of the musical image, and form often resulted from the initial image exploding into its own various states of being, juxtaposed against itself in ever new focuses. To aid the definition of these juxtaposed images or mosaics, Shapey very often divided his ensemble, both in terms of timbre and in actual placement on the stage. Larger ensembles were broken into as many as seven distinct groups, as in Ontogeny for orchestra (1958).

In other respects Shapey's music closely follows the Schoenberg tradition. Except for a few compositions, such as Songs of Ecstasy for soprano, piano, percussion and electronic tape (1967), he used traditional instruments sounded in their normal manner. Notation, too, was for the most part traditional. He has been called an Abstract Expressionist, no doubt after the painters with whom he associated in New York, but this label is misleading in that music is inherently an abstract art and Shapey's is certainly no more so than other Expressionists such as Schoenberg. Aleatoricism played only a small part in Shapey's compositions, usually in the form of improvisation between worked out sections, as in the second movement of Rituals for orchestra (1959), or in one group playing material similar to another's, but at a different or unfixed tempo, as in Dimensions for soprano and 23 instruments (1960).

In addition to his teaching duties at the University of Chicago, Shapey was active as an educator in composing didactic pieces. In the late 1960s he contributed music to the University of Illinois String Research Project in an effort to fill the gap in contemporary music that is suitable for the early stages of string instruction.

In 1969 Shapey requested a moratorium on the performance of his works as a protest against all the "rottenness" in the musical world and in the world in general. A performance of his oratorio, Praise, for bass-baritone, double chorus, and ensemble (1971) in 1976, marked his return before an ever-increasing public.

Other important compositions by Ralph Shapey include the Violin Concerto (1959); Evocation for violin with piano and percussion (1959); Incantations for soprano and ten instruments (1961), which a New York Times critic called "one of the most searing, terrifying, and altogether extraordinary compositions this listener has ever heard''; Discourse for four instruments (1961); String Quartet No. 7 (1971-72); Fromm Variations for piano (1973); Songs of Eros for soprano and orchestra (1975); Oh Jerusalem for soprano and flute (1975); Passacaglia for piano (1982); Double Concerto for violin and cello (1982); and the Mann Duo for violin and viola (1983).

Recognition for his work has come in the form of numerous awards, grants, and commissions including the following: Alma Morgenthau Commission (1953) for String Quartet No. 4; Dimitri Mitropoulos Commission (1953) for Challenge--The Family of Man; representative for the United States (1958) at the I.S.C.M. Festival in Strasbourg, France; Stern Foundation Award (1959) for Rituals; Fromm Foundation Commission (1960) for Dimensions and (1967) for Songs of Ecstasy; Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1962); Rockefeller Foundation Grant (1964); Naumburg Recording Award (1966) for Rituals; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award (1966); Koussevitzky Foundation Commission (1967) for the Partita-Fantasy; Fromm Music Foundation Commission (1972) for String Quartet No. 7; and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Commission (1979) for Song of Songs. Shapey's music is published by Theodore Presser and was recorded mostly on the CRI label.

In honor of his seventy-fifth birthday, a concert featuring the strikingly dissimilar works of Shapey and Brahms was conducted at Columbia University's Miller theater. As if to confirm his curmudgeonly reputation Shapey, despite his relative obscurity away from the University of Chicago, refused to provide biographical information or program notes in the timeless belief that the music be allowed to speak for itself.

Shapey died on June 13, 2002, from heart and kidney disease, at the Bernard Mitchell Hospital of the University of Chicago. The Juilliard String Quartet of New York paid tribute to Shapey that year by performing his String Quartet No. 10, originally composed in 1998, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

by David Foster

Ralph Shapey's Career

Began studying the violin, age seven; assistant conductor of the Philadelphia National Youth Symphony, 1938-47; served in U.S. Army, 1948-51; composed, conducted, and taught at Third Street Music Settlement in New York City, 1950s; taught at the University of Pennsylvania, 1963-64; taught at the University of Chicago, 1964-91; Columbia University performed a tribute concert to Shapey on his seventh-fifth birthday, 1996.

Ralph Shapey's Awards

Stern Foundation Award, 1959; Brandeis Creative Arts Award, 1962; Rockefeller Foundation Grant, 1964; Naumburg Recording Award, 1966; National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, 1966.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…