Ruggles took violin lessons in early childhood, and started calling himself Carl instead of his given name Charles out of his respect for German composers, especially Wagner. He was classically trained in composition and conducting at Harvard, but maintained a hand to mouth existence most of his life by teaching, conducting, being a music reviewing, engraving, and as a painter had one-man shows of his work.
Ruggles' music sounds something like Schoenberg's as it is dissonant and atonal, but Ruggles did not practice Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique. Ruggles wrote dissonant free melody and what came to be called dissonant counterpoint. With dissonance the norm, Ruggles added to the complexity by using an ever-shifting metrical pulse of complex time signatures.
|Painting by Ruggles|
The name of the piece comes from a poem by Robert Browning titled Pauline, specifically a line from the poem, "Sun-treader—life and light be thine for ever" a line that is in praise of Shelley the poet. Such things that inspire composers are usually not meant to be taken literally. Ruggles' work has nothing to do with Shelley the poet, but it is a result of the feelings Ruggles got from the poem, a combination of grandeur, futility, anger, and who knows what else. So Sun Treader is in essence a symphonic poem in the tradition began by Liszt.
Sun Treader begins with notes hammered out by the timpani as the orchestra makes initial loud, dissonant statements that sound like chaos. The music quiets somewhat in volume and the dissonance is not as harsh but it is still there. The music ebbs and flows with sections of relative calm and sections of unsettling grittiness. The hammer blows of the timpani return throughout the piece as a sort of guidepost to help us through the music, and as a signal that the climatic end of the piece is near.
In the liner notes of Ruggles Complete Works written by Ruggles' good friend John Kirkpatrick he hears the work as a series of arcs of dissonant melody that fall into a pattern of traditional sonata form - exposition, development, recapitulation, coda. For anyone who wishes to explore Ruggles' music further, I recommend the reissue of the recording by the Buffalo Philharmonic and Michael Tilson-Thomas and the excellent liner notes that accompany it written by John Kirkpatrick.