Friday, October 4, 2013

Ruggles - Sun Treader

Carl Ruggles was foul-mouthed, highly opinionated, crude, and merciless in his criticism of other composers except Charles Ives who was his friend. He was a man that spouted disrespect for Brahms, calling him a "sissy". But the worst criticism and harshest judgments were aimed at only one composer - himself. Self-critical in the extreme, he wrote and rewrote his music, only to destroy most of it. He lived to be 95 years old but left only eight published compositions, with the longest one taking about 16 minutes to play, the piece for orchestra he called Sun Treader.

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.

His method of composing was pain-staking, tedious and he took years to compose a single work. He would sit at the piano and play a single chord over and over again, giving it the 'test of time' as he said.  His most well-known work is Sun Treader.  He began it in 1926 and it was intended for a concert in New York City, but the work was not completed until six years later. It was premiered in Paris in 1931 and was not played in The United States until 1966.

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.


  1. I found a weird little painting signed Eniver Ruggles. Did Carl have a son of that name? The style is oddly reminiscent.

  2. No, his only son was named Micah. My father worked with him for many years at a school in Miami during the '50s and '60s.