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Carl Ruggles and “Angels for Muted Brass”

Charles “Carl” Sprague Ruggles (March 11, 1876 – October 24, 1971) was an American composer of the American Five group who was born in Marion, MA, in 1876. His mother died at an early age and he was raised mainly by his grandmother. The young Charles was never very close to his father Nathaniel. He began to use the name to ‘Carl’ at an early age, perhaps due to his great admiration for German composers, especially Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, and though he never legally changed it, signed all documents and works in his adult life “Carl Ruggles.” Carl began taking violin lessons at the age of four with a local itinerant music teacher. He continued playing and gave performances on the violin, which were usually received well and was appointed director of the local YMCA orchestra in 1892.

In 1899, C.W. Thompson & Co. published Ruggles’s first compositions. They were three songs titled “How Can I Be Blythe and Glad,” “At Sea,” and “Maiden with Thy Mouth of Roses.” The first song is one of two surviving compositions from his early days; all others prior to around 1919 are presumed to have been destroyed by Ruggles himself. He worked a number of odd jobs and started to teach violin and music theory privately. Unfortunately the latter did not provide much income or success. In 1902 he started writing music criticism for the Belmont Tribune and the Watertown Tribune. This continued until July 1903. In 1906, he met his future wife, Charlotte Snell, a contralto. Ruggles began a search for steady employment so he and Charlotte could marry. This led him to Winona, MN, to work for the Mar D’Mar School of Music as a violin teacher. He became active as a soloist and eventually directed the Winona Symphony Orchestra. In the meantime, Charlotte joined him as a vocal teacher at Mar d’Mar. Ruggles continued to direct the symphony after the music school closed and was hired to conduct the YMCA orchestra and glee club. He and his wife also took private students.

In 1912 Ruggles moved to New York and began writing an opera based on the German play The Sunken Bell by Gerhart Hauptmann. It would prove to be a long process and due to Ruggles’s sluggish composing, and he never finished it. Ruggles continued to compose, supplementing his income by giving composition lessons. For his son’s fourth birthday in 1919 he wrote Toys for soprano and piano; this was the first piece he wrote in his atonal, contrapuntal style. He continued to live and compose in New York until 1938, when he began teaching composition at the University of Miami until 1943. He then moved to a converted schoolhouse in Vermont where he spent his time revising compositions and painting.

Ruggles’ compositional style was apparently trial and error. He sat at the piano and moved his fingers around, listened hard to the sounds, shouting out some of the lines. His dissonant, contrapuntal music was similar to Arnold Schoenberg’s although he did not employ the same twelve tone system. Angels was written in 1921 for muted brass; it was originally for six trumpets but was rescored for trumpets and trombones in 1940. From 1921 to 1924 he wrote the music for Men and Mountains. Portals for string orchestra came in 1925. Sun-treader (1931), his best known work, was scored for a large orchestra. It was inspired by the poem “Pauline” by Robert Browning, particularly the line “Sun-treader, light and life be thine forever!” At 16 minutes, it is Ruggles’ longest and best-known work.

Evocations (1943) is a set of four pieces, existing in three versions, the first for orchestra. Organum for orchestra dates from 1947. Exaltation (1958), his last completed work, is a hymn dedicated to the memory of his wife. He was friends with Henry Cowell, Edgard Varèse, Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Charles Seeger. His students included James Tenney and Merton Brown. Ruggles died in Bennington, VT, on October 24, 1971, due to old age and complications resulting from pneumonia.

The only piece by Ruggles in my collection is:

Angels for Muted Brass.


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