OBITUARY: Ralph Shapey, 81



Ralph Shapey
Photo courtesy of the University of Chicago

Courtesy of the University of Chicago

Ralph Shapey, an original and influential American composer who united avant-garde and romantic sensibilities, died June 13, 2002, of natural causes after a long illness. He was 81 years old.

Born in Philadelphia on March 12, 1921, Shapey began musical training in violin at age 7. At 16, he began studying violin with Emanuel Zeitlin and embarked on composition studies with the German composer Stefan Wolpe, and was selected as the youth conductor of the Philadelphia National Youth Symphony Orchestra. Shapey graduated from public high school in 1939 but received no other formal education.

Shapey’s musical career was interrupted for three years when he served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1945 he moved to New York, where he absorbed the influence of Abstract Expressionist painters and worked first as a freelance violinist, then as a composer, conductor and teacher. In 1963 Shapey commuted to Philadelphia, where he conducted the orchestra and chorus at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the fall of 1964, Shapey joined the composition faculty of the University of Chicago as a Professor of Music. That same year he founded the Contemporary Chamber Players, a professional new music ensemble dedicated to the performance of 20th-century works. Shapey served as the Chamber Players’ music director and conductor for 27 years and taught many eminent composers, including Pulitzer Prize winner Shulamit Ran, now a Professor in Music and the College at the University of Chicago.


Shapey On His Work

“Radical traditionalist” is what I’ve been called. My music combines two fundamentally contradictory impulses–radical language and romantic sensibility. The melodies are disjunct and dissonant; they contain atonal harmonies and extremes in register, dynamics and textural contrast. Yet the musical structures are grandly formed and run the gamut of dramatic gestures. Like the Romantics, I conceive of art in a deeply spiritual way. A great work of art transcends the immediate moment into a world of infinity.

My credo is: 1) The music must speak to itself. 2) Great art is a miracle. 3) What the mind can conceive will be done.

Shapey wrote more than 200 compositions, including solo pieces, duos, trios, string quartets, chamber works for woodwinds, percussion and piano, and larger works for chorus and orchestra. Recordings of his music are available on the CRI, Opus One, and New World record labels.

He received commissions from the Fromm Foundation, the Library of Congress-Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, the Koussevitsky Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and many individual performers. In 1961 the New York Times described Shapey’s Incantations for Soprano and 23 Instruments as “one of the most searing, terrifying and altogether extraordinary compositions this listener has ever heard … What Shapey has produced is a composition of abstract expressionism that seems to lay bare the most secret and elemental doubts, yearnings, torments, and despairs of the human soul.”

As a conductor, Shapey led the Buffalo Philharmonic, Chicago, Jerusalem, London, and Philadelphia symphony orchestras, and the London Sinfonietta.

Throughout his career, Shapey won numerous awards and honors, among them the George Gershwin Award in 1951, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982 and the 1990 Friedheim Award given by the Kennedy Center. Other prizes include the Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1962), the National Foundation of Arts and Letters Award (1966) and over a dozen ASCAP awards. In 1989 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994.

Shapey attributed the intensity and openness of his work to an early brush with death. Two weeks after he was born, Shapey came down with double pneumonia and was given up for dead by his doctors, who advised his parents to “have another child as soon as possible … he simply is not going to live.” But, Shapey said, his father “seemed to have had one inch more brains than the doctors themselves … He held me up by the ankles, and beat the hell out of me … I yelled, I cried, I screamed, and as I did all that, I coughed and my lungs cleared … It has always been a big surprise to me that, yes, I am alive. And I have always felt that I had to battle twice as hard because I had to battle not only for life … but I had to battle death as well.”

He originally decided to become a composer simply in order to understand music. After staying up all night at the age of 16, preparing to conduct Beethoven’s eighth symphony, Shapey recalled that he heard a subconscious voice accusing him during the performance: “’What the hell are you doing up here? What do you think you’re doing? Just because you can wave your arms around better than a lot of people, so what? What do you know? … Do you really know what Beethoven intended here? Come on, in order to know what Beethoven truly intended you have to become a composer.’” He followed this subconscious voice to a productive career that he described as guided at its highest points by sheer intuition. Describing the “marriage of the conscious and the unconscious” in composing, he once said, “you reach the highest levels of creativity, and it is as though you are not there, it is as though someone else, something else…is doing it, not you. You don’t even exist at that particular moment. In retrospect all you remember is how wonderful, how positively magnificent it felt.”

In 1991 Shapey retired from the University of Chicago. He continued to conduct the Contemporary Chamber Players until 1994. Just this year he published A Basic Course in Music Composition (Theodore Presser company) which was well received. According to his widow, Elsa Charlston, Shapey was energetically composing until a few days before his death. Shapey is survived by Charlston, their son Max, and their two grandchildren.