Carl Ruggles (1876–1971)

Charles “Carl” Ruggles was a unique New England composer of finely crafted, dissonant (often atonal) music which reflected the independent Yankee heritage he came from. His friend Charles Ives referred to it as “strong, masculine music.” He was born in Massachusetts and studied the violin as a child. He moved to Winona, Minnesota shortly after the turn of the century, where he and his wife, Charlotte, a singer, were music teachers. While there, Ruggles founded and conducted the Winona Symphony. In 1912, they moved to New York, where he became close with several like-minded composers, such as Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse, Henry Cowell, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, and Nicholas Slonimsky, as well as the poet Robert Frost.

Although he studied composition briefly with John Knowles Paine, (and had hoped to study further with Dvořák), Ruggles was mostly self-taught and composed by experimenting with different combinations of notes at the piano. He devised a method of non-serial atonal composition independent from Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. Ruggles was not interested in music theory and refused to study the scores of other composers. His friend and fellow composer Henry Cowell described him as “irascible, lovable, honest, sturdy, original, slow-thinking, deeply emotional, self-assure, and intelligent.” Due to his stubborn and perfectionist nature, Ruggles’ output is very small. He destroyed most of his early works written in the Romantic style and only counted ten published compositions at the end of his life, (several of which existed in multiple versions, often for either solo keyboard or in orchestral arrangements). Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has been a frequent champion of his music and recorded his complete works for a sadly long out-of-print record. The executor of his estate, pianist John Kirkpatrick has edited and published several sketches and previously unknown pieces.

Thomas Hart Benton: "The Sun-Treader: Portrait of Carl Ruggles"

His earliest published piece was the song Toys, written for his son’s fourth birthday. It was followed by Angels for brass ensemble, (originally trumpet sextet), and the orchestral work Men and Mountains, (which contains a re-working of his earlier piece, Men, and is based on a poem by William Blake). In 1931, Ruggles finished his longest and best-known work, The Sun-Treader, for orchestra, based on a poem by Robert Browning. The famous American painter, even did a portrait of Ruggles which he called The Sun-Treader.

Carl Ruggles: "The Church"

Ruggles briefly taught composition at the University of Miami before settling for good in Vermont. He composed very little in the last 30 years of his life, although he did produce three more works, the Evocations for piano, Organum for orchestra, and his last piece, the hymn Exaltation, written in memory of his wife. Instead, he spent his time revising and editing his earlier works. He was a prolific and successful abstract painter, as well. Ruggles died in 1971 at the age of 95 from pneumonia. He was remembered by composer Charles Seeger as “the most delightful character in contemporary American life.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

Marilyn Ziffrin. Carl Ruggles: Composer, Painter, and Storyteller.

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