Ralph Shapey
Ralph Shapey

Ralph Shapey

About Ralph Shapey

A composer of complex music, at one time described as "abstract expressionist," Ralph Shapey is also a noted conductor, violinist, and teacher. His initial studies of the violin at age seven were later continued with Emanuel Zeitlin; Shapey was considered a child prodigy on that instrument. His main composition teacher was Stefan Wolpe. From 1938 to 1947, he was the assistant conductor of the Philadelphia National Youth Administration Symphony Orchestra. In the Second World War, he served in the U.S. Army. After the conflict, he composed his String Quartet No. 1 (1946), his Piano Sonata No. 1 (1946), and the Piano Quintet (1946 - 1947). Shapey eventually moved to New York City, where he was commissioned by Dimitri Mitropoulos -- at that time the conductor of the New York Philharmonic -- to write a work for orchestra. The rehearsals and performance of the resulting piece gave birth to Shapey's reputation as a "difficult" conductor, and a composer of overtly challenging music.
In the late '40s and early '50s, Shapey created his String Quartet No. 2 (1949); Three Essays on Thomas Wolfe for piano (1948 - 1949); the Fantasy (1951) for orchestra; the Cantata (1951) for soprano, tenor, bass, narrator, chamber orchestra, and percussion; the Symphony No. 1 (1952) for orchestra; and several other pieces. These exhibited clean, sharp, and sometimes serialist counterpoint that followed neo-Classical procedures and aesthetics. In 1954, he founded and became director of the Contemporary Chamber Players at the University of Chicago. Between 1963 - 1964, he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and then became a professor of music at the University of Chicago in 1964.
These especially prolific years resulted in a number of orchestral pieces (Challenge -- the Family of Man in 1955 and the Violin Concerto in 1959), various vocal works (including Soliloquy [1959] for narrator, string quartet, and percussion, and Dimensions for soprano and 23 instruments in 1960), three string quartets, 11 chamber works (including Chamber Symphony in 1962), works for individual instruments (Sonance in 1964 for carillon), and piano pieces including the Sonata Variations (1954), and Seven (1963), for piano, 4 hands.
In 1969, Shapey announced that he would no longer submit his works for publication, and in 1972 he declared he had stopped composing as a protest "against all the rottenness in the musical world today and in the world in general." (A similar rejection of previous activity and works has occurred in the lives of other composers, such as Sorabji and Hovhaness, for various reasons). But in 1976, he again consented to performance and publication.
In 1982, he became a MacArthur Fellow, served as a distinguished professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College (1985 - 1986), and in 1989 was elected a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1992, his Concerto fantastique was chosen by a music jury for the Pulitzer Prize, but they were overruled by the board, presumably because of Shapey's controversial reputation.

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