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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000435.txt from 2002/06

From: "Michael Norsworthy" <>
Subj: [kl] Composer Ralph Shapey dies at 81
Date: Sat, 15 Jun 2002 00:42:01 -0400

A sad day for all of music. I just had the pleasure of playing his
clarinet concerto last month and was honored by his comments and greatly
moved by his wisdom and insight into all things musical. He will be
greatly missed by all.


Ralph Shapey, a composer whose idiosyncratic style combined the
astringent angularity and structural rigor of Serialism with a Romantic
passion for lush textures, grand gestures and lyrical melodies, died
yesterday at a Chicago hospital. He was 81 and lived in Chicago.

His wife, Elsa Charlston, said the cause was heart and kidney failure.

Mr. Shapey was a singular force in American composition. Stocky with
shocks of unruly white hair and a full beard, he could be outspoken. He
regularly railed against the public's indifference to complex
contemporary works - not least his own - and he was so embittered by his
inability to win a large following in the 1960's that for several years
he discouraged performances of his works and claimed that he had
abandoned composition.

Actually, he continued to compose, and he did nothing to stop performers
like the violinist Paul Zukofsky, who ignored the ban.

Despite his perpetual sense of having been slighted, Mr. Shapey had long
been regarded as one of the most important and original contemporary
composers. Nor did his work go unrewarded. In 1982 he received a
MacArthur Foundation grant of over $400,000. At the time, he was so used
to being passed over that when someone from the foundation called with
the news, Mr. Shapey asked, "Which of my friends or enemies put you up
to this?'' and slammed down the telephone. He also won first prize in
the Kennedy Center Friedheim Competition in 1990, and he had works
commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony.

Still, he was disappointed never to have won a Pulitzer Prize, for which
he was a candidate several times. In 1992 the music jury voted to give
him the prize for his hourlong ``Concerto Fantastique.'' But at the last
minute, the Pulitzer board overruled its jury and awarded the prize to
Wayne Peterson, another composer with atonal leanings.

Mr. Shapey was tremendously influential as a teacher. Soon after he
joined the University of Chicago in 1964, he founded the Contemporary
Chamber Ensemble, a new-music group that earned national prominence for
its performances of the full range of contemporary styles, including
those that Mr. Shapey didn't like much but considered important.

``Look, I bluntly admit, I hate John Cage and company,'' he said in
1981. ``I've conducted that music, but I hate it; I think it's
monstrous; I despise it. I really don't love the 12-tone boys, either.
They don't love me and I don't love them. But I've done Schoenberg and
Babbitt and Carter.''

His own music, which he composed prolifically, was full of conflicting
impulses. Typically, he would begin a work with a daunting patch of
bleakness or angularity, which would gradually and inexorably melt into
warm and sometimes tender lyricism. In that regard, Mr. Shapey's
personality often seemed directly reflected in his work: beneath a gruff
and craggy veneer lurked a Romanticist who would shine through when
given the chance.

Mr. Shapey was born in Philadelphia and began his musical studies as a
violinist. When he was 16 he began conducting the Philadelphia Youth
Orchestra, but was also becoming increasingly interested in composition.
In 1945 he moved to New York to study composition with Stefan Wolpe, a
student of Arnold Schoenberg who had developed a richly personalized
style that was rooted in Serialism, but was also indebted to everything
from jazz and Jewish music to the sweeping Romanticism of the late 19th

Mr. Shapey was profoundly influenced by Wolpe's expressive breadth, and
charted his own path in the same spirit. He did not make immediate
headway as a composer in New York, so he supported himself by teaching
at the Third Street Settlement and working as a file clerk. He did,
however, become friendly with artists like Willem de Kooning, for whom
the Expressionist currents in Mr. Shapey's work struck a sympathetic

In addition to composing and teaching, Mr. Shapey conducted the Chicago
Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony and the London Sinfonietta.

He is survived by his wife; a son, Max, of Evanston, Ill.; a stepson,
Eric Charlston of New York; a step-daughter, Rondi Charleston of
Westport, Conn.; and two grandchildren.

Michael Norsworthy
Fax: (617) 983-9318


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