The Music of Ralph Shapey

I chose to study Ralph Shapey’s String Quartet #9 and Form for piano for the article portion of my dissertation. Two of my teachers at the University of Iowa studied with Shapey, hence the interest in the composer’s twelve-tone method. Shapey, from stories I heard, was crass, tough, and rigid. But I also learned that we was a generous, kind individual. Shapey, by and far, influenced the new music scene in America. As a professor at the University of Chicago, he taught a generation of influential composers, including my mentor at the University of Iowa.

Why did I choose to study Shapey’s early and late music? Because there was a history there. Webern, Wolpe, Shapey, and then a whole generation that filled American universities for decades. It was a connection to a European tradition, the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) that I had come to respect and admire. I got the opportunity to teach 20th Century Techniques at the University of Utah for one semester. When you told students the story that Webern wasn’t that far away from the musical tradition in America, you got there attention and brought them closer to music that is often only taught but not appreciated to its fullest extent. The story of how a teacher’s and student’s path parts ways is interesting, if not sad.

There is only one recording of Shapey’s String Quartet #9 written for and performed during a major Midwest School of Music’s 100th anniversary. When I started studying Shapey’s early and late music, everything I read told me that he “radically” changed his style in his later years with the Mother Lode Worksheet. If you look at his early and late music, these musical periods of his life are not all that different.