Program Notes

Angels for Muted Brass

BORN: March 11, 1876, East Marion, Massachusetts
DIED: October 24, 1971, Bennington, Vermont

COMPOSED/ INSTRUMENTATION: Angels was originally the second movement of a three-part symphony called Men and Angels, written in 1920, and it was then scored for six muted trumpets. In 1940, Ruggles made the version for four muted trumpets and three muted trombones that is heard at this concert. In the revision, the work is transposed down a minor third and expanded by three measures; there are also some slight rhythmic alterations, and the dynamic range is slightly stretched. As for the expansion from six parts to seven, a third trombone is brought in to double the bass line for five measures

WORLD PREMIERE: December 17, 1922, Edgard Varèse conducted

DURATION: About 3 mins

Carl Ruggles is often mentioned together with his slightly older friend Charles Ives. The two make about as plausible and as unconvincing a couple as Bach and Handel or Haydn and Mozart. They share what used to be called, with admiration, Yankee individualism, and both were uncompromising figures, as disdainful of the "mainstream" as it was of them. Ives discovered in himself a genius for life insurance comparable to his genius for music, and it made him a prosperous man who could protect his tender artistic ego by pretending that composing was an eccentric's hobby; Ruggles scraped together an irregular sort of living from playing the violin, engraving, teaching, conducting, and private patronage.

They were radically different as artists, and Wilfrid Mellers has summed up their difference: “The eclecticism of Ives's technique . . . is part of his immediacy, his awareness of environment. Ruggles, on the other hand, is neither eclectic nor profuse. In a long life he has written—and rewritten, again and again—only a handful of works; and they are in a style as consistent as Ives's music is protean and inconsistent. His is a dedicated art; and it is dedicated to the integrity of his own spirit.” Ruggles eschews the quotations and other devices that lend a certain patina of nostalgia to Ives, and his pieces are concentrated—purposeful in a single direction—in a way that makes them the opposite of Ives's reckless polyphonies.

Ruggles's own music, rarely performed until the last years of his life, was admired by colleagues like Ives and Varèse, as well as by the perceptive and forward-looking critic Paul Rosenfeld, for whom Angels was "distinguished by the loveliness of the sound of the six close-dissonant, silver-snarling trumpets, and by an inner homogeneity." More often it met with incomprehension and hostility. The beauty of those closely spaced, finely gauged harmonies remains pristine, and the tensile strength of the melody, that strength constantly tested by cross rhythms, is as commanding as ever.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(February 2018)

Please wait...