Interesting Lies and Curious Truths About Carl Ruggles
I suppose all of us as we get older tend to shade the truth a little about our backgrounds. To push and pull the facts a tiny bit, to suit the image we wish to create. But I doubt very much that many of us would create startling new myths about ourselves at a fairly early age and continue with them, ever embroidering the stories, until the ripe age of 95 and death. That is what Carl Ruggles did and even his best friends were taken in.
Interestingly almost none of the entries on Carl in the reference books, and admittedly they are brief, discuss his family background except to say that he was born in Marion, Massachusetts, on March 11, 1876. The only fairly recent article that deals with Carl's life at all was written by John Kirkpatrick, his music executor, which appeared in Perspectives of New Music entitled, "The Evolution of Carl Ruggles," and then appropriately hedged with a sub-title, "A Chronicle Largely In His Own Words."1
So let us deal with these myths that Carl created and then try to suggest why he felt it necessary to do so. I choose to call these untruths, myths, rather than pernicious lies, for Carl meant no harm by them, I am sure. They simply created a self-image that he preferred.
The story starts with his grandfather who was the domineering patriarch of the family. Carl's parents never had a home of their own; they lived with his grandparents from the time they were married. The myth has it that Carl's grandfather, Charles Henry, was a great sea captain and that is why they lived in Marion. He would ship out on one of those big whaling vessels and be gone for months on end, fighting the rough seas and hunting the huge whales. This was a story that nearly everyone believed, for Carl spoke so movingly of the sea and of the many stories that his grandfather had told him of the great whaling days—the bravery of the men, and the crushing hardships of the voyages.
The truth is somewhat different. Charles Henry was born in Rochester, Massachusetts, and his mother died when he was still a young boy. When his father took a second wife (Lydia Rodman, a woman of considerable means) and they moved to Fall River, Charles Henry was sent away to Kents Hill School in Readfield, Maine, to learn among other things "mechanical labors and agricultural labors."2 After his schooling he went west to work on the river boats on the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers. He may even have been captain on one of those boats.
He married Violetta Johnson and after a few years settled down to running hotels in the city of Peoria, Illinois. We know of two establishments with which he was associated: The Massasoit House and the Peoria House. Two children were born to Violetta and Charles Henry while they were living in Peoria: Nathaniel, Carl's father, and a younger sister, Sophia.
Meanwhile Charles Henry's father had become a wealthy man in Fall River. He purchased some rich farm land in East Marion across the bay to the lighthouse in Buzzards Bay. Perhaps he thought to retire there; perhaps it was for investment. In any case, when he died in 1857 that East Marion property went to Carl's grandfather. By the end of 1859 the family had moved from Peoria and were settled on the farm. And that is how Carl came to be born in Marion. His grandfather was not a whaling captain; he was a well-to-do farmer, who apparently ruled his household with an iron hand.
Let us continue with the myths. Here is a simple one: Carl is not his real name. His parents named him Charles Sprague Ruggles. He changed it to Carl, though never legally, in his twenties when he was living near Boston and felt like everyone else of the time that the best music and musicians were from Germany.
Carl was the second of three children. He had a sister, Mary, who was six years older, and a brother, Edward Milton, who was three years younger. At various times in his life he told people he was an only child. In fact, that is what he told me until I confronted him with the fact of his niece who was still alive. Then he readily admitted without embarrassment that he did indeed have a brother and sister. Most of his friends told me, however, that they thought he had been an only child.
He insisted that he had left home and gone out on his own after his grandfather's death in 1889 and his mother's death in 1890. He had never gone back to Marion, he said, and he had left the family for good.
What is true is that after the deaths of his grandfather and mother the whole family moved from Marion to Lexington, Massachusetts, for less than a year and then to Waverley.
Carl may have gone to school for a while but he apparently did not graduate high school. Instead he formed a little orchestra of his own and began to play for various social clubs and theaters in the area. He also gave recitals on the violin. Here is probably the first review Carl ever received. It comes from the Belmont Bulletin of April 23, 1892, when he was sixteen years old.
On April 14th the Ladies Aid Society held their regular meeting in the vestry of Waverley Hall, after which there was musical entertainment.
A musical program of entertainment was rendered in the church each number of which received hearty applause. Master Charles Ruggles' violin selections were rendered with much feeling and delicacy. He captivated the audience by his manly bearing, and is evidently at home in the concert room. . . . The zither playing by Master Ruggles with guitar accompaniment by Miss Ruggles, was a pleasing entertainment.3
So we learn that Carl and his sister occasionally performed together, and that he sometimes played the zither! From the social columns we also learn that Carl and his father and brother did return to Marion for summer vacations for several years after their move to Waverley.
It is true that Carl did not like his father very much and he certainly had little or no respect for him. He said his father drank too much. What seems closer to the truth is that Carl did not like his father because his father ran through the family inheritance so that there was nothing left for his children.
Nathaniel loved horses not liquor, and went to the race track whenever he could. In 1893 he married again, a woman from Tennessee named, interestingly, Ida Ruggles. According to his granddaughter, Carl's niece, he eventually bought a horse farm in Stoughton, Massachusetts. where he lost the family money. He had to declare bankruptcy and went to live for a while with Edward Milton, Carl's younger brother, and his family. Carl's niece remembers Nathaniel as a very fat man who amused the children by drawing sketches for them.
The next myth has to do with Harvard; for whatever one reads about Carl and his training, the name Harvard continually appears. Similarly whenever one talks to people who knew him the name of that institution also is mentioned.
Now Carl came from an old and distinguished family and many of that family were educated at Harvard, including his own cousins. So I suppose it was natural for Harvard to be a part of his conversation over the years. Furthermore John Knowles Paine, his composition teacher, was a professor there.
Carl mentioned that institution often during his lifetime and when he lived in New York in 1917 and 1918, while his wife and son were still in Winona, Minnesota, he even wrote letters on Harvard Club stationery. The result was that nearly all his friends thought he was a Harvard graduate and they told each other so. Carl did nothing to change their belief. In fact, when I dared to suggest to one of his friends in Arlington, Vermont, that Carl might not be a Harvard graduate, she gravely assured me that my research was faulty and that I was dead wrong.
Of course that too is another untruth. Carl only took one course one semester at Harvard and that as a special student in the fall of 1903. The fall term lasted from September through February 1904, and he took one course, English 31, English composition, which was considered a half-course for which a fee of $25 was charged. It met on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. with additional conferences announced by the faculty. The course was taught by Professor Barrett Wendell, Dr. G.H. Mayadier, and Messrs. C.R. Nutter and W.R. Castle.4
In 1907 Carl went out to Winona, Minnesota. At first it was to teach at the Mar D'Mar School of Music but that did not last very long. Soon he was established as the conductor of the Winona Symphony Orchestra. It was slow going at first but the community was behind the project and gradually the orchestra came into its own and Carl with it.
Charlotte Snell, a fine contralto, had followed him out to Winona and they were married in 1908. Together they arranged for opera performances in concert, at a once-a-year festival to which the St. Paul Symphony, under the direction of Walter Rothwell, came. The St. Paul group would give its own program and then both orchestras would combine for the opera productions which would include a chorus trained by Charlotte, as well as the necessary soloists. Carl would direct the opera performances, and Charlotte would be one of the soloists. Carmen was given, and Cavalleria Rusticana, and Faust by Gounod. These festivals were the climax of the year after a series of four or five symphony concerts.
From the newspaper accounts of the time Carl was a popular figure in the town; perhaps a bit difficult at times, but certainly well known and generally respected.
Then in 1917 Carl went to New York and never went back to Winona. He went alone, leaving Charlotte and their two-year-old son, Micah, back in Winona. It was to be one of the most difficult times for both of them. Charlotte continued as choir director of the Congregational Church and as a private voice teacher, while Carl spent his time completing his opera The Sunken Bell, which he confidently hoped would be produced by the Metropolitan Opera Company.
What happened to the Winona Symphony Orchestra? Carl told everyone, and it seemed so logical, that with the outbreak of World War I there was so much anti-German sentiment about that no one would support the organization anymore. There were too many players of German ancestry and besides he could not have performed any music by German composers.
It does sound feasible. Since the Met never did perform the opera, the anti-German reason saved Carl from explaining too much about the failure of the opera. In fact, Carl never finished the work and he subsequently destroyed most of it.
The truth about the fate of the Winona orchestra is somewhat different. Carl himself decided to give up conducting the orchestra sometime during the summer of 1912. He and Charlotte had gone East after the concert season to visit her parents in Lawrence, Massachusetts, then on to Scituate to spend the summer with a group of artists and old friends. They returned to Winona at the end of August. The Winona Republican-Herald announced them:
In speaking of their vacation Mr. Ruggles said it was most pleasant, most of the time being spent at Scituate, a suburb of Boston, in company with well known literary persons. While at Scituate they were the guests of Inez Haynes Gillmore, the novelist. Other literary people with whom they came in contact there, were Will Irwin, Samuel Merwin, editor of Success, and Franklin P. Adams. They were also guests for a week of Boardman Robinson, cartoonist of the N.Y. Tribune.5
Everyone expected that the orchestra would continue, but it did not. Charlotte resumed her choir work and private lessons. Carl gave private lessons on the violin. Then in November of 1912 during the week of Election Day he went to New York. He stayed on Staten Island with Charles Henry Meltzer, who was the librettist of the opera and whom he had seen during the summer when they both were visiting at Scituate.
Charles Henry Meltzer was a fairly well-known drama critic and music critic. In addition he was very active in translating operas and plays into English. From 1903 to 1907 he had been assistant manager at the Metropolitan Opera Company. Meltzer certainly knew the people at the Met and it must have seemed quite possible to both men that they could get the work produced there, once it was completed. Quite possibly the trip to New York in November of 1912 was to make the first contacts, even though the opera itself was only just begun.
It is interesting to note that Meltzer did not give up the other activities which produced his livelihood, as Carl did. It is true that Carl continued with private lessons and on occasion he would help Charlotte with music at the church, but for the most part his life was now centered entirely on composition. The opera was the big project.
Finally in February 1913 the Winona Independent, the other newspaper in town, carried an article about Carl and the opera: "Carl Ruggles composing a Grand Opera Under Contract of N.Y. Company To Require Two Years Libretto being Written by One of Nation's Foremost Literary Leaders." So ran the headline, then came the following:
Carl Ruggles, composer and conductor of Winona, bids fair to win fame nationally in the world of music. He is at present engaged in composing the music for a grand Opera in English, text by one of the greatest dramatists of Europe. The libretto is being written by one of the foremost literary men of the country.
The details of the transaction are not made public in Winona and Mr. Ruggles last night was not in a position to divulge the name of the opera [or] the identity of the producers. It is a fact, however, that at present he is devoting practically all of his talent to this phase of music.
Already Mr. Ruggles has spent two years on the music of this opera and last November, it has been learned, he submitted the music in its embryonic form to the New York producers. It was thought so highly of that the contract was immediately drawn up. The work is to be completed two years from the date of the contract and in the meantime the Winona man is winning fame in the musical circles of the metropolis. Mr. Ruggles said last night that he would finish his composition within the required time.
Undoubtedly, with the preparation of this opera, Mr. Ruggles will leave Winona and will make his future home in New York.6
Partly this was another Ruggles story. There was no contract, and Carl did not move to New York until five years later. Even then the opera was still not finished, but it was far enough along so that both he and Meltzer felt their chances were good that it would be accepted by the Met.
On November 14, 1917 Carl wrote to Charlotte from New York: "Do you know it was just 5 years ago election night that I was in New York and stayed with M at Staten Island. Five years on the Bell. Five years of sacrifice on your part. Let us pray that it will prove worth it all."7
It was worth it all right, but in quite a different way than Carl meant. For through the work on the opera, he was able to evolve his own dissonant modern style of composition. But the opera was never completed; it was never accepted by the Metropolitan Opera Company. Finally Carl himself destroyed most of what he had written.
I think this whole sad story of the opera explains why Carl gave out the story that he had continued with the Winona orchestra until 1917 and that it had ceased because of the anti-German sentiment. It was so much easier and (my guess is) far less painful.
Let us turn now to one of the more curious truths about him: namely, his association with the Rand School of Social Science.
When I would ask him about the Rand School, he would shake his head and rather darkly say, "They don't want to know about the Rand School." Naturally I asked his friends what they knew about it and generally I got a similar response. Either they had never even heard of it or they said simply that Carl never spoke of it. Some implied there was something shady about the whole thing and one or two advised me to drop the subject, adding that there were no records available anyway.
There are records of course and they are housed in the Tamiment Library of New York University. It is an interesting story and sheds light on those difficult early years when Carl first went to New York to make his fame and fortune.8
The Rand School of Social Science is now a defunct institution but in its day it was a focal point in the lives of many people, especially those new immigrants who were struggling to make their way in a new country. The school officially opened on October 1, 1907 in rooms at 112 East 19th Street in New York. It was supported by funds from the American Socialist Society and named after Mrs. Carrie D. Rand, who left a bequest of $200,000 to the society for its educational program. By 1915 the school had grown too large for its location; new quarters had to be found. When the YMCA building at 7 East 15th Street became available, the Rand School purchased it. In the fall of 1917, the very year that Carl came to New York, the school opened in the new building.
Eugene Schoen, who was an architect of some distinction, was on the Board of Directors of the Rand School and also one of the art teachers. Schoen was a close friend of Boardman Robinson and through him, a friend of Carl's. Soon after Carl arrived in New York, he and Schoen began to explore ways for Carl to earn some money.
From Carl's correspondence with Charlotte we learn that his first thought was to become the music critic for the New York Call, the newspaper published by the American Socialist Society. In a letter to her dated October 3, 1917, only a month after his arrival in the city, he wrote: "Hope the music season will begin soon. I will probably go to all the concerts for the Call, and then do a review of the whole week for Sunday's edition. That is what Schoen says."
One month later in a postcard to her, he says he is going to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert that night and will write it up for the Call. His review did not appear in the paper, and in fact, there was no review of that concert in the newspaper, quite contrary to their normal procedure. However, Carl did express his views of the program to Charlotte and that may explain why the newspaper did not carry his review of that or any other concerts.
The concert last night was rather stupid. I mean compositions. The Brahms (4th) was uninspired excepting a few passages toward the end of the first movt. The King Lear—rotten, also the Liszt. The Parsifal Prelude Muck conducted in a masterly way. He beat 4 long beats in most of it—followed the melodic curves which is fine, but not in Winona.
LaVergne Miller got the job, and he was followed by Max Endicoff who remained at the post for several years.
The next project that Eugene Schoen discussed with Carl was bound to please him. Schoen would persuade the Board of Directors of the Rand School to sponsor an orchestra and the school would hire Carl to be its founding director. The school already had a chorus and it sponsored concerts and recitals for the students. Why not have an orchestra? Certainly Carl was qualified.
It took Schoen some time to persuade the Board, but he was finally successful. On Tuesday, December 10, 1918, the Call carried the first announcement about the orchestra. I am sure that Carl helped to write it; it is one of my favorite articles about him. The headline was simple and direct: "Rand School to Organize Workers Symphony Orchestra." The article follows:
Plans are under way to organize at the Rand School the first workers' orchestra in this part of the world. Several conferences have already been held and a call has been issued to all persons interested to report at the auditorium of the school, 7 East 15th Street, Sunday morning, December 15, at 10 o'clock, bringing their instruments. It is proposed to make this orchestra one of the great orchestras of the world.
The school has been fortunate in securing the services of Carl Ruggles as organizer and director. Ruggles was an infant prodigy with the violin, and as a mere child was invited to play before President Cleveland. He went to Harvard to prepare for a literary career, but the call of music eventually proved too strong, and on graduation he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a first violinist. Subsequently, he moved to Minnesota, and established a workers' orchestra there, which won great distinction in that section. Last year he returned to New York to complete the score of an opera based on Hauptmann's "Sunken Bell," and the completed portions of this work have won great commendation from officers of the Metropolitan Opera house.
Ruggles is a composer of the modern school, ultra-radical in his musical ideas; but is schooled in all forms. He will be assisted by Samson Bloch, a well known amateur cellist, brother of Alexander Bloch, the violinist.
"The establishment of a workers' orchestra here in the center of America's musical activities is a movement of tremendous possibilities," declared Ruggles. "I anticipate a splendid response to our call for players, and I believe in time our organization will become a great stimulus to musical art in America."9
That part about playing before President Cleveland is perhaps another myth. It seems more likely that Carl played before Mrs. Cleveland when she first visited Marion in the summer of 1887 without the President, when she was only 23 years old and just recently married. Of course Carl never played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But the most amusing part of the article is the mention of the workers' orchestra of Minnesota. The Winona Symphony Orchestra was open to anyone who cared to join and was supported and financed by the wealthy and influential members of the community who also supported Carl. In fact, when he went there in 1907, Winona boasted of more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. The wife of one of them became the godmother to Carl's son.
The orchestra rehearsed every Sunday morning at 10:30 and grew slowly. There were no concerts given that season, but from time to time there were notices about it in the Call. These were mainly announcements of rehearsals or pleas for more members, though one notice said there were 40 members in the organization.
At the beginning of the 1919-20 year, the school newspaper, The Rand School News, for September 1919 issued another call for players, and listed the current membership as "13 first violins, 11 second violins, 9 cellos, and about 25 players on wood and brass wind instruments." Carl is listed on the staff as the teacher for orchestra music.
The first program of the Rand School Symphony Orchestra, Carl Ruggles, conductor, took place on Saturday, February 28, 1920 at 8:15 p.m. in the school auditorium. Louis Torres was the vocal soloist, and the orchestral part of the program consisted of the "Overture" from L'Arlésienne Suite by Bizet, the "Unfinished" Symphony by Schubert, and the "Angelus" from Scènes Pittoresques by Massenet. The orchestra also accompanied Mr. Torres in the aria "Dio Possente" from Gounod's Faust. Carl had conducted all of these works in Winona except for the Massenet.
Not surprisingly the concert got a rave notice in the Call; it was the only newspaper that reviewed the concert. Carl's star was rising at the school. On March 12, 1920 the minutes of the Education Council show that he had been made Director of the Rand School Chorus as well.
Charlotte and their son, Micah, had joined him in the East by this time. They were living in Grantwood, New Jersey. In a letter to Eugene Schoen from his home dated March 25, 1920 Carl wrote about his work at the school.
. . . The orchestra is making great strides. New and better players are coming in all the time which is most encouraging.
We must have some new music. The Prelude to Lohengrin, I ordered it yesterday. The Gluck overture to "Iphigenia" I made half of the parts and ordered the rest, which come to $5.40. I think our bill for music this year has been very moderate. If I'm correct I think but two new works, the Bizet Suite (L'Arlesienne) and the Angelus (Massenet) I made the "Faust" cavatina, and the other things, for which I made no charge. The new Symphonic Poem (Mein Vaterland) which we're working on now I also made, which if we had to buy it would cost at the very least $25.00.
Now regarding the Chorus. I've had two rehearsals. God only knows what they have been doing the past years except wasting time. I can do something with it, however, worth while if I'm not hampered. I started working on the 95th Psalm by Mendelssohn which as you know is a fine work. My idea is to combine the orchestra with the chorus and present the work sometime next fall. Charlotte will sing the soprano solos and all we will need to get is a tenor. I have the orchestral parts, which is something gained.
I hope Gene, the school can see its way clear to let me supervise all its music. It is the only thing to do.
Your enthusiasm and unflagging interest is a great help to me and to the orchestra, and we all appreciate it.
The fact that "if I'm not hampered" is underlined leads one to wonder if in fact he was. We shall never know, but he did get his way at the school.
When the 1920-21 school year began, there was a new music department with Carl Ruggles as the director. Among the offerings of the new department were the Rand School orchestra, the junior orchestra, the chorus, and even composition—all under Carl. In addition there were music lectures by Herman Epstein; and the Music League under the direction of Samuel Jospe would continue to arrange for outside concerts.
This year Charlotte became involved in the school. She sang two solos at one of the concerts given by Abraham Haitowitch, a blind Russian violinist, and she took charge of training the chorus for the international dance pageant that was held on New Year's Eve of 1921. No less a person than Helen Keller led the Grand March at the New Year's Eve ball; Carl and Charlotte were there.
Clouds began to appear on the horizon shortly afterwards. The orchestra played on January 14, 1921. From the newspapers we learn that the audience was small. They played again on January 27 and apparently once again there was a small audience.
On January 30 the music critic Max Endicoff wrote a blistering attack on his fellow socialists for not supporting any of the concerts, recitals, or orchestral programs. Clearly part of the problem was simply too many concerts, for Jospe was offering weekly recitals, 35¢ for single admission, $1.00 for a series of four.
The Board of Directors deliberated on the problem; their decision was to continue with the recitals and drop the orchestra. At their March 28, 1921 meeting the minutes state:
Comrade Heller reported on the Orchestra. It was moved to advise the Orchestra that unless it can formulate some plan for raising funds, the Orchestra would be discontinued. Schonberg instructed to write a letter of appreciation to Mr. Ruggles.
There were seven people at that meeting but Carl's champion, Eugene Schoen, was not among them. Perhaps he could have saved the orchestra; probably not. In any case, by this time Carl had published his song Toys and the opera was behind him. He had begun work on a three movement piece called Men and Angels, out of which would come Angels for six muted trumpets. He had met another one of his benefactors, Mrs. Blanche Walton, and soon he would meet Edgar Varèse and become active in the International Composers Guild. It was time for him to move on, but the Rand School experience remains as a curious truth in his life about which he spoke very little, if at all.
There are other interesting lies and more curious truths, but now it is time to ask why. Why did he feel it necessary to create these myths and deny the truths? Here are some tentative thoughts on the problem.
If all the myths were true, Carl would have been quite different. Not only would he have been descended from an old and distinguished family, but his grandfather would have been a great sea captain. He himself would have been an only child, a prodigy, and in keeping with the tradition of the Ruggles family, he would have obtained a fine education at Harvard. That background would have helped him to feel distinguished and a part of his own family tradition. He would have belonged, and I think it would have supported him.
But the truth did not. He was outside the mainstream. He had to make his own way and it had to be difficult. True, he could bluster and boast and tell wonderful and salacious stories, but he was still looking in from the outside.
His music was that way, too. Outside the mainstream. He cast aside the tradition; that was certainly in the air at the time. But he followed his own bent, making his own way. He had supporters, even wealthy patrons who financed him most of his life, but no real students and not much influence on the music around him and only a little influence on the music after him.
There was, I believe, a basic insecurity about where he fit in both socially and in his work; and I do believe that is one reason why his musical output is so meager.
These curious truths show him coming from a plainer past and make his accomplishments all the more remarkable. But Carl did not think about it that way. Clearly he wanted to be different from what he was. Surely this tension between the image that he wished for and the truth that he was must have inhibited him at many levels; finally it contributed in some way to the small output of musical works, for there are less than a dozen important ones.
Still, if there are few compositions, they are wonderful, nonetheless. Wonderful works, slowly and carefully hammered out—full of the sweep and the grandeur of the sea by which he was born and on which he wished so much that his grandfather had sailed.
This paper with slight variations was given at the 21st Annual Meeting of the College Music Society in St. Louis, Missouri, on October 28, 1978.
1John Kirkpatrick, "The Evolution of Carl Ruggles," Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 1968), pp.146-166.
2These were among the required subjects offered by the school during the years that Charles Henry attended, according to Harriet H. Carter, Alumni Secretary of Kents Hill School, to whom I am indebted for this information.
3Belmont Bulletin, April 23, 1892.
4The registrar at Harvard, Marion C. Belliveau, kindly provided me with this information in a letter dated May 5, 1975.
5Winona Republican-Herald, August 29, 1912.
6Winona Independent, February 16, 1913. Additional information on Carl's years in Winona has been obtained from an unpublished master's thesis, Carl Ruggles in Winona, by Jan Saeker, Winona State College, 1967.
7The Ruggles papers are deposited at Yale University. I am deeply indebted to John Kirkpatrick, his music executor, and the members of the staff of the Music Library under the direction of Harold Samuel for their kindness and help during the time I read those papers.
8Dorothy Swanson, director of the Tamiment Library at New York University must be publicly thanked for her valuable help and assistance in putting together the parts of this story. Mary K. Wirth, director of the library at New England College, was also most kind and helpful in obtaining the information.
9New York Call, December 10, 1918.