Composer / Conductor  Ralph  Shapey

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Ralph Shapey, “radical traditionalist” composer, 1921-2002

Ralph Shapey, an original and influential American composer who united avant-garde and romantic sensibilities, died today of natural causes after a long illness. He was 81 years old.

Born in Philadelphia on March 12, 1921, Shapey began musical training in violin at age 7. At 16, he began studying violin with Emanuel Zeitlin and embarked on composition studies with the German composer Stefan Wolpe, and was selected as the youth conductor of the Philadelphia National Youth Symphony Orchestra. Shapey graduated from public high school in 1939 but received no other formal education. He was a guest conductor at the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra at age 21.

Shapey’s musical career was interrupted for three years when he served in the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1945 he moved to New York, where he absorbed the influence of Abstract Expressionist painters and worked first as a freelance violinist, then as a composer, conductor and teacher. In 1963 Shapey commuted to Philadelphia, where he conducted the orchestra and chorus at the University of Pennsylvania.

In the fall of 1964, Shapey joined the composition faculty of the University of Chicago as a Professor of Music. That same year he founded the Contemporary Chamber Players, a professional new music ensemble dedicated to the performance of 20th-century works. Shapey served as the Chamber Players’ music director and conductor for 27 years and taught many eminent composers, including Pulitzer Prize winner Shulamit Ran, now a Professor in Music and the College at the University of Chicago.

Shapey wrote more than 200 compositions, including solo pieces, duos, trios, string quartets, chamber works for woodwinds, percussion and piano, and larger works for chorus and orchestra. Recordings of his music are available on the CRI, Opus One and New World record labels.

He received commissions from the Fromm Foundation, the Library of Congress-Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, the Koussevitsky Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and many individual performers. In 1961 the New York Times described Shapey’s Incantations for Soprano and 23 Instruments as “one of the most searing, terrifying and altogether extraordinary compositions this listener has ever heard … What Shapey has produced is a composition of abstract expressionism that seems to lay bare the most secret and elemental doubts, yearnings, torments, and despairs of the human soul.”


See my interviews with Earl Kim, John Harbison, Richard Wernick, and George Perle

As a conductor, Shapey led the New York Philharmonic Chamber Music Society, the Buffalo, Chicago, Jerusalem, London and Philadelphia symphony orchestras, and the London Sinfonietta.

Throughout his career, Shapey won numerous awards and honors, among them the George Gershwin Award in 1951, a MacArthur Fellowship in 1982 and the 1990 Friedheim Award given by the Kennedy Center. Other prizes include the Brandeis Creative Arts Award (1962), the National Foundation of Arts and Letters Award (1966) and over a dozen ASCAP awards. In 1989 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1994.

Shapey attributed the intensity and openness of his work to an early brush with death. Two weeks after he was born, Shapey came down with double pneumonia and was given up for dead by his doctors, who advised his parents to “have another child as soon as possible … he simply is not going to live.” But, Shapey said, his father “seemed to have had one inch more brains than the doctors themselves … He held me up by the ankles, and beat the hell out of me ... I yelled, I cried, I screamed, and as I did all that, I coughed and my lungs cleared … It has always been a big surprise to me that, yes, I am alive. And I have always felt that I had to battle twice as hard because I had to battle not only for life … but I had to battle death as well.”

He originally decided to become a composer simply in order to understand music. After staying up all night at the age of 16, preparing to conduct Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, Shapey recalled that he heard a subconscious voice accusing him during the performance: “’What the hell are you doing up here? What do you think you’re doing? Just because you can wave your arms around better than a lot of people, so what? What do you know? … Do you really know what Beethoven intended here? Come on, in order to know what Beethoven truly intended you have to become a composer.’” He followed this subconscious voice to a productive career that he described as guided at its highest points by sheer intuition. Describing the “marriage of the conscious and the unconscious” in composing, he once said, “you reach the highest levels of creativity, and it is as though you are not there, it is as though someone else, something else…is doing it, not you. You don’t even exist at that particular moment. In retrospect all you remember is how wonderful, how positively magnificent it felt.”

In 1991 Shapey retired from the University of Chicago. He continued to conduct the Contemporary Chamber Players until 1994. Just this year he published A Basic Course in Music Composition (Theodore Presser company) which was well received. According to his widow, Elsa Charlston, Shapey was energetically composing until a few days before his death. Shapey is survived by Charlston, his son Max, from his previous marriage with painter Vera Klement, and their two grandchildren.

  ==  Only the text is from the University of Chicago News office.  Photos and links have been added for this website presentation.  

==  Links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


While the content of this interview is, of course, spectacularly intellectual and completely philosophical, I must warn readers that it is rated R.  My guest makes no apology for using bawdy language and obscene remarks.  This is how he spoke, and the conversation also included hand-gestures and other strong words.  If this upsets you, kindly stop reading here and go on to any of the other interviews I have posted on my website.  [Brief pause for a few clicks to other destinations.]

For those who are still with me, I applaud your willingness to participate.  You are in for a confrontation and exploration of ideas from one who spent a lifetime on the edges of music, knowing full well that ultimately his work would have to fit into a time-line which was not under his control.

In the beginning of May of 1987, I visited him at his apartment in Hyde Park on the South Side of Chicago, near the University of Chicago campus.  Portions of the conversation were used several times on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago [an independent commercial FM station], and WNUR, the station of Northwestern University.  Now the entire encounter has been transcribed, and here is what was said . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are both a composer in your own right, and a director of a contemporary music ensemble, so you’re probably the perfect person to ask one of my favorite questions.  Where is music going today?

Ralph Shapey:   [Bursts out laughing]  That’s my answer
a good hefty laugh!

BD:   Why is there no verbal answer to that question?

Shapey:   Because I don’t know the answer to it.  I just simply don’t know.  I can try a serious attempt to a serious answer.  Historically, not all, but some of us are part of an historical line.  I’ve been called
avant-garde for years and I don’t know what the hell that means, because I’m a traditionalist, for God’s sakes!  Leonard Meyer and Bernie Jacobson called me the lateral traditional.  [See box at bottom of this webpage for a bit about each of them.]  I think that’s exactly what I really am, as a matter of fact, but I’m basically a traditionalist.  I was brought up on the tradition.  As long as we continue to use the traditional instruments of the orchestra, the line mightor has tocontinue.  It’s going to have to continue, and it has nothing to do with technique.  Technique is the wrong word.  It has a lot to do with system.  It’s something I tell my students a thousand times over, that no system guarantees a God-damn thing!  Absolutely nothing!  Looking at the repast, we find a system called tonality, or tonal music, which again is the wrong word because I call myself a tonal composer.  Then you’ve got to get into a whole big discussion and definitions of the word ‘tonal’.  What the hell does it mean?  In any event, there is something called the tonal system.  Some brilliant geniuses used the tonal system.  They were the geniuses, not the system.  It absolutely had nothing to do with the system.  They could have written anything in any system, and to me the proof of it is Mozart, in his last works, or Bach.  Last night, the Juilliard Quartet did The Art of the Fugue.  Oh, my God!  It was absolutely unbelievable.  It must have been written yesterday!

The Art of Fugue, or The Art of the Fugue (German: Die Kunst der Fuge), BWV 1080, is an incomplete musical work of unspecified instrumentation by Johann Sebastian Bach.  Written in the last decade of his life, The Art of Fugue is the culmination of Bachs experimentation with monothematic instrumental works.  The work consists of 14 fugues and four canons in D minor, each using some variation of a single principal subject, and generally ordered to increase in complexity.

Then, of course, you go into Beethoven.  Late Beethoven is the most incredible music possible, written yesterday.  You get the same thing from Brahms, you get the same thing from Schubert, you get the same thing from Schumann. You get the same thing from every great composer where they take the system and go [middle-digit hand gesture] to you.  They break all the rules, left and right.  Now as long as we continue using the traditional instruments, systems will come and go.  They have to come and go.  Things have to change, and systems will come and go, and as long as geniuses come along and use that system, and put into that system their genius, the music will just continue.  It has nothing to do with the system, because the system doesn’t guarantee anything.   It’s nothing but a modus operandi.  That’s all it is, nothing else!
BD:   So, you encourage your students not to become a slave to the system, but to use it?

Shapey:   Absolutely!  Use it!  It’s there to be used.

BD:   But not abused?

Shapey:   [Laughs]  That’s a good question, because what does it mean?  What is abusing the system in this case?

BD:   Do you feel that the system has been abused?

Shapey:   Let me put it this way to you... I know some excellent string players in some of our top-level orchestras who will say to you today, right now, that Beethoven would not have written his late quartets had he not been deaf.  Well, thank God he was deaf!  I have said myself that if that is what it takes to write the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven, I’m prepared to go deaf!  As it so happens, I’m using a hearing aid in my left ear already, and my right ear is going to hell!  If that’s what it takes, I’m prepared to pay the price.  But as far as I’m concerned, one of the most incredible works ever written is the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven.  Still, they’ll say to you that he wrote it because he was deaf.  He didn’t hear what he was doing.  Thank God he didn’t hear what he was doing!

BD:   They don’t give him credit for hearing internally???

Shapey:   They don’t like the work!  They think it’s a terrible work.  The whole batch of late quartets they condemn as bad music. 

BD:   They don’t like it, so they think it’s bad?

Shapey:   Right, exactly right!  But what he was doing, what he heard in his mind broke the rules left and right, just as Bach broke the rules left and right in The Art of the Fugue!

BD:   Was he breaking rules, or was he making new rules?

Shapey:   [Smiles]  Ahhhh!  He was making new rules, but he had to break the old ones to make the new ones!  It
s like that silly business about having to break an egg in order to get to the egg.  It has to come out of the shell.  So, in order to make new rules, you break the old rules!

BD:   Is there a certain conscript number of rules that can be allowed, so in order to have a new rule, you have to eliminate an old rule, or can we expand the number of rules?  Or is this getting into a spurious discussion?

Shapey:   Yes, it is because, for instance, in the traditional concepts of the art of tonality, fifths are verboten [forbidden] and octaves are verboten.  You studied harmony and theory, so you know what I’m talking about.  So, how come some of the greatest music has them?  How come The Art of the Fugue has them all over the place?  How come he did everything that you’re not supposed to do?  How come?  Because he decided that this was nonsense, that’s all.  Just sure simple nonsense!  But, if you go farther back than that, into earlier music where you get the whole system of fourth and fifths, suddenly you get the third, and the third is called the dissonance.  Then you get a whole reversal of that, and the thirds are the consonances, and fourths, and fifths, and octaves are the dissonances.  What does it mean?  It’s utter nonsense.

BD:   Does it mean that the taste is changing?

Shapey:   [Smiles again]  Ahhhh!  The taste is changing.  Ideas are changing.  Concepts are changing.  That’s what it means.

BD:   This is what I was getting at.  When these genius composers start breaking rules, are they consciously breaking rules, or are they simply writing as they feel, and the rules come later?

Shapey:   Okay, you’re right.  They’re not consciously sitting down and saying,
I’m going to break this rule.  Of course not.

BD:   Just where they’re going, happens to break it?

Shapey:   Right.  It’s what they hear in their minds.  It
s their vision that they hear in their minds, and then they put it down.  If it happens to break some rules, they might look at it and say, Oh, my God!  I’ve broken such-and-such a rule, but the genius will say, “Leave it!  The dolt will say, Oh, my God, that’s terrible!  Throw it away!  I can’t break any rules.  There’s the difference between your genius and your ordinary composer.  The genius will look at it and say, “Yes, I broke the rule here, but wait a minute!  It makes musical sense.  It’s right!  It’s absolutely right to discard a rule then.

BD:   Exactly, that’s what they want to hear!

Shapey:   That’s what they hear, not what they want to do.  That is what they hear in their mind.  They’re writing the music that they hear within themselves, and it has nothing to do with rules and regulations.  There is a marvelous story about Schoenberg during the latter years of his life in Los Angeles.  A young composer came to see him and said, “Oh, Master, all over the world, wherever I go, every place, every composer, everyone, they’re all writing your system, they’re all writing twelve-tone music!”  Schoenberg listened and replied, “That’s nice.  Are they putting music into it?”

BD:   That’s the bottom line then
putting music into it?

Shapey:   That is the bottom line.  Of course, then we can branch off and ask what is music, and I have said a thousand times over, I don’t know!  I haven’t the slightest idea.

BD:   Let me hit it from this angle, then.  How do we get contemporary audiences to accept more different kinds of sounds as music?

Shapey:   Part of it is an educational thing, and part of it is the lousy rotten Star System that we have.  Part of it is the fault of the conductors who conduct the major orchestras, and part of it is the fault of the Boards of Directors of the symphonies, and part of it, of course, is the fault of the musicians.  It’s all educational.  When Jean Martinon was here, he and I became very good friends.  [Composer/conductor Jean Martinon (1910-1976) was Music Director of the Chicago Symphony 1963-68.)  I remember one time he said to me, “You know, Ralph, when I do too much modern music, my audience walks out.”  I replied, “But Jean, they walk back in again!”  [Both laugh]  You must know Slominsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective...

BD:   Certainly.  Whenever I give a lecture, I find a quote and start off with that.

Shapey:   I tell my students, “Buy it!  Own it!  It’s the Bible!”  All he did was research the critics and what they wrote about certain works.  When I present a lecture
not necessarily to musicians, but to the average audienceI ask, “How many of you know the Beethoven Third Symphony?”  Of course, everybody raises their hand because everybody knows it.  It’s a pretty good work, a nice work, but the critics in his day wrote that it was a monstrosity, and it will never be heard in our concert hall again!  Of course, my audience sits there with absolute astonishment on their faces!  [Much laughter]  I’m not talking about Stravinsky, I’m talking about Beethoven’s Third Symphony!  I’d give my right arm to have written it.  It’s one of the greatest works written by any composer.


shapey BD:   And this wasn’t just the writing of one man.  It was the generally held opinion.

Shapey:   Absolutely!  The First Symphony took a year of rehearsals, by the way.  One whole year he rehearsed, conducting in his home, and what history tells us when it was first performed, everybody was horrified.  How dare you start with a dominant seventh chord???  Well, of course he did, and it was absolutely right.  How dare you do such a thing!  You’re supposed to start with the tonic.  Why?  Who said so?  Godif there is a Godcame down and said, “Thou shalt not start with a dominant seventh!  You must start with a tonic chord.”  [Much laughter]  Who the hell said that?  He starts with a dominant seventh chord, and of course they said it sounded like a brass band!  It is absolutely funny, if you really think about it.  As another example we talk about beauty.  The idea of beauty and truth are ever-changing down through history.  Among my favorite examples are the paintings of Rubens.  He painted the women of his day, and that was their concept of beauty.  To be kind, we’ll say they were voluptuous, but let’s be honest, they’re just plain God damn fat!  [Both dissolve into gales of laughter]  Today, the idea of beauty is maybe way over the other side too much, where the women are sticks!  But that’s not the point.  The point is that in Rubens’ day, this was the height of feminine beauty.  Look how the concept of beauty has changed.

BD:   Is the composer always condemned to be fifty years ahead of when his vision of beauty is accepted?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Neva Pilgrim.]

Shapey:   It has always been said that any great artist always is ahead of his time... or maybe that the society is behind the times.  Which is it?  I don’t know.  Who the hell knows?  It’s what this individual hears in his or her mind.  What they envision, they bring to life in some way or another.  Now as far as society is concerned, especially the one we live in today, everyone wants to be comfortable.  When you go to a concert hall, and really look around carefully, ninety-nine percent of the people are sound asleep there!  Do they really go to hear a great performance?  I’m talking about Bach and Beethoven, a really great performance.  This is not a compilation of the orchestras, or even of the conductors.  I’m talking about our society.  It’s a music-making factory.

BD:   Churning out the hits?

Shapey:   Right.  It’s like a shoe factory, a factory that makes shoes turns out the shoes.  They can be very beautiful shoes, and charge a lot of money for them because they’re beautiful, but it turns out shoes!  In a way, isn’t that what our orchestras are?  They’re churning out music!  They’re factories!  That’s all they are.

BD:   And each factory is turning out the same music as the factory in the next city.

Shapey:   Exactly!  Exactly right!  There are so many different sides to this...  I could then turn it around and say,
Wait a minute.  If they have to do the concerts Thursday night, Friday afternoon, Saturday night, and sometimes special concerts on Sunday, how can you expect them always to rise to great heights each and every time week after week?  That’s a hell of a thing.  Of course, most of them are excellently done, but to ask these hundred people up there, men and women, experts on their instruments, to rise to great heights every single time, that’s a hell of thing.  [Pauses a moment to think]  Maybe they give too many concerts...

BD:   [With mock horror]  Are you advocating that they only give special concerts of masterworks, and rise to the heights on those particular evenings???

Shapey:   Well, it seems to me if they’re doing masterworks, they’d better rise to the heights!  But I’m talking in terms that it’s a business.  The fact is, it’s a business.  It’s not music-making.  It’s a music-making business is what it really is.

BD:   So, we’re back to dollars and cents again?

Shapey:   Yes, especially here in America.  Dollars and cents, that’s what it is.  You have to put in a certain amount of time in order to make a certain amount of dollars and cents.  That’s what it really boils down to.  They always talk about the box-office.  When do you hear them talk about music?  They’re always talking about the endowment.  They’re always talking about raising money.

BD:   Are you speaking about the management of the organization, or also the conductors and the musicians?

Shapey:   Basically, unfortunately, I think, it’s all of them.  They’re all caught up in the terrible trap.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When we’re talking about contemporary music, or music that’s been written recently, who should be the ones who are deciding which piece is a masterwork, which one is not quite a masterwork, and which are garbage?
Shapey:   I formed the Contemporary Chamber Players at the University of Chicago in 1964, when I came here, and we’ve got a pretty good record of twenty-three years.  Year after year after year, I have given concerts of contemporary music, and I can show you my listing in which there’s hundreds of works.  If you know anything about me or my music, you would say, as Bernie Jacobson once said to me, “But you must hate that, so why are you doing it?”  My answer was very simple.  Remember, I’m not talking about myself as a composer, I’m talking about myself as a conductor now.  I said, “I present everything to the best of my ability, and let time be the answer.”  Only posterity is going to give the final answers.  After all, we have one of the greatest examples of that in Johann Sebastian Bach, that damn genius.  After he died, his sons and all of them, everybody, went to the Italian school.  Nobody knew a thing about the great Johann, other than he existed, until along came a guy by the name of Felix Mendelssohn a hundred years later, and revived him.  Thank God, he revived him... but if it hadn’t been Mendelssohn, I’m sure it would have been somebody else.  It doesn’t matter.  Now tell me, how much of his sons’ music do you hear nowadays in comparison to what you hear of the old man?

BD:   Very little.

Shapey:   Right, because the old man was the genius.  He really was, but he fell into complete disuse.

BD:   Is Ralph Shapey a genius?

Shapey:   [With amazing modesty]  I’ve been called that.  I got the MacArthur Genius Award, so what is genius anyhow?  What does
genius mean?

BD:   [Deflecting, not wanting to give a specific answer]  Well, what does the word
genius mean to you?

Shapey:   I believe that we all, every single one of us, have some kind of talent.  It’s all part of our genius system anyhow, and those who have dared to take that talent, and go beyond that which is called talent, maybe that is genius.  I don’t know.  It’s a tough word to define, like so many other words.  [Both laugh]  But I must digress for a second again.  In my first lecture to my students in composition, one of the things I tell them is that from this day forth, we are going to define and redefine every damn word that we say in this room.  Of course, they looked at me in complete shock.  We all speak English here, and we don’t know what we’re saying.  We don’t understand each other because we have this and that condition from the words that we are using.  We have ten dictionaries here, and when we look at the meanings we use them totally differently.  So, we’re going to define and redefine every word that we use.  I looked up
genius in one dictionary, and if I recall correctly it said that a genius is one with extraordinary talent.  That’s all it says.  Well, if that’s what it means, and since I do believe in myself, yes, of course, I do believe Im a genius.  If I didn’t, I couldn’t do what I do, so I certainly understand that.  Another thing I tell them is that you all have to be egomaniacs because if you’re not, you can’t do what you’re doing.  You have to believe that you are the genius of the century, otherwise you can’t do what you’re doing, because after all, look at the monkey on our backs!  [Screaming each name]  Bach, and Beethoven, and Mozart, and Schubert, and Schumann, and Wagner, and etc.!  Holy Christ, you better quit right now!  Give up, you’re finished!  That’s it!  You want to write a piano sonata???  Ha, with all the Beethoven sonatas, and all the Brahms, and all the Chopin, and all others, I say you better quit right now.  Many of them have told me they have terrible difficulty writing a piano work.  Why?  They’re pianists, and have played the Beethoven piano sonatas, and Chopin, and Liszt, and Mozart!  It’s the monkey on their backs, and I say they’d better quit right here and now.

BD:   So, if they can’t take that kind of pressure, there’s just no reason for them to continue?

Shapey:   Exactly, and they have to quit.  They have to understand that this is the pressure behind them.

BD:   Do enough young composers quit?


Shapey:   As you know, even in the time of the great masters, there were a lot of composers around.  There were lots around Mozart, and Beethoven, and Bach.  Today, you have the crazy amount of people on the face of the Earth, and ASCAP [the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers] put out statistically that there are something like 30,000 composers in New York City.  Of course, I question what they mean by
composers.  You’d want to also question the whole concept of what is a composer anyhow, but let’s say there are 30,000 composers in New York City alone, but then how many millions and millions of people are there in New York City today in comparison to 18xx?  So, in a way it balances itself out, meaning there might be a lot of students, but there are more students, I would say, who go into composition.  I don’t know why the hell they do it, and I ask them that.  Why do you want to be a composer?  You want to make money???  [Points emphatically toward the door]  Out!!!  You want fame and glory???  Out!!!  What the hell do you want to be a composer for?  What do you think it means to be a composer?  There are those who stick it through, but there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands who die at the roadside.  They disappear.  They might still call themselves composers, but they don’t write a God-damn piece of music.  Maybe over their whole lifetime they write four or five works, and they’re not very good... at least they’re not acceptable from any viewpoint.  So, what is a composer?  To me a composer is someone who is always writing music, and having it performed.

BD:   So, it’s not just writing, it’s also getting it performed.

Shapey:   Oh, it’s not just writing.  I don’t believe that there is any secret composer hiding in a cave someplace that we don’t know about.

BD:   If the talent was there, it could have shown itself?

Shapey:   If it’s there, it’ll come out, and we’ll know about it.  No great composer is unknown.  It doesn’t work that way.  It never did, actually!  If I recall correctly, Machaut was in the same position as Bach.  He, too, disappeared for a while, and has now come back as one of the great older composers prior to Bach.  That does happen, and it
’s partly due to changes of beauty that we talked about earlier.


Guillaume de Machaut
(French: [ɡijom də maʃo]; also Machau and Machault; c. 1300 – April 1377) was a French poet and composer of late Medieval music who was the central figure of the Ars Nova style. Immensely influential, Machaut is regarded as the most important composer and poet of the 14th century and is the first significant composer whose name is known. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson called him "the last great poet who was also a composer", and well into the 15th century Machaut's poetry was greatly admired and imitated by other poets, including Geoffrey Chaucer.

One of the earliest composers on whom considerable biographical information is available, his surviving works substantially outnumber those of his contemporaries. Machaut composed in a wide range of styles and forms, and was crucial in developing the motet and secular song forms (particularly the lai and the formes fixes: rondeau, virelai and ballade).

Machaut survived the Black Death that devastated Europe, and spent his later years living in Reims composing and supervising the creation of his complete-works manuscripts.  His only surviving sacred work, Messe de Nostre Dame, is the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer.

Sometimes we have to step backwards.  For instance, I myself have been... I don’t know if it’s
accused, or what word you want to use, of being close to Machaut.  Well, that’s true.  I am, as a matter of fact.  Just last night, I said to Joel Krosnick [cellist with the Juilliard Quartet 1974-2016] after his performance of The Art of the Fugue, There are three composers I hate more than anyone else, and he started to laugh because he knew what I was saying.  “Bach, Beethoven and Brahms!  I hate them because they did everything I wanted to do!  [Much laughter]  They are the monkey on our backs!  So, my way of handling it is that I challenge them.  I take up their challenge.  Instead of saying that I can’t do it because they did it, I take up their challenge.

shapey BD:   You met it head-on?

Shapey:   That’s right.  Face-to-face, I go against them!

BD:   Are you going against them, or are you going with them?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right (which features Joel Krosnick), see my interview with Gilbert Kalish.  They also appear together on the Songs of Life CD shown below.]

Shapey:   [Nodding his head]  Well, yeah, okay, you’re right.  I believe I’m really ending up going with them, that is true.  But it’s the challenge.  I accept them as my challenge, you see.  This is what I do.  This is how I’m defeating that monkey.  [He laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

Shapey:   You know how that is... you win a few, you lose a few.  Some are good, and some are marvelous, and some are so-so.  Circumstances have a lot to do with these different things.  Most of the time, with my own performance of my own music I have been basically pleased.  They’ve turned out to be excellence performances.  I’m a perfectionist, both as a composer and as a conductor.  I demand, but I demand it of myself first and foremost.  You would have to talk to some of my musicians.  They wouldn’t dare to come to a rehearsal not knowing their part, if only because they know I wouldn’t dare face them not knowing the scores, and what I want, and how I want to get it.  It doesn’t mean we might not disagree.  That’s something else.

BD:   But you’ve put in the work?

Shapey:   I put in the work, and they know it.  So, I’m a perfectionist that way.  In a way, I could say no, I’m not satisfied with anything because I would like it to be perfect, but what is
perfect anyhow?  It’s all relative.

BD:   Does
perfect get better every day?

Shapey:   Yes.  It’s all relative anyhow, so who the hell knows?  I don’t know!  But I’ve had some excellent performances.  As a matter of fact, on April 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, Riccardo Muti conducted my Symphonie Concertante with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  Then, on April 7th they did it in New York, and without question it was one of the great performances of my life.  It was absolutely marvelous.  He was terrific, and the orchestra played absolutely magnificently.  So, here’s a very recent example of a very, very fine performance of a work of mine, and a difficult work.  I write difficult music.  I’m condemned for writing difficult music!  I am asked why I write difficult music, and the answer, which I have given many times, is that I don’t write difficult music on purpose to annoy musicians, or to annoy conductors, or any such thing.  It comes out that way because, first and foremost, I challenge myself.  If I don’t challenge myself, I’m going to die.

BD:   In challenging yourself, are you inadvertently challenging the audience?

Shapey:   Yes, and the orchestra, and the conductors.  That’s right.  It comes out then in what is called ‘difficult’, and in talking with Muti, we became very good friends.  [Laughs]  He said that Bach, and Beethoven, and Brahms are still difficult.  So, what does it mean?  When you think about it, what does ‘difficult’ mean?  I don’t know!  It’s really incommutable when you think about it.  In this country, we have the greatest orchestras in the world.  There’s no question of that in my mind.

BD:   Absolutely.

Shapey:   Let’s take the Philadelphia Orchestra, because it’s a beautiful example of what I’m talking about.  They got the parts around January, and oh, did they bitch!  I got the yells and the screams and, oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy!  But I know where they came from.  I was born and raised in Philadelphia.  Most of that orchestra and I grew up together.  I had a post at age sixteen conducting in Philadelphia, and most of the first chair people of the Philadelphia Orchestra were my first chair people in that youth orchestra.  In Philadelphia in those days, you studied at the Settlement School, then you went to the Curtis Institute, and then you went to the Philadelphia Orchestra.  If they became fatheads over the years, that’s their problem, not mine!  [Both laugh]  They came from Curtis, they came from Juilliard, they came from Eastman, they came from the best and greatest schools in the world.  They had studied with the greatest teachers in the world, and they could play any God-damn thing they want.

BD:   So, you didn’t mind giving it to them?

Shapey:   I gave it to them.  I challenged them, but I challenged myself first.  I’m sixty-six years old now.  Some people flatter me and say I don’t look sixty-six.  That’s very nice, but I have no control over my body.  None of us do.  After a period of time it begins to fall apart, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  But I might have some control over my brain, and if I don’t challenge my brain, then it will die.  Another thing I tell my students is that the day you stop thinking, the day you stop learning, the day you stop having curiosity, you’ve died!  That’s the end of you!  You have died, pure and simple!  Remember, we were talking about all these other so-called
composers before.  Where are they?  Maybe that’s it... maybe they died.  Maybe they died up here, up in the brain.  They lost their curiosity.  They didn’t have the guts.  Sometimes they say that life took over.  Well, yeah, I know all about life.  I can tell you of my days with a wife and a child, and we were literally starving in New York.  Today we call it the poverty level.  She was a painter, and I was earning the vast sum of $2,500 a year, but we didn’t give up.  She didn’t give up, I didn’t give up, and we fought right through it.  So, I know what poverty is all about, at least poverty in America, in a big city like New York City.  But the others don’t want that.  I don’t want it, either.  I don’t think it’s right.  I don’t think anyone should have to be in poverty in order to be a creator, but the romantic business of starving in an attic is just nonsense!  Beethoven did not starve in an attic.  As a matter of fact, we know today through history, of the monies that he did earn.  He was really quite well-off!  Unfortunately, he did waste a lot of it on his nephew.  The nephew was the scoundrel.  He took, and took, and took, and took, and Beethoven let him take.  So, yes, he did waste it.  Mozart was in a slightly different situation, but he was rich in a different way from the gifts that he had been given by the royalty as a child.  When the father took him around to the courts, he wasn’t starving either.  Bach had a job in the church.  He wasn’t starving, by no means.  I didn’t actually starve in an attic.  I don’t claim that at all.  I didn’t ever really starve, but I was nice and thin in those days because I didn’t have that much to eat.  We ate sparingly because money was used for what we thought was more important.

BD:   Which was?

Shapey:   Making music!!!  Writing music, buying paper and all those necessary things of that ilk.  Buying canvas and paint for my ex-wife.  Those were the more important things.  But we didn’t really starve, not in the true terms of starving.

BD:   You weren’t malnourished.

Shapey:   No, we weren’t malnourished.  We managed, actually.  But I look back and say,
“My God, how the hell did we live through it?  But we did!  We had the guts to live through it.  It takes some guts.

*     *     *     *     *

shapey BD:   Let me turn the conversation back to music again.  What do you feel should be the place of music in society... [Shapey bursts out laughing] twenty-five words or less.

Shapey:   You’re going to get a thousand words and more!  [Much laughter]  Let me see...  [Thinks a moment]  How to answer that?  I can’t remember when it happened, but you might remember that the musicians’ unions in America went on a complete strike all over the entire country.

BD:   What year was this?

Shapey:   I was an adult already, so it might have been between the
30s and the 50s sometime.  But all the musicians all over the country went on a complete strike.  The only thing that was heard at all was Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair [a parlor song by Stephen Foster, published in 1854].  Well, they won the strike very fast.  I wonder why?!?!  We had no need for the Beethoven Third Symphony, but in truth we need it badly.  We can’t live without it, as a matter of fact.  It’s not only music, it’s everything.  We don’t only live by bread.  Yes, we need bread.  We need food to nourish our bodies, but there are other things we need, too.  That’s why we are something above what we call the animals.  We are superior beings of some sort because we do need these other things, and they are here.  We have to have them, otherwise you go very, very hungry.  If you were in the Army, and if you didn’t have access to something that we call ‘culture’music, painting, art, etc.then you know how hungry you got, and that food was not enough.  You had to have the other things also... or at least I did.  Of course, there are those that don’t need it at all.  All they need is a deck of cards, and they sit and gamble.  Well, that’s their problem.  But we like to use the ideas of superior human beings.  What is a superior human being?  It’s a cultured human being.  I don’t know who said it, but the world goes on due to the efforts of a few individuals, who move the world constantly over each century.  If you look around, and if you take that seriously, and you think about it carefully, you begin to realize that it’s very, very true.

BD:   Its just a few?

Shapey:   It’s just the few geniuses of various fields who push the world, who move the world.  If we compare ourselves to whatever we know of the business past, we realize the crazy truth of that, because we look back at these marvelous things and wonder in awe.  How could they have done it?  But they did do it.

BD:   Is there a possibility that we are abusing Mozart and Bach by having them around so much, so often, with so many recordings and so many performances?

Shapey:   In a way, but let me turn that around a little bit.  In past centuries, the audiences were always interested in the new composer, whereas today, they don
t give a damn about the new composer.  We are an embarrassment.  They wish to God that we would disappear.  The word ‘abuse’ is such a terrible word, but yes, who needs another Mozart record?  Who needs another Beethoven record?  For God’s sakes, who needs it?  One could say that this conductor does this with it, and it’s even greater than Joe Schmoe back there!  Well, all right, so you have to have it.  Is that the reason that we have it, or is it...

BD:   [Rubs his fingers together indicating that the answer is money]

Shapey:   Right away you did it with your fingers.  I didn
t even have to say it.  You called it immediately.  It’s money!  Can we sell it?  Maybe we could sell so-and-so who’s even better than Toscanini!  There they are, and it’s not even important what’s the difference, just so you do it for the money.  It’s all sales.  Everything is selling.  We’re a huckster country, that’s what we are.  Look at TV!  The boob-tube!  Everything is huckstering on that.  Even the good things are being huckstered on it!  That’s what it is.

BD:   Should we huckster the music of Ralph Shapey?

Shapey:   Oh, God!  [Bursts out laughing]  I don’t know if I could do with it!  [More laughter]  As a serious question, if Beethoven can live with it and will survive being huckstered, I hope Ralph Shapey will, too.  I don’t know.  I hope so, because I hope there’s something more to it than being huckstered.

BD:   Let me ask a balance question.  Where’s the balance between art and entertainment in music?

Shapey:   That’s a funny question.  You know the name Leonard B. Meyer.  He used to be my chairman here at the University, and he’s written several books, including Emotion and Meaning in Music, and things of that sort.  He and I got into a very big argument about just that, because he used the word ‘entertain’, and I got angry.  I said that’s not the right word!  You can’t use the word
entertainment’.  His argument was that he’s using it in the highest sense of the word, but I said go tell that to the hucksters!  Go tell that to the newspapers!  They call something ‘entertainment’, and they mean it in the lower sense of the word.  Why does an audience go to a concert at Orchestra Hall?  If you really think about it, and try to analyze it, it’s because it will be a very interesting exercise.  They go to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Whether they play well or not makes no damn difference.  They are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  They go to see whoever is up there on the podium.  They go to see him because there are very few hers, so we’ll stick to him.  They go to see him because by reputation, and by huckstering, he’s the greatest thing that ever lived!  That might be a moot point, even with the orchestra, but again, it has nothing to do with it.  They are told that this person is the great genius of waving his arms around, and wiggling his rear end.  That tells you who I’m thinking of!  He is conducting the great, great Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and you have to go hear it!  Then you have a Board of Directors who supposedly support the orchestra.  Then you have the people who donate.  They give to the endowments, because they all feel it’s their personal orchestra.  Then you have a few average people who go because maybe they’re doing the program that, for some reason or other, interests them.  Then finally you have the Peanut Gallery, which is, of course, the best part of the audience.  I grew up with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, sitting way up in the Peanut Gallery.  I think it was 50 cents in those days, and you stood in line around the whole block, and you climbed up to Heaven.

BD:   I remember climbing all those stairs to the top Gallery at Orchestra Hall many times when I was a kid!

Shapey:   Good!  So, you go up there, and they’re the ones who boo, and yell bravo, and the rest of the people don’t know the hell what is going on! 

BD:   Can it be assumed that at least at some point there is a product worth huckstering before they begin the huckstering process?

Shapey:   Yes, because the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the great orchestras in the world.  There’s no question about that.  I’m not downing them!  They are one of the great orchestras, and they can play magnificently well.  If they get a fine conductor up there who will inspire them beyond themselves, they can come off with a wonderful performance!  It
’s a bit like the chicken or the egg, but let’s say that came first.  Then they have the huckstering to make money, but as I already said, how often can they reach great heights when they’re nothing but a factory, when they’re grinding it out like sausages, or shoes?  How many times can they reach great heights anyhow?

BD:   [Hoping for a positive answer]  Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Shapey:   [Thinks a moment]  Oh, boy!  [Takes a deep breath]  Basically, I’m a pessimist.  [Laughs]  So, am I optimistic?  Well, I’m not very optimistic about the human race, period!  I’m only optimistic that we won’t blow ourselves up.  There’s a race between us and nature, and I think nature’s going to win.  But putting that aside, I do think that it’s here to stay, and in due time there will be a revolution.  There has to be.  I sort of got myself in a jam one of the times when I was conducting the Chicago Symphony.  I kind of lectured them that they’re hurting themselves so badly, that they’ve become nothing but the glass case in the museum, and that they needed new blood.  They knew damn well that I didn’t mean new blood in terms of young musicians.  They come and go, but I meant the playing of new music.  Otherwise they’re going to die.  Well, they didn’t like it, and maybe I was wrong in saying it.  Thinking of me personally, I love the symphony orchestra.  I think it’s magnificent, absolutely marvelous instruments.  There’s nothing greater than a great symphony orchestra, no matter what they play, and if they play it really greatly, my God, there’s nothing like it.  It’s absolutely fabulous!  I love it!  I don’t want it to disappear.
BD:   Then you’re fighting for its life, also?

Shapey:   Right!  I’m fighting not only for my own life in those terms, but its life, also.  I don’t want it to be a museum piece stuck away in a glass case, no!  I don’t want that to happen, and that’s part of my fight with them.

BD:   You should remind them about the Stradivarius instruments.  The ones that are put in glass cases turned to dust, but the ones that have been played regularly are still magnificent.

Shapey:   Exactly!  I’m only optimistic if they themselves do it
and they really have tobut here we get into trouble because the orchestra members can’t do it.  They’re just slaves upon the stage under the direction of the conductors, the management, and the board of directors.  They themselves would say that to you.  They have no say as to what the repertoire is, and then they themselves complain about another Bach???  Another Beethoven???  Another Brahms???  Then, when they’re given a new work, “Grrrrrrrrr, I have to go home and practice!”  [Both laugh]

BD:   Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Shapey:   Exactly!

BD:   Is it an encouraging sign to see the formation of chamber groups from within the Symphony that then have a little more control over what they play, and so they program more expansive things?

Shapey:   Well, let’s turn that into a slightly broader direction.  For instance, American composers write a lot of chamber works for very simple reasons.  Why bother to write for a symphony orchestra
unless it’s commissionedbecause otherwise it ain’t going to be played!  Forget it.  Let alone write an opera!  Stick it down in the basement and let it rot.

BD:   They’ve wasted their time.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Mel Powell, and Samuel Baron.]

Shapey:   Of course, it
s a pure waste of time!  Whereas chamber works can be done, and are done.  There are chamber groups all over the country, and some of them are formed by the orchestral members themselvesthose members who want to do something more than just play the same old Bach, Beethoven, Brahms.  [Sighs]  Surely by now you know how much I love Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.  For God’s sakes, they’re my first loves, but they’re tired of it too, and so they say, “All right, let us form a quartet.  So, they do, and maybe that’s where the hope lies.  Maybe the orchestra is as dead as a dinosaur.  Maybe it is a dinosaur.  I don’t know.  I don’t want to believe it, but maybe it’s become unwieldy in certain ways, although I don’t see why or how, because my own experience with them is that they’re not.  They can do any damn thing they want if they want to do it, and if the conductors are willing.  In most cases I’ve conducted it myself when its my own music.  As a matter of fact, the only other performance I had with an orchestraand I won’t mention names, or the orchestra or anything, although it did happen in New York Citywas an abomination.  Muti is the only conductor other than myself who has given me a great performance.  He knew my score as well as I knew it, and didn’t come asking me any stupid dumb idiotic questions.  All he said to me was, Maestro, I know what you want, and I’ll get it.  It was an absolutely astounding experience.  Unfortunately, due to all these different circumstances, maybe the future lies in chamber music.

BD:   When you get a chamber music performance, is it a more committed performance on the part of the performers?

Shapey:   That’s hard for me to say, because it does deal with the individual group a great deal, and whoever the conductor is.  Oh, my God, if you get a quartet played by the Juilliard String Quartet, you know you’re getting a fabulous performance.  There’s no question about it.  I was there when the original Juilliard Quartet was formed way back in 1946 [by William Schuman, President of the Juilliard School 1945-1961].  We’re all old friends from the old way-back days.  I was there when they made their big reputation doing Schoenberg and Bartók.  They did my Second String Quartet way back then.  It was fantastic, and two or three years ago, they did the work once more, and again it was absolutely marvelous.  With the Juilliard String Quartet, you’re dealing with a group of players who are dedicated to performing quartets, period!  If you’re dealing with a quartet made up of symphony players
and this is not detrimental to them, because they are busytheir first loyalty has to be to the orchestra.  They have to play all the rehearsals and performances.  They don’t have the time for chamber music.  It has nothing to do with how good they are.  They might be marvelous, but to put in the time, as the Juilliard Quartet puts in, they haven’t got it because they have to earn their basic living in the orchestra.  The Juilliard’s basic living is playing quartets, and a certain amount of teaching at the Juilliard School.  That’s what they do.  That’s how they earn their living.  So, they have to put in the time, because they have the reputation to sustain.  They wouldn’t dare to get up on stage unless they played magnificently well.  We’re not talking about an off-night, but the level is always as high as they can possibly get.  They’re always doing something marvelous.

BD:   But at least the orchestral ensembles are doing some of the chamber music, and that’s encouraging.

Shapey:   Yes, they’re doing some, and it
s fine.  There’s the quartet up in Seattle, Washington, and the first violinist in Veda Reynolds, who was my assistant concert master in my youth orchestra.  She was part of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and they call themselves the Philadelphia String Quartet [founded in 1959-60].  They left the Philadelphia Orchestra [in 1966 for the University of Seattle, where they were quartet-in-residence until 1982] just to play chamber music, namely quartets.

BD:   So, they re-organized their priorities?

Shapey:   Exactly right.

*     *     *     *     *

When you’re working on a score, are you working on one thing at a time, or do you have several things going at once?

Shapey:   When I’m actually writing it down, it’s usually one at a time.  What might be gestating in my mind could be several works, but that’s something altogether different.


See my interviews with Leslie Bassett, Robert Erickson, Andrew Imbrie, Robert Hall Lewis,
William O. Smith, Harvey Sollberger, and Bert Turetzky

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, how do you know when it’s finished? 

Shapey:   In a way, it’s a very simple answer which, of course, is very complex because I don’t know how to answer the complex part.  My guts tell me that’s it!  I simply know, that’s it!  It’s done, finished!

:   Do you ever go back and tamper with your scores?
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Bethany Beardslee, and Fred Hemke.]

Shapey:   Many composers do, but no, I don’t.

BD:   My immediate reaction is,
“Thank God!  [Gales of laughter from both]

Shapey:   It’s like giving birth.  Seriously, I have spoken to many women friends, including my ex-wife, and have compared it to their gestation and giving birth.  They’re giving birth to me in composing, and it is so similar that it’s frightening.  [Emphasizing his point]  That’s right, it is very, very similar.  But when they give birth, what a relief.  It
s the same thing.  Something is right inside of me, and then it’s finished.

BD:   And what a relief?

Shapey:   And what a relief, yes.

BD:   Does the birth process finish the music, or is it finally done at the first performance?

Shapey:   Good question.  The final birth process is, of course, the performance because, after all, music is on paper, and there it stays.  Only when it is finally performed
taken off the paper and put into the instruments themselves, and created into what is supposed to be soundis it fully born.  That’s the final part of the birth of it.  That is true, and I do believe in that, actually.  I don’t believe we should live in a vacuum.  That’s why I always get performances for my students.  We do concerts of their music all the time.  Otherwise it’s a vacuum.  You have to hear what you’re doing.

BD:   Are you ever surprised by what you hear in your own music?

Shapey:   No, but I’m surprised by composers who are surprised at what they hear when they hear their own music.  When they tell me that, I say,
But you wrote it!  Didn’t you know what you wrote there?

BD:   Do performers ever find things in your scores that you didn’t know you’d put there?  

Shapey:   Yes, a mistake now and then!  [Both laugh]  It’s so easy to make them!  Oh God, is it easy to make mistakes!  [Continues laughing]

BD:   But that’s just the notation.

Shapey:   Yes, in the copying.  I keep saying that there should be a law whereby no composer can be allowed to proof-read his own music!  [More laughter]  We still find mistakes in Bach, for God’s sakes!  But no, I can’t say I have ever really been surprised on those terms.  Other terms maybe.  The surprise would be,
I wrote that???  That’s a different kind of surprise.

BD:   I asked you before about being pleased with performances.  Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your works?

Shapey:   Mainly, yes, because most of those have been under my personal direction, and I am conducting [as seen in the CD re-issue shown above-left, and the LP below-right].  We try to take care of those things when they happen, but most of them are very, very good.  I don’t think I’ve let through a bad one... not yet anyhow!  [Laughs]  It becomes a very interesting thing, because for so many years I didn’t have a publisher.  When I was at the MacDowell colony in the late
70s, Presser finally decided to become my publisher.  I can tell you a story that will make you tear your hair out.  I went to see Peters [the music publisher] in New York, and he said, Oh, wow, I’m a fan of yours.  I like your music, and your conducting.  I come to your concerts.  What can I do for you?  Well, I’m standing there with a batch of scores under my arm, and I said, I need a publisher!  [Aside]  Too bad we’re not on video, because I have to demonstrate this.  [With exaggerated gesticulations]  He turns a page, and he looks, and he clucks, blah, blah, blah, and he turns another page, [makes more noises], and he did this several different times with various scores.  Finally, he looks me straight in the eye and says, “You’re a genius, and we have no time for geniuses nowadays.
BD:   Im glad the window wasn’t open, or you would have thrown him out onto the street!

Shapey:   [Laughs]  I think so, too!  Well, maybe it was meant as a compliment, but I looked right back in his eyes and said,
“Fuck you!  [Gales of laughter]  What else do you say?  When the head of Boosey & Hawkes said to me, Well put out your music when you’re dead and buried, I said the same thing.  It overwhelmed me, and that’s what I came out with!  [More laughter]  That’s the only thing to say!  [Pauses briefly to gather himself]  Recently I got a phone call from someone in California.  He and his wife were a duo-piano team, and they had commissioned a work of mine.  It was an hysterical phone call, and when I picked up he yelled, “You’re alive!!!”  I said, “Yes, I’m alive.  What the hell are you talking about???”  He said, “You didn’t see the write-up!”  It turned out that in one of the papers out there in CaliforniaI don’t know if it was San Francisco or Los Angelesa critic didn’t bother to check up, or find out, or research anything.  He assumed I was dead, and he wrote my obituary!  [Hysterically laughing]  So, of course, out came the famous quote from Mark Twain...

BD:   In the end, is composing fun?

Shapey:   [Thinks a moment]  I can only quote a famous title of a famous book, The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Sometimes there is even some fun, but it’s really agony and ecstasy.  That’s what it really is.  You agonize over it, and you have ecstasy over it, and there’s a balance of both.  As I tell again my students, if there’s only agony, you better quit right now, and if it’s only ecstasy, there’s something wrong with it!  But if you have a balance of the two of the things, then maybe you’re okay.
BD:   When you get a commission, how do you decide if you’re going to accept it or decline it?

Shapey:   There are all kinds of factors.  The first one, of course, could be money, but I’ve done so many commissions without being paid, so what the hell is money?

BD:   In those instances, the
payment was just a guarantee of a performance?

Shapey:   Yes, it would be a guarantee.  I’m speaking just for myself, because Aaron Copland once said to me that he would not write one note on paper unless he knew he was getting paid for it.  This happened many years ago at the MacDowell colony.  Well, maybe that’s what’s wrong with Aaron’s music.  I can only speak for myself.  I can’t speak for other people.  For myself, primarily, it is not only the performance, but the kind of the performance I think I’ll get.  Let
s take this last one, which was from the Philadelphia Orchestra.  There was a nice sum of money involved, and a nice fat part of that money went to the copyist.  I ended up with practically nothing as far as money is concerned.  But when I was talking to a friend, I said that I didn’t give a damn!  It’s the Philadelphia Orchestra.  That’s a great orchestra, and Muti is good.  So, I’m going to have a great performance, and to hell with the money!

BD:   As long the expenses were taken care of, you were fine?

Shapey:   Yes, the expenses were taken care of, but in the days in which I was starving, the money was a damn handy thing to get a hold of.  I hate to tell you how many works I wrote then with no pay, but I wrote them because I knew I’d get a marvelous performance, and that was much more important to me.  There’s an attitude involved.  To me, music, really all art, is the Holy of Holies!  I don’t pray to it...

BD:   ...but you treasure it?

Shapey:   Right!  It’s one of the greatest things that humankind can achieve.  Freud has stated that if we have a healthy society, and if we were healthy human beings, we wouldn’t have any need for art because art is neurotic.  Well, I would like to say,
“Thank God, we’re neurotic!  Look what we have!  Look at the art that we have!  Look at the greatness that we have!  Look at the Renaissance of painters!  Look at the great literature, the paintings, the great sculpting, the great music!  It’s magnificent!  Its the highest human beings can achieve!  If that’s neurotic, then thank God we’re neurotic!  I treasure it above all other things... not above human life.  No, that’s something else.  Life even goes above that.  But when I see or hear huckstering, or when I see or hear a great conductor as he tramples it in the gutter, it makes me sick.  I don’t care what his name is, I get sick over that.  He has no right doing it, none whatsoever, because he doesn’t have any respect for it.  He’s using it for himself.  Art is for the sake of art, if you wish, but it still goes to the human being.  We still need the human being.  It’s still for them.

BD:   So, it’s art for humans’ sake?

Shapey:   Yes, because they still have to partake of it.  In a way, that’s my problem, but maybe that’s also why I am what I am.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

Shapey:   Oh, thank you for listening.  I don’t claim to have the answers.  I wish I did, but I don’t.  The only thing I do know is that the older I get, the more horrified I am about how little I know, and there’s no time left to learn it!  There’s so much music I want and have to write, and there’s so much to know.



See my interviews with George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, Ursula Mamlok, Yehudi Wyner, Miriam Gideon, Philip Glass, and Samuel Adler


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meyer Leonard B. Meyer (January 12, 1918 – December 30, 2007) was a composer, author, and philosopher. He contributed major works in the fields of aesthetic theory in music, and compositional analysis.

Meyer studied at Columbia University, where he received both a B.A. in Philosophy, and an M.A. in Music. He continued on to study at University of Chicago, where he was awarded a Ph.D. in History of Culture in 1954. As a composer, he studied under Stefan Wolpe, Otto Luening, and Aaron Copland. In 1946, he became a member of the music department at the University of Chicago, in 1961 he was appointed professor of music at the University of Chicago and in 1975 professor of music and the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He became professor emeritus at Pennsylvania in 1988.

His most influential work, Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), combined Gestalt Theory and theories by Pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey to try to explain the existence of emotion in music. Peirce had suggested that any regular response to an event developed alongside the understanding of that event's consequences, its "meaning". Dewey extended this to explain that, if the response was stopped by an unexpected event, then an emotional response would occur over the event's "meaning". Meyer used this basis to form a theory about music, combining musical expectations in a specific cultural context with emotion and meaning elicited. His work went on to influence theorists both in and outside music, as well as providing a basis for cognitive psychology research into music and our responses to it.

Meyer's 1967 work "Music, the Arts, and Ideas," was influential in defining the transition to postmodernism in light of new works such as George Rochberg's Music for the Magic Theater, which was premiered at the University of Chicago in 1967.

Other major written works include, The Rhythmic Structure of Music (with Grosvenor Cooper, 1960), Explaining Music (1973), and Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology (1989; paperback reprint ed., 1997)

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Bernard Jacobson (b. 1936) worked in the music field for over fifty years, including stints as recording executive, music critic of the Chicago Daily News, artistic director and adviser for international orchestras in Holland, and visiting professor at Roosevelt University's Chicago Musical College. He has also performed and recorded as narrator of concert works and opera.

© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Shapeys apartment in Chicago on May 4, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB six months later, and again in 1991 and 1996; and on WNUR in 2002, and 2008.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.