Drew Massey’s John Kirkpatrick book has far more information than I’d ever seen before on Carl Ruggles’s opera The Sunken Bell, including score excerpts. Ruggles worked on it from 1912 on and off until 1927, never completed it, but was such a convincingly blustery self-promoter that he actually got the Met interested, even though he had yet to complete a major piece of music. He finally destroyed the score in 1940, though Kirkpatrick “spirited away the sketches that were housed in the shed of Ruggles’s home in Arlington, fearing that Ruggles would throw those out as well.” (p. 104) For once in the history of music, I am thankful to a composer for having destroyed one of his scores. The Sunken Bell looks awful. It’s got a German-Romantic fairy-opera plot in turgidly archaic English with lines like, “Hey, dost thou not hear?”, surrounded by half-diminished seventh chords and nervous one-note-rhythm mottos. It looks like the most ill-conceived opera, and the most absurd composer-subject combination, outside of Theodor Adorno’s projected and also mercifully incomplete 12-tone opera on Tom Sawyer, Der Schatz des Indianer-Joe. Would have been better had they traded librettos – at least it couldn’t have been worse.
And there’s a question. Ruggles was a well-known crotchety old anti-Semite and serial liar, but we all shrug and smile over him because we love Sun-Treader. Meanwhile his friend Ives liked to revise his music and had a poor memory for dates, and people act like he’s a major fraud. Why the double standard?