A Sunken Bell Well Immersed

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?



  1. says

    Well, Ruggles’s *music* isn’t conspicuously anti-Semitic…thanks for this column – I was a participant in the conference for his 90th birthday at Bowdoin -memorable events, and there were betes of every color there…a longtime fan of Evocations as well as Sun-Treader and others…

  2. says

    I’m not entirely sure there’s a double standard, certainly for most people, re: Ruggles vs Ives. Most people know of Ives, but have not heard of Ruggles, sadly. In terms of Ruggles, I’ve never been sure he was anything other than a garden variety New England WASP who held many of the typical views of his time re: Jews. He wasn’t the type to burn down a synagogue, but folks like him still looked down upon Jews, Blacks, Catholics, etc. Lord Balfour in the UK held the same views, but as author of the Balfour Declaration, he’s a revered figure among the Zionist groups dating back decades. Now there’s a double standard.

    I wasn’t aware he was a serial liar. I’d love to hear some details.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of giving Ruggles a pass as more a matter of loving his music and recognizing his human flaws. Even if he were a major anti-Semite, I’d still love his music. Same with Varese; didn’t he share many of the same views? Keep in mind that at that time, the new music world suddenly saw an influx of folks like Copland and other non-WASPs. The white Christian folks felt threatened, and that perhaps explains (but doesn’t justify) the unacceptable views that were expressed by Ruggles and others in his coterie.

    At the same time, Ruggles’ music was often championed by members of the tribe like Michael Tilson Thomas. Ruggles met with him and had he been a rabid bigot, probably would have called him some epithets and shown him the door.

    I’m probably on thin ice here, but Ruggles’ music has always been close to my heart and while I think it’s important, as with Wagner and others, to acknowledge the composer’s failings, that doesn’t preclude admiration for the music itself. Nor should Ives be criticized for the stuff you had mentioned in a previous post.

    KG replies: Well I’m not saying Ruggles shouldn’t be given a pass. He liked to hang out at the Harvard Club, and let the rumor spread that he had graduated from Harvard, plus other colorful but false ideas about his background. It’s all in the Marilyn Ziffrin biography. And Ives, dammit, just didn’t do anything to be criticized *for*.

  3. says

    I wasn’t aware that Ruggles was given a pass… But if he was, it’s probably because he was less prolific and influential than Ives; he was a smaller target. As usual, people attack someone when they think they can boost themselves, and there probably wasn’t much to be gained by going after Ruggles.