Carl Ruggles, Men and Mountains

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert New York Avant-Garde, performed on Oct 3, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

Ruggles born Mar 11, 1876 in East Marion, MA; died Oct 24, 1971 in Bennington, VT
Men and Mountains composed from 1924–41; Premiered on Dec 7, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in NYC by members of the State Symphony Orchestra under Sir Eugene Goossens
Approximate performance time: 12 minutes
Instruments: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion, piano, and strings

Today, Carl Ruggles is known as one of America’s most iconoclastic and uncompromising composers—and one who, as Drew Massey recently put it, was “in touch with the infinite, able to render the mysteries of the universe in thimble-sized musical spaces.” Linked closely to the composers Charles Ives and Henry Cowell, Ruggles fits firmly in an ultramodernist strain in American music in which, as Carol J. Oja has shown, dissonance carried spiritual resonances.

Born near Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Ruggles studied violin and composition in the Boston area before moving to New York, where he met Edgard Varèse and found consistent support for his own music in Varèse’s International Composers Guild. It was through this group that Ruggles’ brief but forceful Men and Mountains (1924) had its premiere. The work had staying power in modernist circles; Henry Cowell published it three years later as the first score in his New Music Quarterly.

Men and Mountains makes an imposing first impression. Horns, angular melodies, and large leaps dominate the opening movement, “Men: A Rhapsodic Proclamation.” By comparison, the atmospheric second movement, “Lilacs,” is scored for strings only, and it shimmers and aches. A descending two-note motive begins the movement and recurs throughout, constructing an aura of yearning melancholy.

Although Ruggles’ legacy is that of a headstrong ultramodern, the final movement, “Marching Mountains,” reveals his debt to tradition. There, the aggressive temperament of the first movement returns with drumbeats that, with the help of the movement’s title, suggest trampling over a landscape. After a more intimate passage in which brief wind solos compete with strings, the movement’s initial intensity returns. But this time, it is infused with a familiar rhythmic idea—the short-short-short-long pattern from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (also a motive exploited by Ives in his Concord sonata), leading fatefully to the work’s unforgiving climax.

Matthew Mugmon is assistant professor of musicology at the University of Arizona. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2013.