Ralph Shapey

Ralph Shapey was an American composer and conductor. He is well known for his work as a composition professor at the University of Chicago, where he founded and directed the Contemporary Chamber Players. Shapey was a MacArthur Fellow in 1982.

Although Shapey's style is characterized by Modernist angularity, irony, and technical rigor, his coincident concern for sweeping gesture, frenetic passion, rhythmic vitality, lyrical melody, and dramatic arc recall Romanticism. Shapey was dubbed by critics Leonard Meyer and Bernard Jacobson as a "radical traditionalist," which pleased him immensely–he held a deep respect for the masters of the past, whom he regarded as his finest teachers.

The French-American composer Edgard Varèse was among Shapey's most important influences. Both composers shared a fascination with unusual sonorities, counterpoint masses, and the outer extremes of pitch space. The coordination of static "sound blocks" in Shapey's music also reminds one of another great French composer, Olivier Messiaen, though Shapey reportedly found Messiaen's music saccharine and maudlin. Shapey also studied with Stefan Wolpe.

Although comparisons are useful, Shapey's compositional voice is undoubtedly personal and distinctive. Many listeners would call his music "atonal," but Shapey himself denied the label. He considered himself a tonal composer, and indeed his work, though couched in a highly dissonant harmonic idiom rich in interval classes 1 and 6, does adhere to certain organizational features of tonal music, including pitch hierarchy and object permanence.