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Roy Harris

Roy Harris

[har-is]
Harris, Roy, 1898-1979, American composer, b. Lincoln co., Okla. Harris was a pupil of Arthur Farwell and Nadia Boulanger. He began to compose c.1925, ultimately producing more than 200 works. His early compositions displayed the melodic and personal expression that characterizes all his works. His most significant works include his When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1935), a choral work; Symphony for Voices (1936) to poems by Walt Whitman; the Third Symphony (1939); the Folksong Symphony (1940); Cumberland Concerto (1952); and the Seventh Symphony (1952). Outstanding among his numerous works of chamber music is his Piano Quintet (1936).
Roy Ellsworth Harris (February 12, 1898 in Chandler, Oklahoma, United States - October 1, 1979), was an American classical composer. He wrote much music on American subjects, becoming best known for his Symphony No. 3.

Life

He was born of mixed Scots, Irish and Welsh ancestry, in circumstances he sometimes liked to contrast with those of the more privileged East-coast composers: to poor parents, in a log cabin in Oklahoma, on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, one of five children (three of whom died early). A gambling win enabled his father to buy a small holding in California, where the boy grew up a farmer, in the rural isolation of the San Gabriel Valley. He studied piano with his mother, and later clarinet. Though he studied at the University of California, Berkeley, he was still virtually self-taught when he began writing music of his own, but in the early 1920s he had lessons from Arthur Bliss (then in Santa Barbara) and the senior American composer and researcher of American Indian (then called "Red Indian") music, Arthur Farwell. Harris sold his farmland and supported himself as a truck-driver and delivery man for a dairy firm. Gradually he made contacts in the East with other young composers, and partly through Aaron Copland's recommendation he was able to spend 1926-29 in Paris, as one of the many young Americans who received their final musical grooming in the masterclasses of Nadia Boulanger. Harris had no time for Boulanger's neoclassical, Stravinsky-derived aesthetic, but under her tutelage he began his lifelong study of Renaissance music, and wrote his first significant works: the concerto for piano, clarinet and string quartet drew praise from the seldom-impressible Frederick Delius.

After suffering a serious back injury, he was obliged to return for treatment to the United States, where Harris formed associations with Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and, more importantly, with Serge Koussevitsky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. These associations secured performance outlets for the large-scale works he was writing. In 1934, a week after its première under Koussevitsky, his Symphony ‘1933’ became the first American symphony to be commercially recorded. It was his Symphony No.3, however, premièred by Koussevitsky in 1939, which proved to be the composer's biggest breakthrough and made him practically a household name.

During the 1930s Harris taught at Mills College—where Darius Milhaud would later teach—Westminster Choir College (1934-1938) and the Juilliard School of Music; he spent most of the rest of his professional career restlessly moving through teaching posts and residences at colleges and universities in various parts of the USA, ending with a long stint in California, first at UCLA and finally at California State University, Los Angeles. Among his pupils were William Schuman, H. Owen Reed, John Donald Robb, John Verrall, and Peter Schickele (best known as the creator of P. D. Q. Bach). He received many of America's most prestigious cultural awards, and at the end of his life was proclaimed Honorary Composer Laureate of the State of California.

Harris's sons Shaun and Dan performed with The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, a Los Angeles-based psychedelic rock band of the late 1960s (although Roy Harris did not approve of rock music).

Character, reputation and style characteristics

Harris was a champion of many causes (he founded the International String Congress to combat what was perceived as a shortage of string players in the U.S., and co-founded the American Composers Alliance), a tireless organizer of conferences and contemporary music festivals, and a frequent radio broadcaster. He made several trips to the Soviet Union; his admiration for that country attracted adverse criticism during the McCarthy era. Harris was indeed in US terms a liberal on many social issues, and pugnaciously opposed to anti-semitism and racial discrimination. His last symphony, a commission for the American Bicentennial in 1976, was mauled by the critics at its first performance as a 'travesty of music' by a composer who had written himself out: but this may partly have been because it addressed the themes of slavery and the Civil War, and contradicted the required mood of national self-congratulation. In his last years Harris was increasingly depressed by the effects of the US's rampant materialism, discrimination against minorities and destruction of natural resources.

Although the rugged American patriotism of his works of the 1930s and 1940s is reflected in his research into and use of folk-music (and to a lesser extent of jazz rhythms), Harris was paradoxically obsessed with the great European pre-classical forms, especially the monolithic ones of fugue (which we hear in the Third Symphony) and passacaglia (as featured in the next most admired, the Seventh). His customary mode of discourse, with long singing lines and resonant modal harmonies, is ultimately based on his admiration for and development of Renaissance polyphony—and also antiphonal effects, which he exploits brilliantly with a large orchestra. Like many American composers of his time, he was deeply impressed by the symphonic achievement of Sibelius (who also drew on Renaissance polyphonic techniques). In Harris's best works the music grows organically from the opening bars, as if a tiny seed gives birth to an entire tree; and this is certainly the case with the Third Symphony, which joined the American repertoire during the same era as works by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. The first edition of Kent Kennan's The Technique of Orchestration (1952) quotes three passages from this symphony to illustrate good orchestral writing for cello, timpani, and vibraphone, respectively. The book quotes no other Harris symphonies. Few other American symphonies have acquired such a firmly-entrenched position in the standard performance repertory as has this one, due much to the championship of the piece by Leonard Bernstein, as well as to his several recordings of it.

His music, while often abstract, has a reputation for its optimistic, American tone. Musicologist John Canarina describes the "Harris style" as "exuberant horn passages and timpani ostinatos" (Canarina 1995). Harris so frequently composed prismatically modulating chords that a valid one-word description of his orchestral music would be chromatic. He also liked to write bell-like passages for tuned percussion. This is readily apparent not only in the famous Third Symphony but also in the Sixth "Gettysburg".

In all, Harris composed over 170 works, including many works for amateurs, but the backbone of his output was his series of symphonies. Harris wrote no opera, but otherwise covered all the main genres of orchestral, vocal, choral, chamber and instrumental music as well as writing a significant number of works for band. His series of symphonies is still his most significant contribution to American music.

The Symphonies

Harris composed at least 18 symphonies, though not all of them are numbered and not all are for orchestra. A full list is as follows:

  • Symphony - Our Heritage (mid-1920s, abandoned), sometimes referred to as Symphony No. 1 [for orchestra]
  • Symphony - American Portrait (1929) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony 1933 (1933), sometimes referred to as Symphony No. 1 [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 2 (1934) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony for Voices (1935) [for unaccompanied SATB chorus]
  • Symphony No. 3 (1938, rev. 1939) [for orchestra]
  • Folksong Symphony (Symphony No. 4) (1942) [for chorus and orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 5 (1940-42) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 6 'Gettysburg' (1944) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony for Band 'West Point'(1952) [for US military band]
  • Symphony No. 7 (1952, rev. 1955) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 8 'San Francisco' (1961-62) [for orchestra with concertante piano]
  • Symphony No. 9 (1962) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 10 'Abraham Lincoln' (1965) [for speaker, chorus, brass, 2 pianos and percussion]; revised version for speaker, chorus, piano and orchestra (1967; missing)
  • Symphony No. 11 (1967) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 12 'Père Marquette' (1969) [for tenor solo, speaker and orchestra]
  • Bicentennial Symphony (1976), numbered by Harris as Symphony No. 14 out of superstition over the number 13 but posthumously re-numbered as No. 13 by Dan Stehman with the permission of the composer's widow [for six-part chorus and orchestra with solo voices and speakers]

In addition there is a missing (and perhaps not completed) Symphony for High School Orchestra (1937) and the following unfinished or fragmentary works:

  • American Symphony (1938) [for jazz band]
  • Choral Symphony (1936) [for chorus and orchestra]
  • Walt Whitman Symphony (1955-58) [baritone solo, chorus and orchestra]

Naxos Records is in process of recording the 13 numbered symphonies with conductor Marin Alsop.

Other notable works

These include:

  • Andante for Orchestra (1925 rev. 1926) [only completed movement of Symphony 'Our Heritage']
  • Epilogue to Profiles in Courage - JFK (1964)
  • Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1954)
  • Piano Sonata (1928)
  • Concerto for String Quartet, Piano, and Clarinet (1926, rev. 1927-8)
  • Piano Quintet (1936)
  • String Quartet No.3 (Four Preludes and Fugues) (1937)
  • Violin Concerto (1949)
  • When Johnny Comes Marching Home - An American Overture (1934)

References

  • Canarina, John. 1995. "The American Symphony". In A Guide to the Symphony, new edition, edited by Robert Layton, Chapter 18. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192880055
  • Kennan, Kent Wheeler. 1952. The Technique of Orchestration. New York: Prentice-Hall. Second edition 1970, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0139003169 Third edition, with Donald Grantham, 1983, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0139003088
  • Slonimsky, Nicolas. 1947. "Roy Harris". The Musical Quarterly 33, no. 1 (January): 17–37.
  • Stehman, Dan. 1991. Roy Harris: A Bio-Bibliography. Bio-Bibliographies in Music 40. New York: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313250790

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