Thursday, April 20, 2006

Roy Harris: An American Also Ran

The 20th century was the United States' first chance to develop a true "American" musical sound in the world of Classical Music. In the 19th century, the country had been too undeveloped and focused on an agrarian economy to develop great art schools. Symphony Orchestras were just being formed, NY Philharmonic in 1842 and Boston Symphony 1881 for example. The west and Midwest cities were still too small to really have the base for great ensembles; Chicago waited until 1891 for example. The Civil War disrupted the south for decades. Most composers living in America in the 19th century were trained in Europe and wrote mostly church music. Symphonic composers were few and far between. If there were any, they wrote in a strictly European (read German) style.

Thus it fell to composers born around the turn of the century to create an American musical tradition and demonstrate it to the world.

Two men, Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, have frequently been mentioned as the "Quintessential American Composer". Copland's claim of that title is mostly assured. Harris, on the other hand, is destined to be an also ran.

Harris was one of the first to even be born as a "quintessential American". Unlike Copland who grew up in New York and spent a lot of his youth in Europe, Harris was born LeRoy Harris, supposedly in a log cabin in Oklahoma Territory in 1898. He grew up in California and studied music there privately. Only in his late 20s did he go to New York and study in Europe with Nadia Boulanger who seemed to have taught every American Composer. By then Copland, 2 years younger, had already made a name for himself.

Copland's musical style evolved as he matured and lived until 1990. Starting out in the brash modern style of the early 20s, he evolved in to the more classical American Period with classics such as "Appalachian Spring", "Rodeo", "Fanfare for the Common Man" and the Symphony # 3. In the late 50s and 60s, he ventured into the more austere 12 tone system. After 1962, he wrote little and spent his last years conducting and turning out a few small scale works.

Harris (1898-1979), on the other hand, stayed mostly in a tonal sound world His compositions frequently incorporated folk music (the tune "Johnny Comes Marching Home" is used frequently) or at least folk-inspired themes. His orchestration is heavy with lots of brass and wind with the same "open" and "expansive" sound as Copland's middle works. His themes tended to be short and declamatory. "Stentorian" is a adjective often used to describe his sound.

His catalog of works is extensive. He was quite prolific with 16 (some say 18) symphonies and many choral, band and chamber works. However, by 1950 his best work lay behind him. His later works were not met with scorn but more with a casual dismissal. His 9th Symphony from 1962 is regarded as his last successful symphony. The remainder especially the Abraham Lincoln #10 and the Bicentennial #13 are regarded as failures. His catalog is also rather disordered with many incomplete or rearranged works. Hungry for performances, he seemed to arrange his works to fit the players: "you want to perform my Violin Concerto with a solo bassoon and 10 pianos?- NO problem!"

His undisputed masterpiece is the Third Symphony of 1938. Harris reused material from a problematic and ultimately unfinished Violin Concerto to create his one true success. It was commissioned by National Symphony Orchestra of Washington DC but premiered by Boston under Koussevitzky. They had collaborated on the 2nd Symphony but they had a falling out over the work. Harris showed the 3rd to Koussevitsky, hoping to reestablish a relationship with the influential conductor. It was a success, and was ultimately recorded by Koussevitzky. Toscanini conducted it with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. It is a powerful, cogent and organic 1 movement work that never loses interest. Not a single note is out of place and it lasts not a second longer than it should. Although there are no outright folk songs (he left that for the more prosaic but somewhat popular Symphony # 4 "Folksong" for chorus and orchestra) the work is totally American in sound and spirit and filled with that naive and brash "can-do", energetic mentality that characterized so many American works of the 30s-50s. There are 5 distinct sections that the composer designated as "Tragic", "Lyric", "Pastoral" "Fugue-Dramatic" and "Tragic-Dramatic". The Naxos label has recently released a new recording by the Colorado Symphony under Marin Alsop. The third gets a good performance, nicely balanced and well paced. It does not displace Bernstein's classic performance on Sony for drama and organic power. But for the price, it is a highly recommended listening experience.

This 3rd is coupled with the 4th "Folksong" which is receiving its first recording since 1960. That Golschmann recording is still available through ArchivCD at ArchivMusic

Actually more of a choral suite than a symphony, the work is based on popular and familiar folk songs such as "Bury Me Not On The Lone Prairie", "Streets Of Laredo", "The Girl I Left Behind Me" and of course "Johnny Comes Marching Home". Not having ever heard the piece before I can not comment on the merits of it vis a vis the Golschmann. It sounds more like a piece an amateur ensemble would perform for a Fourth of July concert. Nothing to offend, nothing to recommend. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt? We eagerly listen to European works based on Folk songs or folk-like melodies (Mahler, Bartok, Shotakovich... to name 3)but this work seems second tier.

Strangely, The Naxos recording is not available here in the states yet. Even more odd as it is a part of the "American Classics" series. A while back I had an email exchange with an officer of the Naxos company about the US market being "second class" as new releases are often delayed here while available elsewhere. He denied it, but here is more evidence in my book. I got my copy from MDT in the UK.

Interesting music, but unfortunately Harris' sound and his uneven output make him an "also ran" after Copland,Gershwin and Mennin, even William Schuman.

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