If Horatio Alger had Written the Life-Story of a Composer

Roy Harris

If Horatio Alger had written one of his rags-to-riches stories about the life of a composer, it would read like the story of Roy Harris (1898-1979).  He was not born into a life of privilege. In fact, his parents did not have very much money.  Harris was born in Oklahoma, in a log cabin, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (I can’t make this stuff up!).  He was largely self-taught as a composer.  Even when he lived in Europe for a time and studied with the famous Nadia Boulanger, she fondly called him her “autodidact”.  He avoided much of the material she normally infused her students with, including her Stravinsky-style neoclassical aesthetic, choosing instead to  plunge into a lifelong appreciation of Renaissance-era music.

Roy Harris wears his Americana on his shirt sleeve.  Folksong was a big source of material for his music, and American-themed subjects dominate his output.  Just look over this list of titles of his Symphonies, taken from the Wikipedia page about Harris:

  • Symphony – Our Heritage (1925 rev. 1926, abandoned), sometimes referred to as Symphony No. 1 [for orchestra] – only an Andante survives
  • Symphony – American Portrait (1928-1929) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony 1933 (1933), sometimes referred to as Symphony No. 1 [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 2 (1934) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony for Voices (1935) after Walt Whitman [for unaccompanied SATB chorus]
  • Symphony No. 3 (1937-1938, rev. 1939) [for orchestra]
  • Folksong Symphony (Symphony No. 4) (1939 rev. 1942) [for chorus and orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 5 (1940–42 rev. 1945) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 6 ‘Gettysburg Address’ after Lincoln (1943-1944) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony for Band ‘West Point’ (1952) [for US military band]
  • Symphony No. 7 (1951-1952, rev. 1955) [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 8 ‘San Francisco’ (1961–62) [for orchestra with concertante piano]
  • Symphony No. 9 (1962) for Philadelphia [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 New York PO 125th [for orchestra]
  • Symphony No. 12 ‘Père Marquette’ (1967-1969) [for tenor solo, speaker and orchestra]
  • Bicentennial Symphony 1776 (1969-1974), numbered by Harris as Symphony No. 14 out of superstition over the number 13

Symphony No. 3 is the work for which he is best known.  It is built in five continuous sections that make up one movement, lasting about 20 minutes in performance.  The five partitions are labeled by Harris with the mood of each part:  Tragic, Lyric, Pastoral, Fugue-Dramatic, and Dramatic-Tragic.  I think Harris is taking his approach to the Symphonic form from the method Sibelius sometimes used, putting the DNA of the piece in the opening bars, and developing everything else from that musical genetic material.  It is a tightly organized, economical work which also shows off his love of Renaissance-era polyphony.

Roy Harris, Symphony No. 3

The premiere was conducted by Serge Koussevitzky in Boston, and was later recorded and championed by Leonard Bernstein.  If my memory serves me correctly, I believe that Symphony No. 3 by Roy Harris was the first symphony by an American composer to be commercially recorded.  In the first season after it was premiered, it was performed by no less than 33 different orchestras!  Any twentieth century composer would have been giddy over the idea that one of their works was being performed 33 times in their lifetime, let alone in a single season.  Harris was typically humble about the work, saying “Let’s not kid ourselves, my Third Symphony happened to come along when it was needed.”

Harris was a great success, with a happy marriage, a long string of teaching posts across the country, and a prolific body of symphonies and works that make him one of the important symphonists of his generation.  Not too bad for a guy born in a log cabin, who once drove a truck to support himself.  Score one for hard work and determination!

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