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ClassicsOnline Home » HARRIS: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9
Roy Ellsworth Harris (1898-1979)
Symphony No. 7 Epilogue to Profiles in Courage J.F.K. Symphony No. 9
Roy (originally LeRoy) Ellsworth Harris was born near Chandler, in Oklahoma county, on 12th February 1898, the rich but remote farming territory in which he grew up having a lifelong influence on his music. He was taught the piano by his mother, and later took up the clarinet. Graduating from high school in 1916, he studied at the University of California at Berkeley during the early 1920s, and a meeting with Aaron Copland in 1926 led to his studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger from 1926 to 1929. His Concerto for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet established him as a composer of promise, his reputation consolidated at home with Koussevitzkys championing of his (First) Symphony 1933.
Beginning at Mills College in 1933, Harris enjoyed a distinguished academic career over four decades, with pupils as diverse as William Schuman and Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach). He organized numerous music festivals and served on United States government-sponsored bodies, including a delegation to the Soviet Union in 1958. Interest in his music declined during the later 1950s and 1960s, with a resurgence of interest in the years following his death at Santa Monica, California on 1st October 1979.
Harris wrote in all the major genres except opera, and was especially prolific as a choral composer, but the backbone of his output is the series of thirteen symphonies, spanning the greater part of his career from 1933 to 1976. The immediate and lasting success of his Third Symphony in 1938 has tended to overshadow his significant and varied contribution thereafter. His mature musical idiom, with its expansive tonal harmonies, richly polyphonic textures and lean but high-impact orchestration, is well suited to the medium of the modern orchestra, as can be heard in the pieces included here.
Following his strikingly individual take on the four-movement ground-plan in his Sixth Gettysburg Symphony (1944), Harris returned to the single-movement form so successfully employed in the Third for his Symphony No. 7 (1952, revised in 1955). The work is a continual metamorphosis of the initial, moodily expressive theme in lower strings, offset by sighing arabesques in violins and underpinned by the dogged tread of bass drum and timpani. Brass make their baleful presence felt, and wind pensively develop the theme over string accompaniment. The initial texture reasserts itself, and trumpets and horns steer the music to a more animated phase. Rhythmic velocity gradually increases, and the theme emerges in canon on brass. Rustling strings lead to a new dynamic plateau, bells and side drum adding their presence to a passage of ghostly textures. Timpani set off an almost jocular mood, turning more aggressive as percussion and piano enter the fray, and a boisterous dancing motion sets in. The instrumentation grows fuller, arriving at a transformation of the mood from the opening. Xylophone and drums lend a martial air, as the work moves towards its climactic conclusion, in a mood of vigorous triumph.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 inspired tributes from many composers, not least Leonard Bernstein (Symphony No. 3, Kaddish) and Roger Sessions (Piano Sonata No. 3). Harriss Epilogue to Profiles in Courage J.F.K. (1964) is a fully characteristic and appropriate response. Elegiac and impassioned strings, reinforced by brass and capped by tubular bells, set the mood of the piece and the commemorative purpose it serves. Bass drum and side drum contribute to a brief increase in rhythmic intensity, but the initial yearning quality soon returns. An inexorable motion on timpani underpins the intensifying string threnody, and the work closes quietly, with a sense of calm remembrance.
Harriss symphonic output lessened during the 1950s, though the following decade was to see a further four additions to the numbered sequence. The three-movement Symphony No. 9 (1962), commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, is among the more expansive of his later works. The three movements bear the following subtitles from the Preamble to the US Constitution and Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: I "We, the people"; II "
to form a more perfect Union"; III "
to promote the general welfare" (Part I: "Of Life immense in passion, pulse, power"; Part II: "Cheerful for freest action formed"; Part III: "The Modern Man I sing"). The short first movement opens with the clamour of bells and percussion, continuing with a striding, confident gait, rhythmically more syncopated than is often the case with Harris. Upper woodwind and piano play an important role, and a noble theme in lower strings, the main melodic interest, emerges before the folk-inflected final pages. A richly expressive cello melody begins the pavane-like second movement, passing to oboe and then upper strings as a noble threnody, typical of Harris, develops. Strings and woodwind share the theme, and momentum steadily increases. A solo trumpet takes over the theme at the original tempo, in a mood of soulful reminiscence, before the music intensifies towards a plangent climax, cut short to leave the strings alone in their valediction. Horns and strings open the third movement with quasi-fugal textures, incisive and confident in feeling. Activity quietens for a piquant oboe theme, enticingly complemented by flute and harp. A spirited, pastoral atmosphere ensues, and the music reaches a sudden pause before regaining its initial impetus. The oboe theme re-emerges fitfully against the prevailing activity on brass and percussion, and trumpets strive towards the movements ultimate goal, a reminiscence of its opening gesture sounded forcefully in brass, strings and timpani.
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HARRIS: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 9