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ClassicsOnline Home » HARRIS, R.: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, "Gettysburg" (Bournemouth Symphony, Alsop)
Roy Harris made an indelible mark on American orchestral music, enlivening Old World symphonic traditions with New World individualism. Amid the background of war in Europe, he crafted his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the former dedicated to ‘the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics’, the latter, subtitled Gettysburg, to ‘the Armed Forces of Our Nation’. The single-movement Acceleration was later
reworked within the Sixth Symphony. In each piece, Harris’s nationalistic fervour is underpinned by an abiding faith in the ability of the human spirit
to triumph through adversity.
By Steve Schwartz
By Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News
By Robert R. Reilly
Roy Harris (1898–1979)
Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6
Roy Harris was one of the leading symphonists of his generation who, with his near contemporaries Copland, Hanson, Piston, Sessions and Sowerby, built on the
work of their nineteenth-century predecessors and made a lasting contribution to the expanding American symphonic tradition.
Born, so the legend goes, in a log cabin in the state of Oklahoma, Roy Harris was raised by farmers of Scottish and Irish descent whose pioneering forebears
were stagecoach riders. Moving from this remote frontier territory to a farm in the San Gabriel Valley, California, at the age of five, Harris was to take up the
piano and clarinet. In the early 1920s he studied privately in the evenings and drove a dairy truck by day. Recognition eventually came from Howard Hanson and
Aaron Copland, which led Harris to a period of study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, a visit made possible by two Guggenheim awards. His first significant work, a
Concerto for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet, followed in 1927. He established himself in the 1930s as a university teacher (Juilliard, Westminster Choir School and many other institutions) and as a composer contributed to almost every genre, building his reputation on his sixteen symphonies which span the
years 1933 to 1976.
It was amid the background of war in Europe that the fifth and sixth symphonies were written in close succession. Symphony No. 5 was largely composed in
the autumn of 1942 and completed the following year (with a revision in 1945). Its nationalistic fervour and direct appeal was inspired by the Russian people’s
resolute stand against the Nazis and their eventual triumph. Dedicated to ‘the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics’, the symphony’s first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Koussevitzky in February 1943 was simultaneously broadcast to the Soviet Union,
and later relayed to the American forces during the war around the world.
With his preoccupation with the symphony Harris was certainly a traditionalist, but his approach to formal structures was less conventional, and perhaps unique to
the composer. Avoiding the inherited procedures of exploration, development and return of contrasting main themes, he prefers to shape his material from a single
idea developed across an entire movement. This sense of organic growth was most successfully achieved several years earlier in his Third Symphony. In what has
become trademark Harris all material for the first movement of the Fifth Symphony stems from a typically terse initial theme which provides the basis for its
subsequent transformation via newly generated material and increasing textural complexity in succeeding sections. The first movement’s declamatory opening
statement (a call-to-arms type gesture) by the horns is based on three repeated notes, (the same rhythmic figure in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony) that mutate into a scale passage and later to a broken chord figure. A change of metre to 5/8 adds some rhythmic fibre to a movement whose main interest is its orchestration that includes up to eight horns and a baritone tuba.
The central movement is laid out in three sections distinctive for their different tempi and melodic intensity. A tragic funeral march, with abbreviated string and woodwind figures in phrases of alternating major and minor thirds, leads to an extended middle section begun by strings alone, featuring a searching violin melody. Its striding character (derived from wide intervals and pedestrian rhythms) and a sense of gritty determination have now become part of the composer’s musical personality. Its soaring line is eventually becalmed and a final chorale-like section is heard where antiphonal exchanges between brass and strings form a stately conclusion.
The last movement (appassionato), based on the idea of a fugue, contains all the basic material in its opening pages: four long notes announced by the violins and marked by the expressive interval of a minor sixth; a repeated note idea first heard in the brass and later worked into a theme that appears unobtrusively in the
violins and a third rhythmic idea used in short imitative exchanges by the woodwind. After an abrupt tempo change and harmonic shift a fugal passage unfolds where trumpets and woodwind later disturb the quiet introspection of the strings. The earlier repeated note idea is eventually recalled, gradually gathering momentum and providing the impetus for the heroic character of the entire work.
Symphony No. 6 (Gettysburg) was written in response to a commission from the Blue Network (a forerunner of the American Broadcasting Association), its creative stimulus provided by direct quotations from Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address of 1863. References to Lincoln’s speech head each of its four movements; Awakening, Conflict, Dedication and Affirmation. The work, fashioned for a large orchestra and dedicated to ‘the Armed Forces of Our Nation’, was first performed in Boston in April 1944 conducted once again by Koussevitzky.
In the seven minute span of Awakening Harris superbly demonstrates his ability to shape a movement where augmentation or perhaps evolution is its principal
feature. From its solemn opening bars short enigmatic melodic gestures appear, their rising contours on horn and solo violins furnishing all the on-going material.
The cumulative energy accrued through the carefully paced rhythmic changes and increase in instrumental density creates a movement of granite-like strength. It is
crowned, in its closing pages, by a towering melodic line which, in the manner of Sibelius, seems to emerge out of a sense of struggle.
The second movement, Conflict, astonishingly written in 48 hours, is a cinematic battle scene and very much of its time. Graphically imagined, it begins with a slow, despairing march that builds towards a more purposeful and eventually frenetic one, punctuated by numerous fragmentary brass figures, and culminating in an abrupt halt. Out of this seeming chaos the third movement, Dedication, begins; its austere calm now all the more moving. Beneath sustained As from divided cellos, muted double basses emerge with a long breathed line that gradually rises through the string section and its ever expanding texture. At a change of metre to triple time the woodwind section joins the strings and adds a new melodic layer above the elaborate string fabric. A further time change (to 5/4) marks a gradual descent of the strings bringing this most eloquent lament and arch-like structure to a peaceful conclusion.
For the finale, Affirmation, Harris turned to a previous orchestral score, American Creed, from 1940 to construct a triple fugue. As in the finale of the Fifth Symphony this is no conventional fugue but three main sections ending with a coda. As is now commonplace with Harris, widely spaced intervals, notable solo horn and brass contributions, repeated note patterns and short fragmentary woodwind bursts make up the colorful orchestral mélange of this highly characteristic movement.
Another war-time orchestral work was the single movement Acceleration which, from the opening bars, reveals material later recycled in the Sixth Symphony. Its original version, written in Colorado Springs in July 1941, was prompted by a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra and was first performed in Washington D.C. in November of that year. As with so many of his works Harris was not entirely content with this first version which he later revised. Its first
performances the following year by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra were favourably reviewed. Critics observed its clear formal outline as ‘no empty display of
dynamic and rhythmic tricks’ and commented on the determined angularity of the work’s short themes and its ‘gravitational momentum’.
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