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ClassicsOnline Home » HARRIS, R.: Piano Music (Complete) (Burleson)
Many of Roy Harris’s piano pieces were inspired by his wife, the pianist Johana Harris, and demonstrate his wide-ranging musical influences, from Medieval chant and Baroque counterpoint to 20th-century French composers (he studied with Nadia Boulanger) and American and Irish folk music. His love of polytonal sonorities, spacious virtuosity, rhapsodic improvisational passages and intimate moods—a heady brew of diverse ingredients!—gives his piano music a fascinating quality, as if one were experiencing spontaneously evolving soundscapes teeming with vitality. Harris’s Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4 (8.559227), 5 & 6 (8.559609) and 7 & 9 (8.559050) are also available.
Roy Harris (1898–1979)
Complete Piano Music
According to his own account, Roy Harris was born in a log cabin in the Oklahoma panhandle in 1898. His record of higher education is spotty, consisting of brief stints at University of California, Southern Branch (which later became UCLA) and UC Berkeley. A deep compulsion towards writing large scale compositions soon manifested itself, with the composer taking formal lessons with the likes of Eugene Goossens and Arthur Farwell, who did much to encourage Harris and advance his career. At the MacDowell Colony in 1925 and 1926, he met Aaron Copland, who encouraged Harris to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Harris studied with Boulanger from 1926 to 1929. When he returned to the United States, he initially taught at Mills College, and wrote his Symphony 1933 for Koussevitzky, a work that brought him national attention. His Symphony No. 3 (1938) brought him worldwide fame, and has been performed and recorded by many of the world’s great orchestras and conductors. Harris taught at what almost seem like innumerable institutions for short periods for the rest of his career, both nationally prominent (Princeton, Cornell, UCLA) and regional, such as Western Kentucky University. Among his pupils were William Schuman, Peter Schickele (otherwise known as PDQ Bach), and Vincent Persichetti. Harris’s most extensive output is his symphonic music, upon which most of his reputation rests. This includes thirteen symphonies, as well as many programmatic pieces. Also significant amidst his body of work are chamber and solo piano pieces. Many of the latter were inspired by the composer’s wife, the pianist Johana Harris, who also served as his muse and made many post-publication cuts and alterations to the printed scores. Although Harris always acceded to Johana’s editing, which sometimes occurred a few years after publication, the composer always continued to sanction the published editions (for this recording, I have adhered to the published versions.)
Many figures have commented on how Harris’s music projects a highly individual personality, despite so many surface elements being drawn from composers and idioms of the past several centuries. In his musical language, one can variously detect a deep and abiding love of or compulsion for medieval chant, Baroque counterpoint, and French composers of the twentieth century. But we also hear passages of powerful polytonal sonorities (chords suggesting two or more different keys), which are often set contrapuntally between the two hands. Harris often referred to this approach as “chordal counterpoint”. With the size and spaciousness of these passages, Harris intimated that he was seeking to evoke something of the vastness of the American frontier in which he grew up. Finally, a deep and central embrace of both American and Irish folkmusic is pervasive in much of Harris’s music.
Roy Harris’s Piano Sonata was written in 1928, while the composer was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris under a Guggenheim Fellowship. The composer deemed it important enough to label it his Opus 1, even though he was thirty years old at the time. The composer Marc Blitzstein hailed it as “a work teeming with vitality and spirit, large in dimension, and deep in meaning”. The sonata received its New York première by Harry Cumpson, and Ilona Kabos unveiled it in Paris soon thereafter. The great American pianists John Kirkpatrick and Grant Johannesen performed it frequently. As in many of his works, the Piano Sonata is an exploration of the extended single-movement form, here paradoxically consisting of almost continuous highly fragmented passages, which nonetheless produce the effect of a cohesive whole (the composer Elliott Carter noted that Harris was fond of writing long melodies that nonetheless were broken up into many small units, which when joined, produce almost constant irregular stresses and cross-accents.) Nominally, the sonata has four movements, played without pause: an imposing and explosive Prelude, a poignant Andante ostinato, a playful and energetic Scherzo, and culminating with a Postlude (originally entitled Coda). Brimming with sudden, dramatic shifts of musical texture, the piece also shows Harris’s fondness for allowing compositions to evolve from a simple intervallic gesture (the falling fourth at the opening). The Scherzo is rife with imitative contrapuntal passages, contrasting the more chordal writing in the first two movements. The Postlude acts as a brilliant climactic apotheosis, bringing back much of the material in the Prelude.
Harris’s Little Suite displays a different creative side of the composer, that of a brilliant creator of exquisite miniatures. The moods projected by each of the movement titles are beautifully evoked.
Harris intended the American Ballads to be a multi-volume work consisting of “free transcriptions of American folk materials”. Only an inaugural set of five pieces was ever published. Set I begins with a lilting and at times clangorous Streets of Laredo, followed by the mournful Wayfaring Stranger. The Bird is spritely in character, and quotes The Blackbird and the Crow (Leatherwing Bat) and Hop Up, My Ladies. Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair is ominous and mysterious, with a few blues references radiating from the harmonies. Cod Liver Ile is raucous and resonant, and “oiled” with special effects from the middle (sostenuto) pedal on the piano. Set II was never published, and only consists of two settings. The first, Li’l Boy Named David, has broad harmonies, and when the tune is restated, a bluesy countermelody. The melody in When Johnny Comes Marching Home is highly obscured, and the march-like tempo associated with it slowed to the extreme, so that an ethereal mood prevails.
The Piano Suite contains three highly contrasting movements. Occupation, with its clangorous, bell-like textures, is based on the Tie Shuffling Chant, an African-American work song. One can hear strong suggestions of call-and-response in the phrases, as well as a recitative-like rhythmic setting. Contemplation, a set of variations on the Irish tune Be Thou My Vision, Lord, grows from a melancholy, chant-like opening, builds to accumulate more ecstatic textures, and displays something of Harris’s fondness for French composers of his generation. Recreation serves as a lively, gigue-like finale, with some effective contrasting episodes.
Like the Baroque toccata, Harris’s Toccata includes rhapsodic, improvisational-sounding sections (always increasing in virtuosity), alternating with both contrapuntal and lyrical episodes. He synthesizes the Baroque toccata format with his own highly fragmented approach to writing, amplified by relentless tempo shifts and a constantly accumulating energy.
The unpublished variation set True Love Don’t Weep begins pensively, and eventually flourishes in two climactic variations before receding back into its initial fragile mood.
The remaining unpublished manuscripts receive their début on this recording. The work I have no choice but to call Untitled is dated 1926 on the manuscript, and sounds very unlike much of Harris’s other music, although with an obvious debt to medieval chant, evoked by its several passages of unison lines. In the single-movement Scherzo, much of the material is wholly different from the version that eventually found its way into the Piano Sonata, and the rest is considerably reordered. A Happy Piece for Shirley is a kinetic, playful and glowing miniature. Orchestrations, Harris’s last dated work for solo piano, consists of slowly building, resolute and intense sonorities, ending with a mysterious and seemingly questioning final cadence.
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HARRIS, R.: Piano Music (Complete) (Burleson)