Review By Steve Schwartz,ClassicalCDReview.com,December 2010
War music. Roy Harris made the symphony central to his output. During the Thirties and the early part of the Forties, many considered him the Great American Symphonist. Today, he’s practically forgotten, even dismissed without much of a hearing. I don’t know any of his symphonies past #11 and haven’t read of any past #14, but he apparently made it to #16, according to David Truslove’s liner notes. That gives you some idea of his present-day reputation. I think it a shame. He has an extremely interesting musical mind, and he managed to write music between the wars untouched by Stravinsky, Hindemith, or Schoenberg. In some ways because of this, it sounds very old-fashioned, closer to the Nineteenth Century, especially the School of César Franck, than
World War II brought Harris’s “Americanism” to its height, both in the music’s emphasis and in its inherent quality. The works include Symphonies 4–6, American Creed, Kentucky Spring, the violin concerto, the choral Walt Whitman Suite, Freedom’s Land, and the Mass, the String Quintet, and the violin sonata. Harris’s two heroes were Lincoln and Whitman, and I believe he tried to become a musical equivalent. An artist walks a dangerous path when he climbs Parnassus toward the greats, because he probably will fall short or even fall off. A lot of the critical animus toward Harris in certain American musical quarters during the Fifties flew against what some saw as a ludicrously outsized ego. Not knowing much about Harris personally, I can’t say. Also, the desire to write “American” music after the war increasingly came to be regarded as corny in itself. Composers now wanted to be “international.” However, I admire Harris’s artistic daring and ambition. You don’t get anywhere by not dreaming or very far by dreaming small, and you can’t be universal without at least being local. Harris may not have reached his goal of rubbing shoulders with Lincoln or Whitman, but he remains a damn good Harris.
Harris structured his music by a principle called “autogenesis.” That is, a musical line unfolded over a long span through a small seed in the first measure and a new phrase grows from the point of arrival of the preceding one. It’s as if you watch a symphonic idea getting built note by note. Consequently, if you pay attention to the first measure of a movement, you’ve gone a long way to following the symphonic argument. I don’t know whether Harris invented this. You can certainly find precedent for it in Beethoven (notably, the Fifth Symphony’s first movement) and in Nielsen. However, I don’t recall anyone who worked it so rigorously before Harris. One can hear this fairly clearly in Acceleration. It begins with a rising minor third and a fall-back. The mino