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 the
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 minor third emore....
Review By Jim Leonard,Allmusic.com,July 2010
There are those who still profess to admire the symphonies of Roy Harris, but admiration for the American composer’s deeply heartfelt if equally deeply reactionary works was much more widespread during the late 1930s and 1940s, when his big tunes, warm harmonies, driving rhythms, and colorful scoring made him one of America’s more popular classical composers. But styles change, and by the 1950s, big tunes were out and hardcore serialism was in, and the result was a marked falloff in Harris’ popularity and productivity. Nevertheless, the composer’s admirers will likely welcome this Naxos disc with Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony featuring his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, each of which has its merits. The Fifth from 1942, is dedicated to “the
Review By Joe Milicia,Enjoy the Music,July 2010
Roy Harris’ Third Symphony of 1938 (in one movement) remains one of the masterpieces of American music, and has had its champions over the years, from Serge Koussevitzky (who premiered and recorded it) to Leonard Bernstein (who recorded it twice) and Leonard Slatkin (once). But Harris wrote thirteen symphonies (plus one for voices only and the “West Point Symphony” for concert band), and only on rare occasions have any of them been performed, much less recorded, by major orchestras. Thus it is gratifying that Marin Alsop—whose Samuel Barber series for Naxos has been overall superb—is recording Harris. Her renditions of Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4 (the latter a choral “Folk Song Symphony”) with the Colorado Symphony have already appeared; now
All the works on the present CD date from the War Years, 1941 to 1944, and certainly have a predominantly somber quality, though with moments of exultation all the same. To be sure, the same could be said for Harris’ symphonies of the 1930s. His musical style in the ‘40s, instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Third Symphony, features the “American” sound one also associates with Aaron Copland (say, the latter’s own Third Symphony), but the rich modal harmonies and the treatment of the brass in particular, plus a debt both to Sibelius (evolution of symphonic themes though fragmentary buildup) and Renaissance church composers (polyphony, antiphonal choirs), are distinctive of Harris. The CD offers the works in reverse order of composition, but I’ll comment on them from earliest to latest.
The worthwhile “filler” on the CD is Acceleration, a 7-minute work that starts out as a funeral march but—you guessed it—accelerates, though not to any extreme degree, as in, say, Honegger’s Pacific 231. It just becomes more jubilant and vigorous, with passages in 3/4 rhythm, and actually slows down at the end. David Truslove’s booklet note mentions that Harris revised the work in 1942 but presumably the 1941 original is being performed, since that’s the date attached to the title. He also mentions that the musical material was “recycled” in the Sixth Symphony, but I can’t help but ask if this is a mistake, since the second movement of the Fifth Symphony opens with the same funeral-march theme. (Perhaps there is more subtle use of the material in the Sixth.) Overall, I wouldn’t want to argue that Acceleration is a major discovery, but it’s a pleasant addition to the Harris catalogue.
The Fifth Symphony, premiered in early 1943 by Koussevitzky and his Boston Symphony, was dedicated to the U.S. ’s “great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics,” and broadcast to the Soviet Union as well as to American troops around the world. These circumstances indicate that the Fifth should or at least could be classified as a “War&rdqmore....
Review By Robert Moon,Audiophile Audition,June 2010
Johanna Harris, the wife of the American composer Roy Harris (1898–1979) once said that the song, “Don’t Fence Me In” “describes the prime basic law that governs my husband’s life.” Born in a log cabin in Oklahoma, Harris drew from cowboy songs, American hymn tunes and Civil War music, to write compositions that express the wide open spaces that are so typical of rural America. His music is tonal, characterized by long flowing contrapuntal melodies that are invigorated by dissonances, polytonality and irregular rhythms. He studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, taught at the Juilliard School, UCLA, and other universities. He directed the music section of the Overseas Division of the Office of War Information in 1945. Much of his output was
The late Russian-born American composer and critic Nichoas Slonimsky wrote of Harris, “He has a natural gift for the melodic line, and his melodies are in the uncanny way reflective of the American scene without being literal quotations.” The two symphonies on this disc represent a musical picture of America in the years of World War II. Symphony No. 6 “Gettysburg” was written in 1943–4 and was dedicated to the “The Armed Forces of Our Nation.” The four movements use direct quotations from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 1863. Awakening’s long crescendo is magically inspired, using a vibraphone that adds brightness to the massed strings. Conflict’s truculent march rhythms descend into the chaos of battle, ending suddenly. Dedication is the emotional center of the work, as it movingly mourns the casualties of war. Affirmation patriotically concludes this compelling symphony. Acceleration (1941) is a one-movement, seven-minute work that is energetically American in the ‘Harrisonian’ mode.
Symphony No 5 exhibits “…qualities of heroic strength-determination-will to struggle-faith in our destiny,” the composer wrote. It opens with a declaratory first movement using horns and brass that characterize the “fierce, driving power-optimistic, young, rough and ready.” In the second movement, a somber dirge transforms into an uplifting stringed chorale. The composer’s colorful use of strings and brass make this the most dramatically potent movement on this disc. Tempo changes in the triple fugue of the final movement makes it a structurally complex and bold-spirited statement of the American character. The Fifth Symphony is a work of monumental directness and Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony fully express the wide range of moods from patriotic vigor to nostalgic tenderness.
The recording is clear, but lacks some of the vivid resonance that characterizes the music. This disc is a significant additiomore....
Review By Lynn René Bayley ,Fanfare,May 2010
Marin Alsop, another Naxos conductor I’ve always admired, simply outdoes herself here. Like so many modern conductors, she emphasizes well-balanced sections, a steady tempo, and fine dynamic contrasts, but unlike so many others she throws herself into the music. There is scarcely a moment in these works when she seems at an emotional disconnect from Harris’s message, and in the second movement of the Sixth Symphony, I swear to you, she makes this conventional CD sound like surround-sound SACD. The strings, brasses, and winds practically leap out at you from all directions. You simply won’t believe it until you hear it…
Review By William Kreindler,MusicWeb International,May 2010
At a Roy Harris concert in New York that I attended in the mid-seventies, Harris’s former pupil William Schuman made a short speech in which he stated that the time had come for a modern integral set of the Harris symphonies. As of this moment, this has still not taken place, although Naxos seems to be working towards it and Albany Records has recorded several symphonies not yet done by Naxos. But there is still a ways to go and that makes this disc by Marin Alsop all the more welcome.
Review By Andrew Achenbach ,The Classical Review,April 2010
Marin Alsop’s previous Naxos coupling of Roy Harris’s Third and Fourth Symphonies with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was such a perplexing let-down (the towering, single-movement Third receiving a real dud of a performance, impossibly low-key and flabby) that I approached this successor with some degree of trepidation. Both works were composed in the dark days of the Second World War and first played by the Boston SO under Serge Koussevitzky (stalwart champions of the composer ever since their triumphant January 1934 premiere of the First Symphony).
Review By ,NMZ,April 2010
Zwei Kriegssinfonien von Roy Harris (1898–1979), einem hierzulande wenig bekannten Sinfoniker, hat Naxos in der Serie „American Classics“ veröffentlicht. Es sind interessante Zeitdokumente: Die Fünfte, „dem heroischen und freiheitliebenden Volk unseres großen Verbündeten, der Sowjetunion“ gewidmet, erklang erstmals 1943 in Boston unter Serge Koussevitzky mit Direktübertragung in den USA und in der UdSSR, die patriotische Sechste („Gettysburg“) von 1944 erinnert an Abraham Lincoln und den amerikanischen Bürgerkrieg. Die Militanz hält sich wider Erwarten in Grenzen. Die gemäßigt moderne Musiksprache zeichnet sich durch rhythmische Festigkeit und klare Linienführung aus, Transparenz ist
Review By Brian Wilson,MusicWeb International,April 2010
The Fifth is certainly well worth hearing and the Sixth not far behind; with good performances and recording, this is clearly the next stop for those who have been taken with the Third.
Review By Bob Neill,Positive Feedback Online,March 2010
Symphony No. 5 (1942) is a darker, heavier work—we are in the middle of World War II here—but the substance, particularly of the first two movements, is essentially melodrama, not tragedy. The third and final movement is a pleasant surprise, moving beyond melodrama to something more interesting that gets closer to the feel of Symphony No. 3, Harris’s most effective voice. The orchestration of this movement, which includes visits by piano and both snare and bass drums, is also more complex than most which precedes it.
Review By Nick Barnard ,MusicWeb International,March 2010
The Naxos series of Roy Harris Symphonies has proved to be one of their more stuttering projects, certainly in terms of the discs’ appearance in the catalogue and the personnel involved. The original release dated from the time Naxos were recording in the Ukraine and featured the 7th and 9th Symphonies in 2002. The next disc appeared in 2006 from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in the safe hands of Marin Alsop and contained his two most famous Symphonies—the 3rd and 4th. So, after another four year pause arrives volume three—also with Alsop but this time featuring her Bournemouth orchestra. Given that he wrote thirteen numbered symphonies which Naxos has promised to record, it is to be hoped that the current rate of two per four years will increase!
Review By Lawrence A Johnson,Gramophone,March 2010
Roy Harris’s little-performed wartime symphonies are given a chance to shine
Few works have dropped more precipitously out of favour than Roy Harris’s Symphony No 3. Premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in 1939, the Third quickly became a repertory mainstay and was regarded, with the Third of Aaron Copland, as the great American symphony, played and recorded widely. In recent decades, Harris’s Third has lost its standing, joining the ranks of other unjustly neglected works by Piston, Hanson and Diamond on the fringes of repertory.
Review By Gapplegate Music Review,February 2010
Naxos Records is in the process of releasing the complete cycle of symphonies by American composer Roy Harris. That can only be a good thing, especially if the present volume is any indication.
Harris’s (1898–1979) reputation as an important composer in the modern post-Ivesian mode seems to have waned sometime in the late ’50s, only to revive again in the past decade or so. Perhaps it was easy to take him for granted during a period where the very latest advancement of new music got fleeting, flavor-of-the-month attention at the expense of composers who weren’t radically breaking with tradition but nonetheless created a body of works that had lasting value.
Review By Cinemusical,February 2010
I am kicking off a more frequent number of classical music reviews thanks to Naxos whose discs tend to show up here infrequently as “best of the month.” Now you will be able to get a few more detailed reviews of more recent classical releases from the label. (Other labels interested in submitting music for review are invited to drop me an email.) In this case, we can embrace an opportunity to raise awareness of American music--a personal crusade of mine for years.
Review By Scott Cantrell,The Dallas Morning News,February 2010
Since the later 19th century, American composers have penned quite a lot of symphonies. And quite a few of them are worth hearing. But you’d never know that from the programming of U.S. orchestras, whose neglect of their symphonic heritage is a disgrace.
Born two years before Copland, Roy Harris is remembered, if at all, for the Third of his 13 symphonies. But the Fifth and Sixth, both composed during World War II, are striking and accomplished works. They sound a bit like Copland in his Americana vein, but craggier. Harris often borrowed from his own music, and he mined the seven-minute overture Acceleration for material for the Sixth Symphony.
Review By David Hurwitz,ClassicsToday.com,February 2010
This is an important release for collectors of contemporary American music. Roy Harris might best be thought of as a sort of “New World” Bruckner. His music is sometimes awkward, rhythmically clunky and unvaried, but also noble, searching, shot through with brass chorales and contrapuntal episodes, and ultimately uplifting. Both of these symphonies reveal these qualities.
Review By Infodad.com,January 2010
Rachmaninoff’s warmth, expressiveness and death obsession (all those Dies Irae quotations) are temperamentally quite Russian. But there is also a strong—and surprising—Russian connection in American composer Roy Harris’ Symphony No 5. More properly, it is a Soviet connection: this is a war symphony, written in 1942, and it is dedicated (without a shred of irony, except in retrospect) to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics.” There is nothing sinister in this: the USSR was a crucial member of the Allies in World War II, bore the brunt of some of Hitler’s most brutal campaigns, suffered enormous casualties, and in triumphantly breaking the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) gave the Allies an
A very different and wholly American war is the foundation of Harris’ Symphony No 6, “Gettysburg.” The work, although entirely instrumental, was inspired by quotations from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Its four movements bear titles relating to that famous speech: Awakening, Conflict, Dedication and Affirmation. But, as in his previous symphony, Harris delivers absolute rather than program music in Symphony No. 6. There is some tone painting of war in the second movement, but this is more a filmmaker’s idea of war than Lincoln’s: the movement starts as a march and builds steadily, featuring fragmentary brass themes and yawps before it ends abruptly. More obvious and less emotive than the other three movements, it seems oddly discordant—not in musical terms but in the way it communicates. The other movements have more of the Harris sound and structure, with the third movement’s quiet ending being especially effective and the coda of the finale wrapping things up colorfully. Marin Alsop, a champion of 20th-century American music (and generally a more effective conductor of it than of the standard repertoire), approaches these Harris pieces with a sure hand, building them effectively and maintaining a clear sense of their structure throughout. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra plays well and idiomatically, showing Harris to be, if not a great composer, one with a strong sense of style and considerable skill in orchestration.
Review By Robert R. Reilly,InsideCatholic.com,January 2010
I will briefly reach into an earlier period of America music to let you know about the new Naxos release of Roy Harris’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop (8.559609). This orchestra proved its chops in playing American music with the stunningly good performance of \ Giannini’s Symphony No. 4, reviewed last year. This time American conductor Alsop takes on Harris’s two wartime symphonies from 1942 and 1944, Nos. 5 and 6. Credited with writing the great American symphony, his Third, Harris (1898–1960) suffered from the reputation of being a one-work composer. It’s a scandal that all of his 13 symphonies have not been recorded long ago, though Naxos has stepped into the breach and is in the process of
Review By Jeff Simon,The Buffalo News,January 2010
Roy Harris, Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 performed by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop (Naxos). He was born on Lincoln’s birthday and he never seemed to tire of ways to embarrass symphonic music. At first, in the ’30s and earliest ’40s, a wildly idiosyncratic composer who had been a farmer and once drove a milk truck seemed made to order for Depression and wartime America. But here we are, 67 years later, with a very strong 1942 Symphony No. 5 dedicated to “the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Republics,” and we’re in just as much discomfort as he provided in old age with one cranky opinion after another (all of which paled, of course, compared with the semi-rabid anti-Semitism of Carl
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