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SACD Review

Roy Harris

The Great American Ninth

  • Memories of a Child's Sunday
  • Symphony #9
  • Symphony #8 "San Francisco Symphony" *
* Alan Feinberg, piano
Albany Symphony Orchestra/David Alan Miller
Albany TROY350 66:34
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Also available on hybrid multichannel SACD:
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Actually, the Great American Eighth (maybe) and a very puzzling Ninth.

From the height of Greatest American Symphonist, Roy Harris's music sank to critical eclipse during the last quarter-century of his life (he died in 1979). There was always something old-fashioned as well as modern about Harris's work, and many writers chose to hear only the first. Furthermore, the modernism wasn't of the "right" sort – neither dodecaphonic nor overtly Stravinskian – so Harris got hammered from two sides, although organizations still commissioned him.

Harris's years in the sun were the Thirties and Forties, and almost everything that gets recorded comes from that period. Thanks probably to Leonard Bernstein, with two wonderful recordings, Harris's Symphony #3 (1939) has remained in the public consciousness. Both decades, despite the serious economic and political threats, curiously enough exuded great optimism and a Romantic outlook uninflected by irony. Writers burned to write the Great American Novel, without ever questioning the value of such a goal. Composers likewise panted to sing the Great American Symphony. Even the hard-boiled ran only skin-deep, as one can tell both from Raymond Chandler's novels and from Bogart's classic roles. Harris, less aggressively urban than either Chandler or Bogart, nevertheless fit in with the temper of the times. The worth of his work aside for the moment, he wrote big, epic symphonies and he thought of himself as explaining and exemplifying the American soul, without discomfiture at the thought. The years following World War II changed much about the American temper. Postwar was "smaller" in spirit, less morally certain. Philip Marlowe may have consorted with rough characters and probably would have been embarrassed to talk about certain things, but he held himself to a code of conduct. Postwar writers had and have trouble figuring out what such a code might consist of. With the possible exception of Faulkner (approved of, after all, by the prominent postwar Existentialist guru, Sartre), the great American novelists pre-war and during – Steinbeck, dos Passos, Lewis, Hemingway – all got treated like the too-bluff, too-hearty uncle who clapped everybody on the back and strained soup through his mustache. Harris apparently lived up to the role. His personality had its theatrical, self-aggrandizing side – which apparently took to the "homespun genius" role – and this contributed to his critical problems. Other composers sniggered once he left the room. Very few writers on music have actually examined his work in any detail. Outside of Dan Stehman's Roy Harris: An American Musical Pioneer (Twayne; now out of print), I know of no critical study written in the past twenty years, academic or otherwise, other than Stehman's bibliography and catalogue. Indeed, one finds far more titles on the linguistic philosopher Roy Harris than on the composer.

Is the later work worth examining? Just everything I've heard answers strongly in the affirmative. Furthermore, I'm eager to hear "minor" Harris – the things not symphonies and the shorter, less ambitious work, for example – and mainly because of this CD.

The program begins with a charmer, Memories of a Child's Sunday, a three-movement suite dedicated to conductor Artur Rodzinski's then very young son Richard. It may surprise some listeners, used to the Harris epic, in that it stakes out no grand emotional territory. It's Harris in a lyric mood. Even here, however, Harris's lyricism doesn't resemble that of other people. The musical language is so entirely his own, for one thing, particularly his sense of harmony. You can see that his fondness for modulation by thirds and enharmonic shifts comes from French composers, particularly someone like Fauré, but you can't mistake the two. The chords themselves seem highly individual. To some extent, they result from competing contrapuntal strands, perhaps in different modes. They inhabit some idiosyncratic space between harmony and modality, neither more one than the other. The work itself is a meditation on, rather than a depiction of, childhood, and it doesn't strike me as particularly child-like. I kept thinking of Wordsworth's definition of poetry: "emotion recollected in tranquility."

The first movement, "Bells," features a long-striding theme against a background of unusual, beautiful chord changes. The effect is primarily pastoral. The slow second movement, "Imagining Things," is also the longest. Because I have the titles to guide me, it reminds me of a kid lying back in the grass and looking up at the clouds. Stehman's liner notes profess to hear an element of nightmare in the music. If Harris intended that, it's flown right by me. I should also say that the emotional effect of Harris's music in general on Stehman differs markedly from its effect on me, but this is all to Harris's credit. It suggests that one pigeonholes Harris only with difficulty. The third movement, "Play," uses themes very much like playground cries, without becoming overtly pictorial. The music isn't particularly childlike. It's more a matter of childhood seen through a distance of years. Even here, however, there's a puzzle. The movement ends abruptly. It took me too many seconds to catch on that it had indeed ended. I don't really know what to make of it.

In 1961, Harris wrote a large cantata on St. Francis's Canticle of the Sun for solo voice and chamber ensemble. I've never heard it, but Stehman's write-up has made me eager. Perhaps Albany can fit this in to their release schedule. At any rate, shortly thereafter, Harris received a commission from the San Francisco Symphony for a new work. Since San Francisco is simply St. Francis when he's at home, Harris decided to rework some of the cantata material for a new symphony, his eighth. Conventional religious musical iconography is completely absent. Indeed, the symphony makes a tremendous effect even if you don't know the program. It surprised me a bit that Harris chose such a text, but only because I thought him more artistically limited than he turns out. In short, I thought of him in terms of the Artist Explaining America to Itself. I'm now convinced Harris is bigger than that, a composer of wide-ranging interests. Who knows what can happen when you get to hear something other than the same pieces over and over again?

The work consists of five movements, played without a break: "Childhood and Youth," "Renunciation," "The Building of the Chapel," "The Joy of Pantheistic Beauty as a Gift of God" (music from the Canticle appears here), and "Ecstasy after the Premonition of Death." Stehman provides a brief analysis, which I agree with, as far as it goes. Stehman tends to emphasize Harris's hybrid structures. He sees, for example, a fugue-cum-variation form in the third movement. That's certainly one way to look at it, and it's justified by score analysis. However, there's a great difference between music on paper and music heard, between music experienced primarily as space (the length and width of a score) and music experienced primarily in time. These hybrid structures strike me as constituents of a more important rhetorical or dramatic wave. In short, I don't see Harris consciously dreaming up a fugue-cum-variation as such. Instead, I believe that the form comes into being because Harris's normal procedures of continual variation and contrapuntal exposition first suggest the shape, which the composer then refines – sort of like an artist seeing images in a heap of his squiggles. Furthermore, with Harris, the rhetorical structure – the dramatic builds and fade-aways, what happens in time rather than on the page – takes precedence over any static form, which helps mainly the analyst rather than the listener.

Stehman relates "Childhood and Youth" to the "Play" finale of Memories. He calls it a set of variations on a striding theme. It is that, but I think you hit closer to home when you note that it's a movement of capricious mood changes that coalesce into something increasingly coherent. The movement, almost willfully fragmentary, nevertheless carries you along. It's like being on a fast-moving train switching tracks at high speed. I think it indicates Harris's great sense of musical progress, essential for a symphonist. At the end, it converges like the head of an arrow to the second movement. Stehman calls that movement "an ascent from darkness into light." I don't experience it that way myself. Indeed, I take the second through fourth movements as a large super-structure, where themes of striving character get three different treatments: slow and singing (and shot through with canons, besides), virtuosically contrapuntal, and virtuosically instrumental. The second movement leads inexorably to the third, and the third to the fourth. As I've said, Stehman sees the third movement as a hybrid of fugue and variation. On paper, I'd agree. But it sounds like no fugue or variation set you've ever heard. It's not a fugue as much as it is in fugue. That is, a lot of fugal devices show up, but the familiar structural landmarks of fugue (like the "fugal answer") are not apparent to the ear. It's certainly not a fugue even like the famous one in the Third Symphony, which is itself fairly unusual. The main theme seems adumbrated in the second movement, which also introduces a solo trumpet – according to Stehman, representing the voice of St. Francis. The first movement has functioned as a kind of introduction – a Beethovenian mulling over of "how should we get this going?" – turning quickly from one idea to the next. The second and third movements increase both tension and focus of the musical argument. The fourth movement releases all that tension in a display of orchestral fireworks. In the invention, delicacy (even fragility), and abundance of textures, it prefigures something like late Tippett, especially the Triple Concerto. It seems to portray the bounty of the ecstatic imagination. Harris wrote a virtuosic piano part (played originally by his wife, the remarkable Johana) and the scoring also features tuned percussion used with great subtlety. The solo trumpet comes back in as filigree. Those who think of Harris as a blustery bully-boy of a composer should hear this. Things wind down to a final chorale which recalls themes from previous movements. Actually, Harris does this recalling throughout the symphony, with such ease and with such "naturalness" that it took me five movements to realize what indeed he had done. I consider the entire work one of the finest American symphonies, and it's from a period critics have regarded as Harris's Decline. If that's a fall-off, I've missed something bloody wonderful.

Harris began his Ninth shortly after his Eighth (he completed both in 1962). The Ninth shares at least two themes with the Eighth that I can hear, but the context and rhetorical impulses of the symphonies differ tremendously. One can think of the Eighth as lyrical and pastoral, even joyous. The Ninth consists of sterner stuff. Harris has titled its three movements "We, the people," "… to form a more perfect Union," "… to promote the general welfare." He further breaks down the last movement into three subtitled sections from Whitman, a major source of inspiration throughout his career: "Of Life immense in passion, pulse, power," "Cheerful for freest action formed," "The Modern Man I sing." Just reading this leads one to expect some awful jingo, perhaps the source of the usual picture of late Harris. Harris definitely foils expectations. This isn't some grand hymn to the American Constitution and the Spirit of a Free Citizenry, but more a tract for the times. Its energy is searching, even angry, and it strikes a contemporary rather than a mythic note. I've found not one purely optimistic moment in the piece. The hope is always tempered by unease.

It opens with pushing, "big-shoulder" music, heavy on horn and trombone, with lots of open fifths and driving, asymmetrical rhythms. Stehman considers the movement as close to standard sonata-allegro as anything else in Harris, although he admits it's an odd one. The themes are all laid out in the beginning, without a formal separation into "first" and "second" subject exposition. It's all done by contrast of character. Essentially, Harris lays out his materials and moves in the blink of an eye to development. The contrasts are extreme: bustling, martial energy vs. melting, sadly tender lyricism. The calls to arms are put aside by the sad songs which in turn get interrupted by brass and drum. Again, as in the Eighth, Harris invents new and effective orchestral textures. Toward the end, it ramps up and goes out stamping its feet, but not in triumph. For all its vigor, the energy seems to be directed toward no emotional goal. There's a "purposeful aimlessness" to the entire movement – purposeful, because you know Harris means it. Furthermore, Harris has so mastered symphonic rhetoric that, despite the sharp mood swings, you keep riding the train.

Stehman calls the second movement (along with the slow movement of the Fifth) "Harris's finest symphonic slow movement, and one of the richest utterances of its kind in the American repertoire." I think Stehman too cautious. The second movement counts simply as one of the finest slow movements by anybody I've heard. In three sections (two large ones sandwiching a short middle), it begins with a threnody in the solo viola over an accompaniment in the lower instruments, with commentary by other orchestral soloists. Having written the symphony for Ormandy and the Philadelphia, Harris takes advantage of the fact and richly divides his strings. One can think of the movement as a song with accompaniment, except that, as is usual in Harris, the accompaniment consists of independent lines of counterpoint. The section becomes increasingly intense as the music climbs upward through the registers, most notably the violas, who end up somewhere in the viola Himalayas. This leads directly to a striving theme first heard in the Eighth Symphony. The passage, the first dynamic apex of the movement, leads to the St. Francis solo trumpet in an extended variation of the opening viola solo. Variants of the striving theme run throughout the accompaniment. The final section builds as the trumpet and its associated themes become more and more insistent. The work ends on shouts from the brass, followed by – incredible – paroxysmal, spasmodic, sobbing stabs from the strings.

The finale is a virtuoso contrapuntal display – an update, if you will, on the "Rondo-Burleske" of Mahler's Ninth. One of its purposes is to get your jaw to drop. The Whitman subtitles will send the alert Harris fan to the 1935 Symphony for Voices, the final movement of which sets those subtitles. The movement consists of three large sections and a coda, like the Symphony for Voices finale. Indeed, it exhibits the same general plan, except that it significantly expands and extends the earlier work. I haven't checked to see whether the themes are identical or even "family." I suspect not. At least, I didn't recognize anything. There are three main themes, each of which gets its own contrapuntal exposition and which Harris combines in the coda. Stehman points out that the themes at first glance don't seem to "go" together, so the coda pretty much amazes. For some reason, however, Stehman wants to call this a triple fugue. I don't even know why he wants to call it a fugue at all, as if simply what it is weren't wonderful enough. Again, the usual fugal landmarks, if any, Harris has buried so deep they might as well not be there, except for the analyst to have something to do. Most listeners wouldn't feel as if they had missed something.

The first theme relates to the striving tune in the slow movement's central section. The second theme, first heard on the solo oboe, leaps around like a flea on a hot brick. Indeed, as Stehman remarks, it seems less like a theme than an excess of nervous energy. What further interests me is that it appears over the sobbing strings of the previous movement. All three ideas – or, more accurately, variants of those ideas (Harris doesn't like to merely repeat; it's his equivalent of standing still) are combined against one another, as in a triple fugue. However, the rhetoric also relates as much to rondo, particularly to rondo-sonata, itself a hybrid. The movement seems about to end on high spirits, but Harris adds something angrier, more ambivalent. I haven't cracked its emotional secret. For sure, however, it ends neither with optimism nor benediction. It seems to want to go on, although the brakes have definitely and very suddenly been applied. This is not a simple piece, technically or psychologically speaking. It lies a long way from jingo.

Standards of playing have risen so high since I first began listening to classical music that I think the concept of "regional orchestra" has lost most of its meaning. Neither symphony is particularly easy. The Albany players not only get the notes, they invest their lines with something extra, and not just the solos. The amount of detailed care spent on these scores is obvious. Praise also to conductor David Alan Miller for pulling the at-times Harris jumble into significant and beautiful shapes. The only nit I have to pick concerns the thinning out of string tone in the multi-divisi passages. This is probably simply a matter of numbers – somewhere from ten to twenty players short. Certainly, I hear no weakness in the strings most of the time. As to performances, these are considerably more than stopgaps, as we wait for Michael Tilson Thomas to develop an interest in Harris. Beautifully recorded besides, they may well turn out landmarks in the critical resurrection of Harris's work.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz