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8.559227 - HARRIS: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4
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Roy Harris (1898-1979): Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4

Born originally LeRoy and, reputedly, 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 California at the age of five, Harris eventually took up the piano and clarinet. Following a period at the University of California in the early 1920s he studied composition privately in the evenings and drove a dairy truck by day. After moving eastwards to New York he met Aaron Copland who recommended further study in Paris with the distinguished teacher Nadia Boulanger who was to generate, in 1927, his first significant work, a Concerto for Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet. Compositions in almost every genre followed (the exception was opera), and while he was notably active as a choral and orchestral composer, it is his thirteen completed orchestral symphonies1 spanning the years 1933 to 1976 that form the backbone of his output.

Written in 1938, Symphony No. 3 incorporates material refashioned from his first String Quartet (1929), the Second Symphony (1936) and an aborted Violin Concerto (1937), and was the result of a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra. Its première, however, was given in February 1939 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, called it ‘the first great symphony by an American composer’. The Boston Globe admired ‘its unflagging vitality’, while the twenty-year-old Leonard Bernstein described the work in Modern Music as ‘mature in every sense, beautifully proportioned, eloquent, restrained, and affecting’. The symphony immediately established itself in the repertory of American music and was to propel the 41-year-old composer to international prominence.

Cast in a single movement, a design shared with the Seventh, Eighth and Eleventh symphonies, the work’s creative stimulus derives variously from plainsong, Renaissance polyphony, hymnody and folk-song. These elements Harris welds into his own distinctive voice. From the opening long-limbed and intensely lyrical cello theme, fresh melodic shoots develop (as of life awakening) and the overall effect is an extraordinarily well-crafted and expressively powerful whole. Instead of the traditional symphonic notion of opposing themes and tonalities with their development and recapitulation, Harris creates a work of continuous organic growth with superb economy of means. The scoring, with its conventional woodwind, brass and string forces, calls for a second tuba, and the percussion group includes bass drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone and vibraphone.

The composer provided his own notes for the Boston première and outlined its five linked sections: Tragic, Lyric, Pastoral, Fugue – Dramatic, and Dramatic – Tragic. The opening paragraph is characterized by irregular phrases, spacious textures, bare fourths and fifths in a quasi-medieval style and a major tonality that is undermined by increasing modal and minor nuances. The lean scoring gives way to a striding, chorale-like violin theme where parallel rhythms in horns and woodwind add rich sonorities. A solo flute marks the beginning of the Pastoral section where woodwind and later brass punctuate a shimmering, polytonal string background (the parts distributed over fourteen staves) with numerous short variants on the triadic material in Harris’s characteristic block-like scoring. This leads to an assertive five-bar fugue theme (first heard by the strings) of ambiguous metre. A series of brass exchanges over dominating percussion gathers momentum and builds to a climax. Tension is released in a sonorous restatement of the opening themes above a fragmented version of the fugal idea in the brass and a relentless timpani pedal. The work’s dramatic conclusion and drawn out final bars is utterly convincing. ‘Made in the USA’ is stamped on every page; its broad, sweeping melodies evoking vast landscapes, a sense of endeavour and of a nation on the threshold of something momentous.

Misnamed by the composer ‘Folk Song Symphony’ (Symphony No. 4), this work is really a fantasia for chorus and orchestra. It began life in the late summer of 1939 and was first performed in April the following year at the American Spring Festival in Rochester, New York, conducted by Howard Hanson. The original outline of five choral movements was revised and two orchestral interludes were added, and it is in this form that it was premièred on 26th December 1940 by the Cleveland Orchestra. This was by no means his first attempt at writing a large-scale choral work: five years earlier he had completed an unaccompanied, threemovement Whitman-inspired Symphony for Voices. Indeed, his interest in choral singing led to a period of intensive research and a two-volume anthology of choral works (of the European masters) entitled Singing Through the Ages. From his university teaching experiences in the summer of 1938 at Princeton, New Jersey, Harris developed the idea of a folk-song symphony, commenting that it served ‘the practical purpose of bringing about a cultural co-operation and understanding among high school, college and community choruses … that are too remote socially from their community’.

In sourcing ideas for the new work Harris draws on an eclectic mix of folk material from a variety of regional and ethnic roots that include cowboy songs, frontier ballads, spirituals and marching songs. The first movement, The Girl I Left Behind Me, is a rousing Civil War song whose buoyant orchestral introduction, high spirits and marching rhythms recall the confidence of young soldiers leaving home. Its large-scale scoring incorporates an extensive percussion section including piano and marimba. The main tune soon emerges sung in unison by alternating men’s and women’s voices. A solo horn sets the mood for Western Cowboy – a movement featuring the traditional songs: ‘Oh bury me not on the lone prairie’ and ‘The Streets of Laredo’, this last tune eventually being heard in canon. In the spare orchestral writing with its sustained woodwind and brass chords, its abrupt major/minor shifts and wandering tonality of ‘no fixed abode’, Harris attempts to mirror the loneliness and hardships of life in an unforgiving and untamed landscape reflected in the words.

There follows the first orchestral interlude in which strings and percussion (including vibraphone) bring a more carefree, outdoor character. Its ternary structure (ABA) encompasses original material based on hoedown dance patterns and a jig The Irish Washerwoman. The second interlude, again in unbuttoned mood, continues the use of dance-based tunes and incorporates amongst further original string melody the tune ‘Jump Up My Lady’.

The central Mountaineer Love Song is a nostalgic melody from the South, based on the ballad ‘He’s gone away’, characterized by expressive writing with rich choral and orchestral textures (with divided violas and cellos) that provide pathos. After an extended introduction, almost in the manner of a slow funeral procession, The Negro Fantasy incorporates the soulful tunes ‘Little boy named David’ and ‘De trumpet sounds it in my soul’. The concluding movement, Johnny Comes Marching Home, is another rousing Civil War song. In writing this upbeat finale, (adapted from an earlier American Overture of 1934) Harris said, ‘I hoped to capture the spirit of exhilaration and joy which our people would feel when the men came home from war’.

David Truslove

Folk Song Symphony Lyrics


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