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FECD-0014 - HARRISON: Suite for Symphonic Strings / Strict Songs for Eight Baritones

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison


In a world where esthetics are so often ordered according to politically divisive “isms,” Lou Harrison stood refreshingly apart. He flirted with many styles and “isms” but adhered to none exclusively. It may truly be said that Harrison marched to his own drummer - and not just because of his unprecedented affinity for percussion instruments.


Among his greatest gifts were the traits of curiosity and open-mindedness, and in the course of his long career there was little music that escaped his scrutiny. Growing up in San Francisco in the 1930s he devoured whatever he could find in that city’s public library. “By the time I was a midadolescent,” he told an interviewer, “I had gone through all of the Rameau and Lully operas; I’d gone through all the Pedrell collection from Spain; I’d gone through all the organ works of France in the nineteenth century; I’d gone through all the standard literature; and every work of Schoenberg, which they collected. This is just to begin with, not speaking of theory and so on.”


He soon began seeking out composers themselves, starting with the avant-gardist Henry Cowell, whose interest in Asian music left an enduring mark on Harrison. He quickly came under the spell of other imposing composers, as well, including Arnold Schoenberg (who connected the young composer to the European tradition), John Cage (a musical liberator if ever one was), and Henry Partch (whose interest in non-traditional tunings and newlyinvented instruments helped inspire Harrison’s own explorations in those directions). While trying to find his own way as an artist he became an ardent advocate for the neglected music of such other American visionaries as Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, and Edgard Varèse. In fact, it was Harrison who conducted the belated premiere of Ives’ Third Symphony, in 1947, 38 years after it had been written.


One might view him as the quintessential creative Californian, absorbing the multicultural influences so prevalent on the West Coast and channeling them in highly original ways at his home high above Monterey Bay. He spent nearly a decade in the artistic vortex of New York but was never comfortable there; and unlike Easterners, who often feel some attachment to Europe, Harrison was drawn instead to his neighbors along the Pacific Rim. In 1961 he visited Asia and plunged himself into hands-on study of Japanese, Korean, and Indonesian music. When he returned to California, he began writing increasingly for percussion ensembles, including traditional and reinvented gamelans as well as analogous groups composed of such found objects as coffee cans or flower pots; and, beginning in 1967, he turned his attention to constructing instruments along with William Colvig, his partner in life and art.


Few artistic contacts failed to inspire a spark of creativity in Harrison, who went on exploring until his sudden death, on February 2, 2003 while traveling to a festival of his music. The catholicity of his taste is clearly displayed in the works presented here, pieces that make the point that open mindedness is not the same thing as simple-mindedness. In his Strict Songs, a Louisville Orchestra commission from 1955, Harrison draws inspiration from Native American thought, contemplating man’s relationship to the rest of the natural world in a musical language based on five-tone scales in unequal tuning systems (another of his passions). In the Suite for Symphonic Strings (1960) we again hear a mathematically pure intonation in action, melded to antecedents as diverse as medieval dances and Bartókian modernity. And everywhere we find the one “ism” that remained pretty much a constant throughout his career: lyricism—the profound belief that melody is the most engaging and memorable of music’s elements, that (to cite the quotation from A.H. Fox-Strangeways that Harrison placed at the head of the score of Simple Songs) “For, after all, a man sings because it is a splendid thing to do and because he cannot help it.”


- James M. Keller


James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.



Suite for Symphonic Strings


The following is reprinted from the composer’s signature score:


“I think that any sound that can be generated by a musical instrument is legitimate, so long as that method does not injure the instrument.”


I. Estampie is an old stomping dance of Southern France. Violins play a circling figure, while cellos are plucked with both hands and the basses are struck.

II. Chorale “Et in Arcadio Ego” is played with mutes; slow and mournful, there are occasional brief solos interspersed with the tutti.

III. Double Fugue, “In Honor of Heracles,” This is not “the lowly bow-bearer” of Euripedes, but the Hercules who performed the twelve labors. There are two successive figures, the second with a descending scale subject: they are brought together in the Stretto.

IV. “In Honor of Eros,” with some of the grace and some of the awkwardness of youth.”

V. “Lament” is naturally melancholy, again using solos for contrast.

VI. “In Honor of Apollo,” a set of canonic variations, is noble and majestic, the scoring is clear, the tonal texture open.

VII. “Little Fugue: Violas’ Reward” is a fine chance to discover the special sound of the viola.

VIII. “In Honor of Hermes” is fleet, befitting the Messenger of the gods.

IX. “Nocturne” is a slow and expressive closing.


- Lou Harrison

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