Roy Ellsworth Harris (February 12, 1898 – October 1, 1979), was an American classical composer who was a dominant influence in the creation of a nationalistic stylism of symphonic compositions. He wrote for many genres and much of his music brought in folk songs and rhythms from American subjects, becoming best known for his broad and sweeping views of the American wild west in his Symphony No. 3.
Roy Harris was a mixture of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh ancestry, in circumstances he sometimes liked to contrast with those of the more-privileged East Coast composers. He was born to poor parents, in a log cabin in Oklahoma, on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, and was one of five children (three of whom died early). A gambling win enabled his father to buy a small holding in California, where the boy grew up a farmer, in the rural isolation of the San Gabriel Valley. He studied the piano with his mother, and later the clarinet. Though he attended the University of California, Berkeley, he was still virtually self-taught when he began writing music on his own. However, in the early 1920s he had lessons from Arthur Bliss and later from Arthur Farwell, the senior American composer and researcher of Native Americans in the United States, which was then called "Red Indian" music. Harris sold his farmland and supported himself as a truck-driver and delivery man for a dairy firm. Gradually he made contacts in the East with other young composers, and partly through Aaron Copland's recommendation, he was able to spend the years of 1926-1929 in Paris, as one of the many young Americans who received their final musical grooming in the masterclasses of Nadia Boulanger. Harris had no time for Boulanger's neoclassical style, which was an Igor Stravinsky-derived aesthetic. Instead, under her tutelage, he began his lifelong study of Renaissance music, and wrote his first significant works. The Concerto for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet drew praise from the seldom-impressible Frederick Delius.
Returning to the United States after suffering a back injury, Harris formed associations with Howard Hanson at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York and, more importantly, with Serge Koussevitsky at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. These associations secured performance outlets for the large-scale works he was writing. In 1934, a week after its premiere under Koussevitsky, his Symphony ‘1933’ became the first American symphony to be commercially recorded; however, it was his Symphony No.3, premiered by Koussevitsky in 1939, which proved to be the composer's biggest breakthrough and made him practically a household name.
During the 1930s, Harris taught at Mills College, later in the home of Darius Milhaud, and the Juilliard School of Music. He spent most of the rest of his professional career restlessly moving through teaching posts and residences at colleges and universities in various parts of the United States, ending with a long tenure in California, first at University of California, Los Angeles and finally at California State University, Los Angeles. Among his pupils were William Schuman and Peter Schickele (best known as the creator of P. D. Q. Bach). Aside from his pupils, Roy Harris had two sons, Shaun and Dan, who performed with The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, a Los Angeles-based psychedelic rock band of the late 1960s (although Roy Harris did not approve of rock music). He received many of America's most prestigious cultural awards, and at the end of his life was proclaimed Honorary Composer Laureate of the State of California.
Harris was a champion of many causes. For example, he founded the International String Congress to combat what was perceived as a shortage of string players in the United States, and co-founded the American Composers Alliance. He was a tireless organizer of conferences and contemporary music festivals, and a frequent radio broadcaster. He made several trips to the Soviet Union. His admiration for that country attracted adverse criticism during the McCarthy era. Harris was indeed a liberal on many social issues, and was pugnaciously opposed to anti-semitism and racial discrimination. His last symphony, a commission for the American Bicentennial in 1976, was criticized by the critics at its first performance was a 'travesty of music' written by a composer who had written himself out. Such comments may have occurred because the work addressed the themes of slavery and the American Civil War. In his last years, Harris was increasingly depressed by the effects of America's materialism, discrimination against minorities, and destruction of natural resources.
Although the rugged American patriotism of his works of the 1930s and 1940s is reflected in his research into and the use of folk-music (and to a lesser extent of jazz rhythms), Harris was paradoxically obsessed with the great European pre-classical forms. He worked with the monolithic ones such as the fugue which we hear in the Third Symphony, and the passacaglia, as featured in the next most admired, Seventh Symphony. His customary mode of discourse, with long singing lines and resonant modal harmonies, is ultimately based on his admiration for and development of a Renaissance polyphony with antiphonal effects, which he exploits brilliantly with a large orchestra. Like many American composers of his time, he was deeply impressed by the symphonic achievements of Jean Sibelius who also drew on Renaissance polyphonic techniques. In Harris' best works, the music grows organically from the opening bars, as if a tiny seed gives birth to an entire tree. This is certainly the case with the Third Symphony, which joined the American repertoire during the same era as works by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. The first edition of Kent Kennan's The Technique of Orchestration quotes three passages from this symphony to illustrate good orchestral writing for cello, timpani, and vibraphone respectively. The book quotes no other Harris symphonies. Few other American symphonies have acquired such a firmly-entrenched position in the standard performance repertory as the Third Symphony, due much to the championship of the piece by Leonard Bernstein and his several recordings of the piece.
His music, while often abstract, has a reputation for its optimistic, American tone. Musicologist John Canarina describes the "Harris style" as "exuberant horn passages and timpani ostinatos". Harris so frequently composed prismatically modulating chords that a valid one-word description of his orchestral music would be "chromatic." He also liked to write bell-like passages for tuned percussion. This is readily apparent not only in the famous Third Symphony but also in the Sixth "Gettysburg".
In all, Harris composed over 170 works, however, the backbone of his output was his series of symphonies. Harris wrote no operas, but otherwise covered all the main genres of orchestral, vocal, choral, chamber, and instrumental music as well as writing a significant number of works for bands. His series of symphonies is still his most significant contribution to American music.
Harris composed at least 18 symphonies, though not all of them are numbered and not all are for orchestra. A full list is as follows:
In addition there is a missing, and perhaps not completed, Symphony for High School Orchestra (1937) and the following unfinished or fragmentary works:
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