Why was Roy Harris Plowed Under?

by danielgoode

July 2, 2012 6:46:34 PM EDT

Probably because in the post-war years and the stultifying ’50’s that followed, no one wanted to hear even the best Americanist anymore. It was time for the “international school” and all that we now think of as the 12-tone Mafia. But Harris was the best of that large bunch of ’30’s-’50’s American “nationalists.” A lousy way to dismiss them, to call them that… Certainly he’s the only one (besides Ives—but how differently!) who seriously advanced the art of the symphony. Let’s forget Copland, Hansen, Schuman, Bernstein (as symphonist), Berger, early Carter, and just so many more. It’s not that he had no champions. Bernstein did his Third Symphony often, and Koussevitzky commissioned and premiered several symphonies.

But then: a desert. I tried iTunes, to no avail. Now we have a stunning recording (2008) of Harrs’s 5th and 6th symphonies by Marin Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Glowing!

Harris has so few proponents in the new music world, that I might be the only one besides Kyle Gann. We had a mini-bonding experience over Harris not long ago. But it’s hard to get through to him now, what with blogging, that noise-medium.

Right off, let’s say Harris is “our Bruckner:” Grandeur, wide-angle scope, a limited palette, recycling of ideas and processes from work to work, abstract, but exciting, catchy tunes that are asymmetrical, but occasionally veer towards folky and spicy without sounding like kitsch. No pandering to unmotivated big climaxes. Fabulous chorale harmonies. Unpredictable phrase structures. Fragments that come from nowhere, that then seem “inevitable.” Sudden endings. And something really special I just noticed during my first listen to the Alsop recording: such thrilling orchestral cross-cutting, using the different choirs to interrupt each other, and yet build to a larger whole. Last time I noticed this phenomenon was in the unfinished latter movements of Mahler’s 10th Symphony. Totally different kind of material, different intent, different poetics. Still, it’s rare in linear, tonal modernism to hear cross-cutting outside of film music or in John Zorn’s cartoon-influenced scores.

And there’s an oblique connection to “process music.” More needs to be said about this. And also about his harmonic language which uses endless variations on the “Justin Morgan progression:” as in C-major to C#-minor. These and other progressions are his substitute for tonic-dominant.

One caveat: he wrote 16 symphonies. I’m not sure what happened after his 7th. I’m not sure I want to know.

Thumbnail review.