Paraphrasing a famous quote of Schumann praising the talents of an up and coming Chopin, one Arthur Farwell said of Roy Harris “Gentlemen, a genius—but keep your hats on!” Later, Walter Piston would counter by complimenting Harris for “surviving the trying experience of having been hailed as a genius.” It would seem that Roy Harris had a strong effect on critics and contemporaries alike. One possible reason the label of genius did not effect Harris negatively is his ability to stay so presently in the moment, an intense focus on the matter at hand. Certainly an aspect that reveals itself in his compositions, and a characteristic that makes for long days and short years.
With at least 18 titled symphonies in his composition portfolio, we can see where Harris worked out most of his creative energy. Frequently referred to as his 1st, the Symphony ‘1933’ became the first American symphony to be recorded. The work also put his career on the map, bringing him to the attention of people such as Serge Koussevitsky, Howard Hanson, and Walter Piston. The piece itself shows the beginning elements of Harris’ compositional voice; the slow growth of a movement over time, the never ending organic development of one or a few melodic elements, and the sometimes dense harmonic rhythmic movement that builds into a very intense climax.
Then, in 1938, came the Symphony No. 3. This single movement work is the pinnacle achievement of his repertoire, showing him at his best. The entire work is one long gesture from beginning to end, or as Patricia Ashley from Stereo Review muses “It has no beginning and no end.” As it unfolds, the piece works out one melodic figure after another, while building rhythmic and harmonic complexity. When it finally races to the peak, the impact is so great that Harris needs a fair amount of time to work out the energy that has built up. The effect is masterful.
Roy Harris has a strong repertory of orchestral music that has faded from the public conscious over the years. I find it exciting to know there are still new experiences to be found in old music.