Roy Harris: Symphony no. 3

performed by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, or below by the NBC Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini

For me the sounds were like no others I had ever heard – his whole ‘autogenic’ concept of form, the free and strong orchestration, the extraordinary beauty and sweep of the melodic material. He was a new voice…

William Schuman, speaking of Harris’s third symphony
(Butterworth p. 84)

(cover image by Frantzou Fleurine)

You’ll want to give this work a few listens. It’s undeniably one of the greatest American symphonies ever written, and maybe one of the greatest in general, no qualifiers needed.

Roy Ellsworth Harris was born February 12, 1898 in Chandler, Oklahoma, of all places, “of mixed Scots, Irish and Welsh ancestry,” says Wikipedia, “to poor parents, in a log cabin in Oklahoma, on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, one of five children (three of whom died early).” The family moved to California when Harris was still just a boy, and studied piano with his mother. Despite eventually going to UC Berkeley, he is still referred to as “virtually self-taught when he began writing music of his own.”

At least in part due to Aaron Copland’s recommendation, after having moved eastward, Harris was able to go to Paris to study with Boulanger from 1926 to 1929. He wrote a symphony while there, but heard it played privately by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski (what a privilege!) and decided to withdraw the score.

Now back in America, Copland introduced Harris to Koussevitzky, the man who was everywhere, who invited Harris to write “a big symphony from the west,” which was initially labeled his second, but later revised to being his first. It was this work that could be claimed as “the first symphony by an American to be issued in a commercial recording,” says Butterworth. He continues to say that it’s in this first symphony that we hear:

…all the idiosyncrasies that typify symphonic writing throughout his career: raw rugged textures, short modal motifs, powerful forward movement through reiterated rhythms and an overall sureness of purpose.

So maybe we can listen for those things today, in his third symphony. It comes more than a decade after the first, and five years after the second. It’s a symphony in one movement with distinct sections, which may call Sibelius’s seventh to mind. Butterworth cautions us against thinking of that earlier piece as inspiration though, claiming the only similarity between them is the “frequent use of the orchestral forces in ‘choirs’ – where strings, woodwind and brass are often self-sufficient units, with long passages on their own or co-existing with other exclusive material.”

It’s certainly one of the earliest one-movement symphonies, even if it was more than a decade after Sibelius’s effort. Butterworth says that Harris’s inspiration comes from “Plainsong, Renaissance polyphony, hymnody and Anglo-American folk song”, but an area of similarity between the two works is their powerful sense of unity. I’m not calling that inspiration, but they both have a strong, relatively compact structure that is unified as a seamless whole, and yet still divided into sections.

In Butterworth’s book, which I’ll soon stop quoting, he references a few areas that are important for Harris, one being melody, the other rhythm. He quotes the composer, who says that “Harmony should refelct what is in the melody, without being overshadowed by the tonality in which the melody lies.” Butterworth claims the form of this work is determined by a melodic progression, or evolution, “a gradual organic growth”, words likely often used to describe Sibelius as well. As for rhythm, Harris is quoted as saying:

Our rhythmic impulses are fundamentally different from the rhythmic impulses of Europeans; and from this unique rhythmic sense are generated different melodic and form values. Our sense of rhythm is less symmetrical than the European rhythmic sense…

I really enjoy Butterworth’s analysis, complete with score excerpts and some play-by-plays of the key areas, and all the rest, as well as the use of perfect fourths and fifths, but we can outline this powerful, compact work by discussing its five sections, as follows:

  1. Tragic
  2. Lyrical
  3. Pastoral
  4. Fugue Dramatic
  5. Dramatic Tragic

Those last two stick out as kind of hybridized, less straightforward labels, but are we to understand that the work is cyclical in some way, with a return to tragic? Well, let’s listen and see.

If you think ‘tragic’, you may think of Beethoven’s Eroica funeral march, or any of Mahler’s, or something along those lines, but Harris’s third opens with cellos, full-bodied and passionate. I’m not sure I would label this as tragic either, but if you think of one of those rare, still moments in Wagner, after someone has died or disappeared or lost, this passionate, melancholic fervor may not seem so foreign. It has a sense of longing rather than outright tragedy, but two things stand out as this first section continues.

First is Harris’s prowess for handling orchestral forces, which at the beginning is solely strings. The clarity of voices and layers and rich textures is incredible, and this is almost inextricably linked with the second quality of the work. As it builds, and as the first non-string sound emerges (low sounds from brass), we feel an irresistible, unstoppable forward motion. It’s like the wheels of a train, which have now come up to speed and have enormous momentum. This is takeoff, and the explosive power of this first section, tragic or otherwise, propels us through the other four.

What follows this opening tragic section is the lyrical one, and you may wonder what kind of lyricism could follow this mighty opening. Well, you might not be able to find the seam between the two, where one stops and the other begins, but this is yet another testament to the fine craft of this symphony. It doesn’t matter. Butterworth does say that the term ‘lyrical’, since it could apply to much of the symphony, isn’t terribly insightful, but what do continue to appear are momentum, color, and liveliness.

You’ll be able to pick out the ‘pastoral’ third section, though. What could scream pastoral more than woodwind solos? You might think that this section, as the central portion of the work, should bear some kind of significance, and while it has a brilliant, gleaming energy of its own, feels like a period of repose, with interesting, magical vibraphone (?) punctuating phrases here and there. Rhythm is an important element here.

The arrival of the ‘fugue dramatic’ section can’t be missed. All the bustling, buzzing energy of the pastoral section, which almost now seems to have functioned as our scherzo, stops, and the orchestra moves into lock step with a section with two time signatures back to back, 3/2 6/4. Rhythm, then, is again a key element, and Copland may come to mind. It’s punchy, powerful, and marked by the presence of crunchy percussion, like bass drum and timpani. This ‘fugue’ section isn’t a true fugue, but uses elements of canon, and it is unquestionably the most memorable passage of the work, with exultantly clear counterpoint, vivid color, celebratory sounds from horns, or strings, or anyone who plays in this section. It is the climax of the work, and a towering achievement.

But that’s not all. We interestingly don’t end on this note. After this triumphant, exhilarating section, the symphony, which has been nothing short of gripping so far, devolves down to the ‘dramatic tragic’ section, reminding us of the ‘tragic’ opening, but actually making use of some of the lyrical section’s material.

Again, give this 17-minute symphony a few listens. It doesn’t take much of your time, but its narrative, the overall sense of motion is extremely powerful, the arch of these five sections and the momentum that’s created in such a very compact work. There’s an overwhelming sense of epicness, that this work spans an enormous emotional and musical landscape, but concentrated down to such an extent that it really takes a few listens to open up to, like adding a dash of water to a whisky to let it open up.

This symphony could be described as quintessentially American, its open sound, the piquant rhythms, rugged, full-bodied intensity, a sort of heady rawness. Butterworth uses the word ‘abrasive’, which sounds a bit negative, but says that the work has “the true pioneering spirit, a work of recognized originality and integrity. Nothing he wrote later can equal its artistic standing.”

That’s a bold statement, but this is a bold symphony, and I dare say if you only take away one work from this entire series, this would have to be it. It is an astoundingly wonderful, convincing place to start, and as we will see, and as we read at the opening, it made an impression on American composers who follow.

That’s it for this work, but please do stay tuned as we continue with more superb symphonies next week. Thank you so much for reading.


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