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The New York Times

Arts & Leisure, Sunday, November 15, 1998

America Stops Listening to One of Its Own


I n 1941 Aaron Copland wrote, in his book "Our New Music," of "a man who, at the moment at  least, is more frequently played, more praised and more condemned than any other living American composer." Samuel Barber? Howard Hanson? William Schuman? Virgil Thomson?

The very fact that the name of Roy Harris will occur to few indicates how radically our tastes and politics have changed over the decades. Amid the fervor surrounding the Gershwin centenary -- with high-profile festivals, publications, recordings and concerts, like the San Francisco Symphony's nationally televised season opener at Carnegie Hall -- the centenary of that other American master, who was born in the Oklahoma territories in 1898, has gone virtually unnoticed in the concert hall.

Nearly two decades after his death in 1979, Harris's reputation remains secure in some corners, to be sure. He is still well represented in recordings, with some 35 of his works available. Scholarly interest in the composer continues, with recent studies by the musicologist Dan Stehman; and the critic David Hall is writing a biography. Controversial new research by Louise Spizizen, another critic, into the life of Johana Harris, the composer's wife of more than 40 years, has resulted in the alarming hypothesis that she was an unacknowledged collaborator in the composition of some of his late works.

A re-examination of Harris's music in fact reveals a marvelously passionate lyricism and an uncannily intuitive mastery of large-scale structure. His output is vast and is essential to gaining a grasp of America's contribution to music. It encompasses more than 200 works: 13 symphonies, 7 concertos, including 1 for accordion, 3 string quartets, the fine cantata "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Night" and other choral and vocal music.

Harris often found inspiration in folk tunes and other materials he deemed "indigenously American," and in the poetry of Whitman and other Americans. Much of his music seems as strong as Copland's Americana or Leonard Bernstein's razzmatazz, and as rewarding as George Gershwin's enigmatic Concerto in F (which this season receives more performances in the United States than any other orchestral work by an American). The best examples -- the symphonies, the Violin Sonata, the Second String Quartet -- are works of integrity and solid inspiration.

"Nobody has captured the essence of American life -- its vitality, its greatness, its strength -- as well as Roy Harris," said the conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1942.

Yet Harris has remained absent from recent discourse on American music. There were no major festivals this year, no commemorative concerts, no scholarly panels. Even orchestras that once championed his symphonies alongside the music of Copland and Barber have ignored him. Statistics from the American Symphony Orchestra League show only two performances of Harris's music nationwide (both of the Third Symphony) on programs of American orchestras in the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons. For the same period the league's lists show 127 performances of works by Gershwin, 94 of Barber, 87 of Copland, 82 of Bernstein, 11 of Hanson and 11 of Harris's most prominent pupil, Schuman.

So what happened to Roy Harris, whose Third Symphony of 1939 is still cited in history books as one of the great artworks of America? What can explain the neglect of a composer whose music, the scholar Gilbert Chase said, captured perfectly "the dark vastness of the American soul -- its despair, its defeat and its triumph"?

Answering these questions is no simple matter. In the first place, it seems that Harris's own portrayal of himself as the quintessential musical Americanist, which served him well during the 1930's, is now used to help explain the erosion of his status. H. Wiley Hitchcock, one of the leading experts on music in the United States, says that Harris's reputation was built largely on an earlier fascination with American folk culture, a preoccupation that had already begun to wane by the 1950's. "After World War II the interest in 'Americana,' which was so important before that, faded out pretty completely as a major ideological and esthetic thrust," he said recently.

Mr. Hitchcock, who is revising his classic "Music in the United States" for a fourth edition, says that when he came to re-evaluate what he had originally written about Harris, he realized that there was no longer a consensus about works like the Piano Quintet, once much praised. Historiographically, he will have to acknowledge in the new edition that Harris was in the forefront of American music in the 1930's and 40's, he says, though he now believes that the promise of the Third Symphony was never fulfilled in the composer's later music.

One source of a centenary celebration might have been a university at which the composer taught, as with the Hindemith symposium at Yale in 1995, but Harris's peripatetic existence seems to have precluded any such event. From 1938 to 1976 he taught at some 18 institutions, including U.C.L.A., Princeton, Cornell, Colorado College, Indiana University, the Pennsylvania College for Women and California State University, Los Angeles, never staying in one place long enough to establish a relationship that could help promote his music. On his death, in Santa Monica, a Roy Harris Society and Archive was formed at California State University to encourage performances and scholarly activities, but even this has languished.

In a recent article in The Musical Quarterly, Louise Spizizen suggested that Johana Harris (née Beula Duffey), the Canadian pianist Harris married in 1936, provided stability in the midst of the family's nomadic existence. "Roy's frequent clashes with administrators over money and departmental control sometimes resulted in his having to relocate," Ms. Spizizen wrote, "while Johana had to stay behind, as human collateral, to work off Roy's indebtedness."

Ms. Spizizen even suggested that Johana, who began her career as a composer of promise, played a quasi-collaborative role in the creation of some of Harris's later works, especially those involving piano. Though the extent of this collaboration has been disputed (most notably by Mr. Stehman), it seems clear that as with Robert and Clara Schumann, Johana Harris's career as pianist helped support the couple's five children. Ms. Spizizen, whose book on the Harrises is due out next year, says that Harris's often erratic behavior in later life might have resulted from encroaching Alzheimer's disease. "Johana propped him up for the rest of his life as much as she could," Ms. Spizizen said recently.

Harris, who was born in a log cabin in a county named for Lincoln, was only too happy to cultivate the image of frontier individualist in the early years of his career. There was indeed a quality of legend to his dust bowl infancy, his working-class boyhood, his autodidactic youth. His birthdate is cited as Feb. 12, though no such records were kept then in Oklahoma (which did not become a state until 1907), and some have speculated that in the face of uncertainty the family may simply have selected this date because it was Lincoln's birthday.

Raised on a farm near Los Angeles, where his parents moved when he was 5, the youth made his living as a farmhand and truck driver. Although he was largely self-taught, his musical training was not without traditional rigor: having decided, at 24, to become a composer, he studied with Arthur Farwell and then with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, during a period in which Copland, Walter Piston, Thomson and a host of other young Americans sought instruction from the great French pedagogue.

Harris found ways to turn Boulanger's training into something deeply personal, and to turn his awareness of his own frontier roots into music characterized by flowing melodic energy and simple counterpoint. After an initial public and critical success with his Andante for orchestra, performed in Rochester by Hanson, he was taken up by Koussevitzky, whose celebrated performances of the Third Symphony in Boston in 1939 represented a critical juncture in Harris's career.

The Third was the right symphony for the right time. "It happened to come along when it was needed," Harris himself later said. European music still dominated American life, and as the nation emerged from the Depression, it yearned for a national style, for art that seemed to address the needs of a nation that was "optimistic, young, rough and ready." Built from vigorous counterpoint and cast in a single, concise movement, the Third seemed to achieve that goal, to durable effect.

"Roy Harris's Third Symphony, America's most successful work in that form by any standards," wrote the composer and critic Thomson a decade later, "has a dignity about it that doesn't wear off."

The conductor David Zinman, one of the leading proponents of American music today, recently described the Third as "a wonderful exercise in counterpoint, which uses long, spun-out melody in a manner that I think of as Sibelian." At the same time, Mr. Zinman cited an element of hymnody in the work's melodic material that "helps to identify it as being American."

Some contend, with Mr. Hitchcock, that the works after the Third Symphony became less incisive, and that in the face of waning creative powers, Harris was often forced to rely on his powers of self-promotion. During the 1960's his traditionalist vein was further eclipsed by the bracing rigors of the European avant-garde. Suddenly Harris's brand of Americana seemed quaint and distant. Yet he never wavered, and he continued writing music until well into the 70's.

Harris was a vigorous, physical man, in fact, who rarely doubted his impulses. His propensity for self-promotion grated on contemporaries. "He often convinces his friends and listeners of the extreme value of his works by his own indefatigable enthusiasm for them," the composer Henry Cowell wrote at the time. Even those most devoted to Harris and his music have conceded that his loud, blustering ways may help explain why his reputation has suffered.

"Roy rubbed a lot of people's fur the wrong way," Mr. Hall, the biographer, said recently. "And people in this business have long memories."

Others who knew him concur. "He was a tremendous self-promoter, but it was infectious," said the composer Peter Schickele, who studied privately with Harris in 1954.

Mr. Schickele, who is perhaps best known for the madcap activities of his alter ego, P. D. Q. Bach, said recently that he still admires Harris's expansive sweep and his emphasis on sheer sonority, and that he occasionally feels Harris's influence on his own music. Two years ago, when he was writing his Symphony No. 1, which was just performed by the New York Philharmonic, he discovered to his surprise that one of its primary themes used the same four pitches as a principal subject of the Harris Third. He dedicated the work to the Harrises.

Mr. Schickele finds Harris's influence all around: not just in the music of pupils like Schuman but also in such other contexts as movie music. At the same time he concurs with the criticism most often lodged against Harris's music, that its simple vigor sometimes betrays a lack of technique. This fact, he suggests, may help explain the general impression today that Harris "developed" little after the 1940's.

"There was a strongly individualistic quality in his music from the very beginning," he said. "But his relatively late musical development seems to have made it harder for him to grow." F OR (sic) better or worse, Harris's Third Symphony became the piece by which the rest of his music was judged. That unreasonable standard has resulted in an unjust neglect of a large and fascinating output, according to the scholar and composer Mr. Stehman, perhaps the leading authority on Harris. Mr. Stehman's studies, which include two books and a detailed analytical dissertation on Harris's symphonies, demonstrate what he calls a "strong intellectual vigor" in the best works.

"One feels a distinctive personality behind the notes," he said recently, "a real person, with a  generosity of feeling and expression."

Indeed, the problem may lie simply in the fact that Harris's music is less self-evident than that of Barber or Copland, and thus requires more of the listener.

"You must hear the Ninth Symphony many times to realize its greatness," Eugene Ormandy said in 1952, after the Philadelphia Orchestra had given the work's premiere. Such repetition is possible, Mr. Zinman points out, only when publishers and administrators push musicians to re-examine a composer's work. And here is another problem, for Harris's works are more or less evenly distributed among six publishers, none of which has a sufficient stake to cause much of a stir.

Still, there are signs of re-emerging interest in Harris. The conductor David Alan Miller recently recorded the Eighth Symphony with the Albany Symphony. That and the many disks already available -- thanks mainly to Albany Records -- make this an ideal time for listeners, musicians and arts administrators to become reacquainted with this American original.

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