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HARRIS, R: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4

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Roy Harris (1898-1979): Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4

Born originally LeRoy and, reputedly, in a log cabin inthe state of Oklahoma, Roy Harris was raised byfarmers of Scottish and Irish descent whose pioneeringforebears were stagecoach riders. Moving from thisremote frontier territory to California at the age of five,Harris eventually took up the piano and clarinet.

Following a period at the University of California in theearly 1920s he studied composition privately in theevenings and drove a dairy truck by day. After movingeastwards to New York he met Aaron Copland whorecommended further study in Paris with thedistinguished teacher Nadia Boulanger who was togenerate, in 1927, his first significant work, a Concertofor Clarinet, Piano and String Quartet. Compositions inalmost every genre followed (the exception was opera),and while he was notably active as a choral andorchestral composer, it is his thirteen completedorchestral symphonies1 spanning the years 1933 to 1976that form the backbone of his output.

Written in 1938, Symphony No. 3 incorporatesmaterial refashioned from his first String Quartet(1929), the Second Symphony (1936) and an abortedViolin Concerto (1937), and was the result of acommission from the National Symphony Orchestra. Itspremi?¿re, however, was given in February 1939 by theBoston Symphony Orchestra, whose conductor, SergeKoussevitzky, called it 'the first great symphony by anAmerican composer'. The Boston Globe admired 'itsunflagging vitality', while the twenty-year-old LeonardBernstein described the work in Modern Music as'mature in every sense, beautifully proportioned,eloquent, restrained, and affecting'. The symphonyimmediately established itself in the repertory ofAmerican music and was to propel the 41-year-oldcomposer to international prominence.

Cast in a single movement, a design shared with theSeventh, Eighth and Eleventh symphonies, the work'screative stimulus derives variously from plainsong,Renaissance polyphony, hymnody and folk-song. Theseelements Harris welds into his own distinctive voice.

From the opening long-limbed and intensely lyricalcello theme, fresh melodic shoots develop (as of lifeawakening) and the overall effect is an extraordinarilywell-crafted and expressively powerful whole. Insteadof the traditional symphonic notion of opposing themesand tonalities with their development and recapitulation,Harris creates a work of continuous organic growth withsuperb economy of means. The scoring, with itsconventional woodwind, brass and string forces, callsfor a second tuba, and the percussion group includesbass drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone andvibraphone.

The composer provided his own notes for theBoston premi?¿re and outlined its five linked sections:Tragic, Lyric, Pastoral, Fugue - Dramatic, and Dramatic- Tragic. The opening paragraph is characterized byirregular phrases, spacious textures, bare fourths andfifths in a quasi-medieval style and a major tonality thatis undermined by increasing modal and minor nuances.

The lean scoring gives way to a striding, chorale-likeviolin theme where parallel rhythms in horns andwoodwind add rich sonorities. A solo flute marks thebeginning of the Pastoral section where woodwind andlater brass punctuate a shimmering, polytonal stringbackground (the parts distributed over fourteen staves)with numerous short variants on the triadic material inHarris's characteristic block-like scoring. This leads toan assertive five-bar fugue theme (first heard by thestrings) of ambiguous metre. A series of brassexchanges over dominating percussion gathersmomentum and builds to a climax. Tension is releasedin a sonorous restatement of the opening themes above afragmented version of the fugal idea in the brass and arelentless timpani pedal. The work's dramaticconclusion and drawn out final bars is utterlyconvincing. 'Made in the USA' is stamped on everypage; its broad, sweeping melodies evoking vastlandscapes, a sense of endeavour and of a nation on thethreshold of something momentous.

Misnamed by the composer 'Folk Song Symphony'(Symphony No. 4), this work is really a fantasia forchorus and orchestra. It began life in the late summer of1939 and was first performed in April the followingyear at the American Spring Festival in Rochester, NewYork, conducted by Howard Hanson. The originaloutline of five choral movements was revised and twoorchestral interludes were added, and it is in this formthat it was premi?¿red on 26th December 1940 by theCleveland Orchestra. This was by no means his firstattempt at writing a large-scale choral work: five yearsearlier he had completed an unaccompanied, threemovementWhitman-inspired Symphony for Voices.

Indeed, his interest in choral singing led to a period ofintensive research and a two-volume anthology ofchoral works (of the European masters) entitled SingingThrough the Ages. From his university teachingexperiences in the summer of 1938 at Princeton, NewJersey, Harris developed the idea of a folk-songsymphony, commenting that it served 'the practicalpurpose of bringing about a cultural co-operation andunderstanding among high school, college andcommunity choruses ... that are too remote socially fromtheir community'.

In sourcing ideas for the new work Harris draws onan eclectic mix of folk material from a variety ofregional and ethnic roots that include cowboy songs,frontier ballads, spirituals and marching songs. The firstmovement, The Girl I Left Behind Me, is a rousing CivilWar song whose buoyant orchestral introduction, highspirits and marching rhythms recall the confidence ofyoung soldiers leaving home. Its large-scale scoringincorporates an extensive percussion section includingpiano and marimba. The main tune soon emerges sungin unison by alternating men's and women's voices.

A solo horn sets the mood for Western Cowboy - amovement featuring the traditional songs: 'Oh bury menot on the lone prairie' and 'The Streets of Laredo', thislast tune eventually being heard in canon. In the spareorchestral writing with its sustained woodwind andbrass chords, its abrupt major/minor shifts and wanderingtonality of 'no fixed abode', Harris attempts to mirrorthe loneliness and hardships of life in an unforgivingand untamed landscape reflected in the words.

There follows the first orchestral interlude in whichstrings and percussion (including vibraphone) bring amore carefree, outdoor character. Its ternary structure(ABA) encompasses original material based on hoedowndance patterns and a jig The Irish Washerwoman.

The second interlude, again in unbuttoned mood,continues the use of dance-based tunes and incorporatesamongst further original string melody the tune 'JumpUp My Lady'.

The central Mountaineer Love Song is a nostalgicmelody from the South, based on the ballad 'He's goneaway', characterized by expressive writing with richchoral and orchestral textures (with divided violas andcellos) that provide pathos. After an extendedintroduction, almost in the manner of a slow funeralprocession, The Negro Fantasy incorporates the soulfultunes 'Little boy named David' and 'De trumpet soundsit in my soul'. The concluding movement, Johnny ComesMarching Home, is another rousing Civil War song. Inwriting this upbeat finale, (adapted from an earlierAmerican Overture of 1934) Harris said, 'I hoped tocapture the spirit of exhilaration and joy which ourpeople would feel when the men came home from war'.

David Truslove

Folk Song Symphony Lyrics

Item number 8559227
Barcode 636943922729
Release date 01/02/2006
Label Naxos Records
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Roy Harris
Conductors Marin Alsop
Orchestras Colorado Symphony Orchestra
Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus
Disc: 1
Symphony No. 4, "Folksong Symphony"
1 Symphony No. 3
2 I. The Girl I Left Behind Me
3 II. Western Cowboy
4 III. Interlude: Dance Tunes for Strings and Percus
5 IV. Mountaineer Love Song
6 V. Interlude: Dance Tunes for Full Orchestra
7 VI. Negro Fantasy
8 VII. Johnny Comes Marching Home
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