Since we’re slowly winding our way into September and the change of seasons (at some point), I thought I would offer a dose of Mid-Century Americana by way of transcription from the NBC Radio Program America’s Composers, as it was broadcast on March 23, 1953.
Although the rugged American patriotism of his works of the 1930s and 1940s is reflected in his research into and use of folk music (and to a lesser extent of jazz rhythms), Roy Harris was paradoxically obsessed with the great European pre-classical forms, especially the fugue (which we hear in the Third Symphony) and passacaglia (as featured in the Seventh). His customary mode of musical discourse, with long singing lines and resonant modal harmonies, is ultimately based on his admiration for and development of Renaissance polyphony. He also used antiphonal effects, which he exploited brilliantly with a large orchestra. Like many American composers of his time, he was deeply impressed by the symphonic achievement of Sibelius. In Harris’s best works the music grows organically from the opening bars, as if a tiny seed gives birth to an entire tree. This is certainly the case with the Third Symphony, which joined the American repertoire during the same era as works by Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson. The first edition of Kent Kennan’s The Technique of Orchestration (1952) quotes three passages from this symphony to illustrate good orchestral writing for cello, timpani, and vibraphone, respectively. The book quotes no other Harris symphonies. Few other American symphonies have acquired such a position in the standard performance repertory as has this one, due in large part to the championing of the piece by Leonard Bernstein, who recorded it.
Though Harris’s symphonies are his greatest contribution to American music, he composed over 170 works, including many works for amateurs. His output includes works for band, orchestra, voice, chorus and chamber ensembles.
Here’s the music featured on the 1/2 hour program:
Mid-Century Americana. Some of it seldom or never heard.