Roy Harris – Interview for Sum and Substance – January 27, 1963 – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
An interview with Composer Roy Harris this week. One of the pivotal figures in American Classical music of the 20th century, Harris composed over 170 works, including many works for amateurs, but the backbone of his output was his series of symphonies. Harris wrote no opera, but otherwise covered all the main genres of orchestral, vocal, choral, chamber and instrumental music as well as writing a significant number of works for band. His series of symphonies is still his most significant contribution to American music.
Harris was a champion of many causes. He founded the International String Congress to combat what was perceived as a shortage of string players in the U.S., and co-founded the American Composers Alliance. In 1958 the U.S. State Department sent him, along with some fellow composers including Peter Mennin and Roger Sessions, to the Soviet Union as a “cultural ambassador”; he was impressed by the support for composers that the Soviet state provided, not aware at the time of how carefully his visit was managed. He was a tireless organizer of conferences and contemporary music festivals and a frequent radio broadcaster. His last symphony, a commission for the American Bicentennial in 1976, was mauled by the critics at its first performance. This may have been due to its themes of slavery and the Civil War, which were in contrast to the celebratory mood of the country.
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), 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 twice.
Roy Harris’s sons Shaun and Dan performed with The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, an L.A. based psychedelic rock band during the late 1960’s, which Roy Harris did some arrangements for (although Roy Harris did not approve of rock music).
Here is an interview done for the series Sum and Substance, first aired on January 27, 1963.
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