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Roy Harris

roy harris with border

In the 1930s, a small group of composers responded to the challenge of creating a truly “American” classical music, whose roots were planted as deeply in the soil of their country as Bach’s was in his. Of them, Aaron Copland may be the most iconic, but Roy Harris (1898-1979) made the deepest mark in the symphonic genre, and certainly had the closest connection to Louisville. Born to poor parents in a log cabin in Oklahoma (sharing a birthday with Abraham Lincoln!), Harris grew up in farming communities in Oklahoma and California. As a young man he supported himself as a truck driver for dairy firms. Harris felt deeply connected to the iconography of America, and infused works such as his early symphony American Portrait (1929) and his ballet What So Proudly We Hail with spirited patriotism.

While Harris’s clear harmonies and folk-derived melodies link his aesthetics with Copland, his more famous frenemy, Harris was less shy about the influence of European models in his music, particularly Renaissance polyphony and the modal scales of Gregorian chant. Compare the lyrical opening cello melody in Harris’s Third Symphony (his most famous work, championed by Bernstein and turning Harris into a household name) with this Alleluia, dating from around the 12th century. In some of Harris’s chamber works, such as his3rd String Quartet, Harris used unabashedly European contrapuntal forms such as fugues, enlivening with them with his broad, angular-but-still-sweet melodies.

Since his death in 1979, Harris aesthetic has become synonymous with an “American” style of composition: folk-influenced melodies, clear orchestration, a vivacious rhythmic energy adopted from jazz, a love for historical and popular iconography, and above all, a sweeping air of optimism. But what was particularly American about these features? Why is Harris’s sound so easily understood as “American,” but not Cage’s, Varése’s, Cowell’s, or Partch’s? According to Patricia Ashley,

What happened was that, having been told that his music was like America, Harris worked this idea into his mystique until he was able to believe that America was like his music. His rhythms and forms, based on irregular increments rather than subdivisions of the whole, may have had their origins in (besides truck driving) a study of Hindu philosophy, Gregorian chant, and very likely the music of Igor Stravinsky, but now he became convinced that these were the natural rhythms and forms of America. The assumption was not hard to make, for he was told often enough that it was true. Another generation has since discarded the idea of naturalness in a “national style,” but Harris — who has frequently been an internationalist in other respects — is loyal to nationalism in the arts.
Aaron Copland sums it up thus: “We can let posterity concern itself with the eternal [aspects] of Roy Harris’s music… the important thing is that it has something for us here and now.”
-by Jacob Gotlib, Louisville composer, pianist, and teacher

Read about Roy Harris' unique connection to Louisville here.