HARRIS: Symphony No. 5 (1942). Symphony No. 6, "Gettysburg" (1944).
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop.
Naxos 8.559609 TT: 61:44.
BUY NOW FROM AMAZON
War music. Roy Harris made the symphony central to his output. During the Thirties
and the early part of the Forties, many considered him the Great American
Symphonist. Today, he's practically forgotten, even dismissed without much
of a hearing. I don't know any of his symphonies past #11 and haven't read
of any past #14, but he apparently made it to #16, according to David Truslove's
liner notes. That gives you some idea of his present-day reputation. I think
it a shame. He has an extremely interesting musical mind, and he managed
to write music between the wars untouched by Stravinsky, Hindemith, or Schoenberg.
In some ways because of this, it sounds very old-fashioned, closer to the
Nineteenth Century, especially the School of César Franck, than the
Twentieth in its approach to matters of how music works. The nearest composer
I can come up with is Sibelius, and yet the two differ considerably.
World War II brought Harris's "Americanism" to its height, both in
the music's emphasis and in its inherent quality. The works include Symphonies
4-6, American Creed, Kentucky Spring, the violin concerto, the choral Walt
Whitman Suite, Freedom's Land, and the Mass, the String Quintet, and the
violin sonata. Harris's two heroes were Lincoln and Whitman, and I believe
he tried to become a musical equivalent. An artist walks a dangerous path when
he climbs Parnassus toward the greats, because he probably will fall short
or even fall off. A lot of the critical animus toward Harris in certain American
musical quarters during the Fifties flew against what some saw as a ludicrously
outsized ego. Not knowing much about Harris personally, I can't say. Also,
the desire to write "American" music after the war increasingly came
to be regarded as corny in itself. Composers now wanted to be "international." However,
I admire Harris's artistic daring and ambition. You don't get anywhere by not
dreaming or very far by dreaming small, and you can't be universal without
at least being local. Harris may not have reached his goal of rubbing shoulders
with Lincoln or Whitman, but he remains a damn good Harris.
Harris structured his music by a principle called "autogenesis." That
is, a musical line unfolded over a long span through a small seed in the first
measure and a new phrase grows from the point of arrival of the preceding one.
It's as if you watch a symphonic idea getting built note by note. Consequently,
if you pay attention to the first measure of a movement, you've gone a long
way to following the symphonic argument. I don't know whether Harris invented
this. You can certainly find precedent for it in Beethoven (notably, the Fifth
Symphony's first movement) and in Nielsen. However, I don't recall anyone who
worked it so rigorously before Harris. One can hear this fairly clearly in Acceleration.
It begins with a rising minor third and a fall-back. The minor third eventually
becomes a major third and, down the line, a major triad. The fall-back also
undergoes major expansion and variation. The piece didn't satisfy Harris, who
reworked parts of it into his Symphony #6, but it definitely satisfies me.
It just picks me up by the scruff of the neck and hustles me along from first
measure to last.
The Symphony #5 is also available with Robert Whitney leading the Louisville
Orchestra on First Edition FECD-0005 and on Albany AR012. Why small labels
compete over obscure repertoire like this I have yet to fathom. The Naxos,
however, boasts modern digital sound and thus provides at least one excuse
for being. On the other hand, the Whitney recordings have the only available
recording of Kentucky Spring. Harris dedicated the Symphony #5 to
the Soviet Union, at that time desperately throwing everything it had against
the Nazis on the Eastern Front. However, he doesn't write a programmatic symphony, à la Shostakovich's "Leningrad," but
builds a strong symphonic narrative, closer to Beethoven's "Eroica." In
that way, the score transcends its specific external circumstances.
Structurally, the symphony is built on themes built from thirds and sixths
and runs of a repeating note. Again, the autogenetic procedure holds. The first
movement is a call to arms, the second a combination funeral march, lament,
and chorale, and the third a fugato with a central fugue. Like Acceleration, it
impresses you with its tight logic. The family resemblance of themes from movement
to movement (although the symphony never becomes repetitive) puts this work
close to cyclical development.
A lot of Harris sounds pretty similar. He doesn't provide the orchestral surprises
of a Copland or a Thomson, although his orchestration is fine on its own terms.
I would find it difficult to fill an entire program with just Harris, although
on a mixed program, a Harris work would stand out. I confess that I once approached
the Sixth Symphony with a bit of dread, for reasons that had nothing to do
with music, but with my experience with art works of all types on Great Subjects.
Too many artists, composers, and writers just don't have the wherewithal to
deal with Big Ideas in anything like a meaningful way. In short, they fall
on their prats. To me, a bad poem on Man's Place in the Universe means less
than a good poem about a little man "who wasn't there." In his Sixth,
Harris takes on some of our greatest American myths: the Civil War, Gettysburg,
Lincoln, and his address, the closest thing we have to a national psalm. Carl
Sandburg's Lincoln biography provided Harris with the initial stimulus.
What Joan of Arc is to France, Lincoln is to Americans -- the incarnation of
the ideals of the country -- and has foxed some very great artists indeed.
As much as I love Copland's Lincoln Portrait, I don't think it completely
successful, particularly when it deals with Lincoln's own words -- Lincoln
at his most particular. Whitman's masterpiece When lilacs last in the dooryard
bloom'd, written at the spur of Lincoln's death, nevertheless doesn't
deal directly with Lincoln. Sandburg creates a Lincoln who's really a secular
Christ. Gore Vidal's Lincoln, certainly a marvel of a book, in its
attempt to render Lincoln understandable and contemporary, makes him less than
he is. I'm sure even Shakespeare didn't seem as fine to his contemporaries
as he does to us. After all, they saw him blow his nose.
The four movements of Harris's symphony -- "Awakening," "Conflict," "Dedication," "Affirmation" --
correspond to the major sections of the Gettysburg Address, and all proceed
by autogenesis. The nation awakens to its ideal, "four score and seven
years ago," "that all men are created equal." It engages in "a
great civil war," testing that proposition. At Gettysburg, we meet to "dedicate
a portion of that field" to the men who died there. We end with the affirmation
of the living, to honor the dead, to "take increased devotion" to "a
new birth of freedom" and to an imperishable "government of the people,
by the people, and for the people." I don't know about you, but simply
reading those words makes me feel ashamed of myself.
The first movement is essentially a long crescendo from darkness (beginning
with a minor third) and a brightening. In the second movement, after an anguished
slow march, trumpets, horns, and trombones represent opposing armies and the
movement of battles. This movement to me is the one most rooted in the Forties
-- perhaps Harris's take on Shostakovich, although Harris keeps a tight grip
on his emerging patterns. He doesn't (as Shostakovich does in the "Leningrad," for
example) abandon himself to an emotional moment. Harris raises plenty of emotion;
he just doesn't lose control. No matter how heated he gets, you always sense
there's a lid on the pot.
From a plainchant-like theme in the double basses, the third movement builds
up from the lower strings with a polyphonic mastery closer to the Renaissance
than to our own time. Eventually, woodwinds and brass join in with their own
lines, thus adding linear complexity to an already rich texture. It moves with
a calm, sure breath and certainly counts as one of my favorite Harris slow
movements. The finale comes from Harris's American Creed of 1940 --
the movement titled "Free to Build" -- a giant triple fugue that
nevertheless grows "autogenetically." Nevertheless, this is a tighter,
niftier rewrite rather than a wholesale borrowing.
In the Harris Sixth, Alsop competes with Keith Clark on Albany TROY0064 and
comes out the winner. Clark's Sixth emphasizes the Modern elements of the Symphony,
Alsop the lyric. She is especially good with Harris's slow tempi, which in
other hands tend to bog down. She not only keeps things moving, she gets at
the poetry. Clark's "Conflict" movement bangs and crashes, but Alsop's
has real drama -- the clash of armies, the give and take of battle. Naxos also
has a better sound, and the Bournemouth Symphony is simply a better orchestra
than the Pacific Symphony. All in all, one of the best CDs in Naxos's American
S.G.S. (December 2010)