HARRIS: Symphony No. 5 (1942). Symphony No. 6, "Gettysburg" (1944). Acceleration (1941).
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop.
Naxos 8.559609 TT: 61:44.
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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 series.


S.G.S. (December 2010)