HARRIS:  Symphony No. 7 (1952/55).  Symphony No. 9 (1962).  Epilogue to Profiles in Courage - J.F.K.
National Symphony Orch. of Ukraine/Theodore Kuchar, cond.
NAXOS 8.559050 (B) (ADD) TT:  57:49

Whether or not one "likes" the music of Roy Harris (1898-1979), he wrote and promoted lots of it for nearly half a century, but lived to see his Star (big enough in the 1930s to rate capitalizing) grow smaller and dimmer by the early '50s. Symphony No. 9 was his last commission from a major orchestra—the Philadelphia in 1962, which Eugene Ormandy introduced during a European tour concert in Copenhagen. Harris wrote four more numbered symphonies before his death—the last in honor of the Bicentennial, of course—although actually there were 14. He didn't give a number in 1935 to Symphony for Voices (On Poems of Walt Whitman) for chorus, after his First, which he called Symphony 1933, and a 'Romantic' Second (forgotten today, as most of his even-numbered ones are). Like Aaron Copland who introduced them, he was a pet of conductor Serge Koussevitzky as late as Symphony No. 5, written in 1942, premiered at Boston in 1943, but revised four years later. Originally dedicated to "the heroic and freedom-loving people of our great ally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," Harris conducted it as such at Moscow in 1958—the first American to lead his own music in the USSR. Two years later though, when he led it at the summer-season Ravinia Festival north of Chicago (and gave a miscue in the finale that produced antiphonal brass syncopations, not unwelcome), it had become music about Abraham Lincoln! The "Cold War" had been declared and Harris was no fool, despite his Jed Clampett affectations long before the "Beverly Hillbillies" invaded TV.

Harris the teacher was a rootless chameleon. But once you heard a piece by him, you never mistook the "Harris sound" for anyone else's. He learned fugal counterpoint from Nadia Boulanger in Paris, then adopted fourth chords as his signature. The rest was salads and side dishes and corn-pone (if you will), but deep-down he was an outdoor-barbeque composer who had no compunction about using graduate students to assist him with the charcoal or the sauce. One such did a fair amount of retouching on Cumberland Concerto, commissioned in 1951 for the Cincinnati Symphony's first New York concerts since Fritz Reiner took the orchestra there in 1928. By then Roy hadn't had a major Manhattan performance in several years, and conductor Thor Johnson figured a new piece by him would lure the first-string critics. It did, but all yawned dismissively except his friend Virgil Thomson. It wasn't enough that Harris had added an "amplified piano" to his palette (for which he wrote a concerto in 1968, played by his fourth wife and widow, Johana [ Beulah Duffy], but neither the piece nor the instrument caught on).

I reviewed what Cincinnati's players promptly dubbed the "Cumbersome Concerto" early in 1952. The following winter, however, it had become Symphony No. 7 with padding when Rafael Kubelik introduced it in Chicago. But there was another surprise to come: in 1955 Eugene Ormandy announced the world premiere of Symphony No. 7, which Roy had "revised" —as he had No. 5 a decade earlier. To Ormandy's credit he went along with the gimmick, and even recorded 7/ii for Columbia Records—a painstaking and sonorous performance preserved on an Albany mono CD with two more Ormandy premieres from the same period, William Schuman's Sixth and Walter Piston's Fourth Symphonies (ALBANY 258).

In 1994 Hugh Keelan recorded the Harris Seventh and Schuman Sixth (a total timing of only 44:05) in New Zealand, which Koch International published last year. David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony added Nos. 8 and 9 ("The Great American Ninth" a promotional slogan claimed), both dating from 1962, plus Memories of a Childhood Sunday as fille—a disc I know only from its Schwann/Opus listing. Now comes the 1955 Seventh, coupled by Naxos with the Ninth in robust, muscular, admirably idiomatic performances by Theodore Kuchar and the Ukrainian National Orchestra, recorded at Kviv in June 1999 by a technical team determined to outdo itself. If the annotation is untypically sketchy—perhaps Keith Anderson doesn't like Harris' music eithe—the end product does him honor as well as justice. These may be The Same Old Story with an eight-minute, 1964 Epilogue to Profiles in Courage - J.F.K. separating the symphonies, but it is admirably (re)told. While No. 7 is in a single albeit sectional movement like the durable Third, No. 9 has three movements, each wearing a phrase from the U.S. Constitution, plus a tripartite finale with irrelevant phrases from "Leaves of Grass."

We've had only one 1943-44 "Gettysburg" Sixth Symphony on discs (released by Varese-Sarabande in 1981, and reissued by Albany early in its career as a savior), but I'll bet Nos. 7 and 9 are so much like it that one could play movements at random and not know from which work they came—only that none seem really to end, just stop. Back in 1946, John Tasker Howard wrote of "a vital force in Harris' work, a primal, roughhewn vitality, but many [music lovers] frankly confess they do not enjoy hearing the bulk of his music. To [them] his melodic line is distorted and unnatural...as if the composer had gone to such extremes in avoiding the obvious that his themes rarely give the impression of being inevitable." However, you pays your money and takes your choice, and if you are into postwar-2 Harris this disc is a major-league bargain. Luckily for Ukrainians, the orchestra named Kuchar its lifetime laureate although his tour of duty as music director ended in 1999. The question is: where's he now and what comes next?

R.D. (September 2002)