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Already considered by many to be a modern classic, John Adams’ 1993 Violin Concerto was described by the composer as having a ‘hypermelody’, the soloist playing longs phrases for the duration of the 35-minute piece. Although composed in 1949, the first performance of Roy Harris’s Violin Concerto didn’t occur until 1984. Since then it has been championed for its 'luminous orchestration and exalted tone'.
While America’s culture of performance inevitably turned to Europe for its models, it gradually gathered strands of American identity—complete with works by native musicians—to set alongside classics by Handel, Mozart and Beethoven and more recent scores from the Old World. The New York-born composer Edward MacDowell, for instance, directed his thoroughly European training in France and Germany to the intentional cultivation of a distinct brand of musical nationalism, “a music which should be American”, as he put it. The nature of what ‘American’ meant, as so often with debates about cultural identity, varied according to perspective. Many Americans at the last century’s turn were concerned with survival, whether by eking a living from the land, toiling in the mills and stockyards of robber baron industrialists, or labouring night and day in the sweatshop slums of New York’s Lower East Side. Others were driven by ideals of freedom, hard work, social mobility and prosperity, so deeply ingrained in the national consciousness and broadly reflected in the rise of world-class orchestras, opera companies, soloists and music colleges.
The story of Roy Harris could serve as a case study for the great American Dream and for its realisation in the world of music. He was born in the log cabin where his parents farmed in Oklahoma’s sparsely populated Lincoln County. The Harrises, descended from a potent mix of Irish, Scots and Welsh ancestry, weathered tough conditions and the burdens of poverty in Oklahoma until 1903, when young LeRoy’s father auctioned the family farmstead and moved to a new plot of land in the San Gabriel Valley in southern California. Father and son farmed hard and began to see good returns from their efforts. Harris, who shortened his given name to Roy during his teens, received his first piano lessons at home from his mother and later took up clarinet. He secured his own land and worked it for a time after graduating from high school in 1916, while taking lessons in organ and music theory; he also drove a truck for a dairy company, which helped support his studies in philosophy and economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Harris took his first steps in large-scale composition while at Berkeley and received lessons there from, among others, Fannie Charles Dillon, Henry Schoenefeld and Arthur Bliss. In 1924-25 he studied composition with his college mentor, Arthur Farwell, who encouraged Harris to read Walt Whitman and find his own voice as a composer.
The sounds and sights of nature, of the echoing train whistles Harris heard during his formative years in the San Gabriel Valley, and metaphors of organic growth and cultivation combined to condition the young composer’s musical development. In 1926 he travelled east for the premiere of his Andante for orchestra and stayed at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, an artists’ colony comparable to those established in continental Europe during the late 1800s. It was here that he met Aaron Copland, who suggested that Harris should study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He did so from 1926 to 1929, aided by financial support from the philanthropist Alma Morgenthau Wertheim and two Guggenheim Fellowships, and created his Concerto for piano, clarinet and string quartet under Boulanger’s guidance.
While Roy Harris absorbed and retained elements of his European training, he ultimately tapped into his local and regional roots in pursuit of a distinctly ‘American’ contribution to classical music. In an essay of 1933 he noted how “that wonderful, young, sinewy, timorous, browbeaten, eager, gullible” American society was “slowly kneading consistent racial character from the sifted flour of experience and the sweat of racial identity”. The rhetoric, of its time, was more in line with positive nationalist sentiment than social-Darwinist theories: Harris was no racist, as his later statements against racial segregation and inequality made plain; above all, he was a socially conservative populist, an artist determined to discover the essence of American music and deliver it to the masses. Rhythmic exuberance, flowing melodies uninterrupted by decisive cadence points, modal harmonies and textural nuance served the development of Harris’s musical language; the worldview of Henry David Thoreau, with its invitation to ‘simplify, simplify’ on the one hand and expression of life’s complexities and contradictions on the other, also found a place in the prolific composer’s work, not least in the optimistic cast of so much of his output.
Optimism is in abundant supply in the Violin Concerto, so too a strong measure of nostalgia, evoked in folk-like melodies and clear-cut dance rhythms. “Now that’s what folksong is all about,” noted Harris in an article for Modern Music in 1940. “Singing and dancing your heart out for yourself and the people you were born among—whose daily lives you share through the seasons, through thick and thin. From the hearts of our people they have come….” The composer, by now acclaimed for works such as his Third Symphony and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, understood better than most the ‘thick and thin’ of life and the transcendent joys of music made by America’s farmsteaders and sharecroppers.
Harris created his Violin Concerto in 1949 to fulfil a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra for its esteemed concertmaster, Joseph Gingold. The new composition’s intended premiere, scheduled to take place under the baton of Georg Szell that year, was cancelled when a multitude of discrepancies between the orchestral parts and conductor’s score surfaced during rehearsal and could not be corrected in time for the first performance. The piece was set aside until Gregory Fulkerson and the North Carolina Symphony brought it to life in 1984. Fulkerson’s recording, made the following year, introduced Harris’s lyrical concerto to a wider audience. Tamsin Waley-Cohen traced the work’s manuscript source in Washington’s Library of Congress and was enchanted by its rhapsodic solo writing.
Although cast in a single movement, the Violin Concerto falls into four sections. The work opens with a bustling orchestral call-to-attention, an invitation to a hoedown perhaps, the energy of which is readily spent and replaced by the solo violin’s languid first entry. Harris relishes in crafting what appears to be an endless fiddle melody, setting it in periodic dialogue with solo oboe, flute and clarinet above a bed of sustained modal harmonies. The clarity of scoring, a matter of sonorous instrumental choirs flecked with pizzicato strings, continues in the extensive second section and enhances the bite of its syncopated rhythmic patterns. A long melodic line soon emerges from the orchestral texture to be taken up and developed by the solo violin and restated by the full orchestra in a series of recurring episodes.
In a perceptive analysis of Harris’s work, Copland identified his close contemporary’s “greatest weakness” as “an apparent incapacity for shaping a long composition so that the form of the whole is truly logical and inevitable”. In the case of the Violin Concerto’s second section, Harris’s ‘weakness’ proves a strength: his melodic ideas here flow as a stream of consciousness, echoing thought’s random nature. The work’s third section, introduced by a pulsating orchestral prelude, harbours images of the American West, of open spaces made sacred by their vast scale, timeless presence and remoteness from human commerce. It would be hard to imagine a more direct or impassioned response to what Harris described in one essay as the “lonesome hunger that gnaws within the…heart, forcing us to search for an understandable race-expression”, a fully felt music inspired by America’s “grandeur, dignity, and untold beauty”. A solo cadenza rushes headlong into the final section, austere in its harmonic simplicity yet rich and noble in melody. Harris darts from one thematic fragment to the next before establishing a single dominant orchestral melody around which the violin and concerted strings run and play.
Like Roy Harris, John Adams was raised in rural America and could also claim Celtic connections, at least through his mother’s stepfather. He grew up in New England and received his first lessons in music from his clarinettist father. Adams’s maternal grandfather belonged to the Harris generation and took part in the boom years that followed America’s intervention in the First World War. The Adams family was rocked by the Great Depression; young John’s father, meanwhile, struggled to make a living as a travelling salesman, selling what he described as ‘nuts and bolts’ in and around Concord, New Hampshire. Adams made swift progress on the clarinet, especially so when he took lessons from Felix Viscuglia, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He enrolled at Harvard University in 1965, graduating magna cum laude in 1969 and gaining his MA in composition two years later. The young musician was touched by the civil unrest and political turmoil that swept America in the late 1960s: “It was as if American society had been left on spin cycle with no one capable of calming the nation’s anxieties,” he recalled in his polemical memoir, Hallelujah Junction. “In the phrase of William Burroughs, we’d bought the ticket that exploded.”
Adams emerged from the cultural debris of post-industrial America on a mission to write music that touched deep emotions, fully embodied rather than selectively cerebral in nature. At first he pursued a busy freelance career as a clarinettist, deputising with the Boston Symphony and Boston Opera Company; he also conducted the city’s Bach Society Orchestra. His outlook changed when he moved to San Francisco to become head of the composition department at the city’s Conservatory of Music. He served on the faculty there from 1972-83, and was music adviser and composer-in-residence to the San Francisco Symphony from 1978-85, inaugurating the orchestra’s acclaimed ‘New and Unusual Music Series’ in 1978. As a student Adams opened to the influence of John Cage, to the sage West Coast composer’s understanding of the fundamental position of chance and uncertainty in life and in art, and to his embrace of Buddhist insights into interconnection, insubstantiality and impermanence.
Adams’s Violin Concerto, written in 1992-93 to satisfy a joint commission from the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and New York City Ballet, explores aspects of interconnection and impermanence within the framing context of the instrumental concerto’s traditional three-movement form, fast-slow-fast in structure. For all its virtuosity and physical intensity, the work is at heart a meditation on change. This concerto, the composer explains, has no place for agon, the ancient Greek notion of contest or struggle; rather, the violin makes its way unimpeded through the body of the orchestra. “The solo voice is almost never ending,” observes Adams, “the orchestra remaining either behind it or below it, providing a backdrop of more or less regular events that unfold like scenes on a long Chinese scroll. Above it, against it, below it, even through it, the violin weaves its virtually endless garland of melody, there is no traditional agon between the soloist and orchestra. Instead the violin is permanently at centre stage, the rare instances when it does not play feeling more like pauses for breath or articulations in the music’s architecture.”
Adams coined the term ‘hypermelody’ for his concerto’s solo violin part, mining the Greek lexicon to find an apt description for its near-obsessive excess and extreme physicality. The work opens with an expansive first movement, rhapsodic and sufficiently introspective in character to be open to an endless parade of emotions, moods and changing states of consciousness. Ancient archetypes, those of the early Italian concerto, serve Adams well in the concerto’s second and third movements, offering the structural security of a chaconne for the former and bringing the improvisatory spirit of a toccata to the latter. “The title of the second movement, ‘Body through which the dream flows’, from a poem by [the Californian poet] Robert Hass, provides an image for the entire concerto,” the composer observes: “the orchestra as the organised, delicately articulated mass of blood, tissues and bone; the violin as the dream that flows through it.” Adams subjects his chaconne’s eight-bar bass line to multiple melodic and modal permutations, some of them suggested by the algorithms of a music software package, others by the composer’s fertile imagination. The rushing scales, sequential repetitions and rhythmic iterations of ‘Toccare’ complement the title’s invitation ‘to touch’, in the verb’s emotional as well as its physical sense.
Andrew Stewart © 2016