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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.
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.
from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2016