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Author(s): Richard Tiedman

Review by: Richard Tiedman
Source: Tempo, New Series, No. 214, American Music Issue (Oct., 2000), pp. 55-56
Published by: Cambridge University Press
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Record Reviews 55

HARRIS: Symphony No.8 (San Francisco);

colleagues - Virgil Thomson for one - treated

Symphony No.9; Memories of a Child's Sunday.

his heroic aspirations with ironic asperity. Harris

Albany SO c. David Alan Miller, with Alan

was never able to repeat the overwhelming

Feinberg (pno). Albany TROY 350.

impact of the Third Symphony. The chemistry

of a hit can be difficult to analyse, the potion

Roy Harris advanced to the forefront of

impossible to brew a second time. His Fifth,

American music with a single work. When the

Third Symphony was premiered by Koussevitsky
and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1939 it

was quickly recognized as a seminal example of

the form. Leading conductors soon took it into
their repertoire, including Toscanini, no less. It

was played abroad and put the American

Symphony on the global map. Recording companies vied to issue Harris's latest works, and by
1940 Aaron Copland could write that Harris 'is
more frequently played, more praised, and more
condemned than any other American composer'.
What is remarkable about Harris is that, despite

Sixth and Seventh symphonies are not markedly

inferior to the Third, yet seldom appear in con-

cert programmes. Indeed, it could be argued

that the Seventh, with it long-spanned opening
passacaglia, its luminous orchestration and the
wealth of rhythmic invention in it second half,
is Harris's finest achievement. It is a far more

sophisticated work than Symphony 1933, only

lacking the earlier music's raw, untamed vitality.

The symphonies after No.7 fell into a virtual

black hole, each given one or two performances
and then never heard again. The Eighth is based
on scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi. It

his taking up the serious study of music at the

turns out to be one of Harris's most radiant and

late age of 24, a distinct personality emerged

right from the start. Dan Stehman singles out
ancient chant, Renaissance polyphony, baroque

'outdoorsy' as anything in the first movement of

accessible works. The opening is as breezily

Mahler's Fourth, though very much in Harris's

contrapuntal procedures, Classical-period develop-

American vernacular. The blithe woodwind

mental techniques and 19th-century Romantic

tunes and glittering orchestration impart the

frolicsome, sunshiny cheer of childhood. The
second section, 'Renunciation', is a flowing

expressiveness as the principal elements of

Harris's style. The masters of Flemish counterpoint and Bach were added to the mix, and the
whole melded by some alchemy into instantly

recognizable indigenous American idiom.

Harris's early works, despite his study with
Boulanger, are completely without any display
of contemporary European stylistic trends.
When Koussevitsky asked for a 'big symphony
from the West', Harris responded with the
dynamic Symphony 1933 which so impressed
the young William Schuman that he sought out
Harris to study with. Harris's audience was quick
to grasp his intentions. As one early critic put it:
Here is music of the bleak and barren expanses of
western Kansas, of the brooding prairie night, of the
vast darkness of the American soul, of its despair and
its courage, its defeat and its triumph, its struggling

Harris would not have demurred at this. His

faults are rooted in his virtues. His declamatory

Americanism can at times descend into a hollow

pretentiousness, his formal procedures can fall

into mere note-spinning. When, however, he

hits his stride, he can create page after page of
heart-stirring eloquence that will always preserve his name as one of the really significant
figures in American music.

After the halcyon 1940s Harris's reputation

began a long slide and is only now beginning to
show signs of a flickering revival. Sharp-brained

processional, reminiscent at times of the Seventh

Symphony, with a solo trumpet as the voice of

the Saint and ending with an aspiring two-part
canon for strings. 'The Building of the Chapel'
is a set of sturdy fugal variations. Part IV, 'The
Joy of Pantheistic Beauty', is both a large-scale
development of earlier material and a fleet-footed

scherzo. The mood is buoyantly elated; the

graceful woodwind filigree that circles the
piano's rippling arabesques produce some of
Harris's most delicately airy colours and textures.

A broadly sonorous set of variations ends the

symphony in luminous grace. It seems inexplicable that this light-filled, big-hearted score has
lain on the shelf for nearly 40 years.

The Ninth Symphony was commissioned by

the Philadelphia Orchestra. Appended the score

are words from the Preamble to the Constitution

and, in the finale, from Walt Whitman. This

would lead us to expect a work in Harris's most
sonorous public manner. And in fact the opening
prelude is one of his best symphonic movements:

its toccata-like energy, driving momentum,

exciting cross-rhythms and some of his most
delectable tunes reveal a composer very far from
being played out. Note the exhilarating, wafting-

through-the-air effect of the passage beginning

at 2'48". The slow movement is a dark-stranded

chorale, the long-spun lyric lines at first gravely

serene, but working to a climax of tense disquiet.

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56 Record Reviews

So far, one of Harris's most impressive scores. The

finale, 'Contrapuntal Structures', is problematic,
however. It is in four sections, the first three on

fugue subjects, the fourth an attempted tour-deforce closing of the ring, combining the fugal mate-

If ever required to sum up the innovative spirit

of George Crumb's music in a single sentence,
one could do worse than quote the beautiful pensee of Ralph Waldo Emerson: 'Do not go where
the path may lead; go instead where there is no

rials and followed by a rhetorical coda that seems

path and leave a trail.' Eschewing the rigorous

to burst in from nowhere. But the music produces

a disjointed effect, with little tension or cohesion

serialism of the academy and never in danger of

jumping on the minimalist bandwagon, Crumb

between the constituent parts, and clearly not a

broad enough base to support the grandiose coda.

has always ploughed his own very singular furrow.

One wonders what Harris meant to express in this

Virginian origin, the poetry of Lorca and the music

Although he cites as influences his West

movement, or the angle at which he viewed the

of Webern and Ives, this in no way prepares the

material. Despite this apparently shambolic finale,

ear for the seemingly infinite timbral and textural

the first two movements contain some of his finest

variations that so distinguish his music.

music, and it may be that the finale will 'settle in'

Released in celebration of Crumb's 70th

birthday, the major work on the Bridge CD

with greater familiarity.

One does not think of Harris as a purveyor of

'fanciful' music. But the delightful 12-minute
Memories of a Child's Sunday (1945) recorded here

show him scaling down his big-gestured style to

depict a world of childhood fantasy and playful
whimsy. It makes for a charming and unexpected
makeweight to his ambitious symphonic utter-

(indeed his largest opus to date purely in terms of

forces required) is Star-Child, a 35-minute 'parable'
which sets Latin texts drawn from the Dies Irae
and the Massacre of the Innocents. The work takes

the listener on a metaphorical journey from

despair to hope, and thus bears a strong affinity

David Alan Miller has the measure of Harrisian

with the 'voyage of the soul' as portrayed in

Crumb's remarkable Black Angels (which also,
incidentally, quotes the Dies Irae sequence).

symphonic architecture. The orchestra plays with

Throughout each of its seven continuous sections

the breadth and weight of sound ab solutely vital

slow-moving string chords constructed from

piled-up fifths provide an ever-present, nondevelopmental background over which the more


to the broad sweep of a Harris symphony.

Accord- ing to George Szell the recording venue,
the Troy Music Hall in Troy, NY, is one of the
two or three best halls in the USA. Following the
Ninth Symphony in score, it was easy to see how
the details of Harris's complex scoring emerged
quite effortlessly and with a completely natural
balance. Albany has gone the extra mile in recruiting a player of the calibre of Alan Feinberg for the

dramatic foreground features are superimposed d

la Ives - one is reminded particularly of the string
chorale from Central Park in the Dark.' The score
teems with vivid, entrancing sonorities; the ritual-

istic Klang of handbells, crotales, glockenspiel and

tubular bells in the transcendental conclusion
creates an especially memorable effect.

difficult piano part in Symphony No.8. Dan

Mundus Canis, written in homage to a canine

Stehman, long the foremost Harris authority, con-

quintet at various times part of the Crumb

household, is an absolute delight. We are told

tributes expertly detailed notes. Albany has plans

to record the Second Symphony. I am especially

eager and curious to hear it - last played, incredi-

bly enough, over 60 years ago.

Richard Tiedman

CRUMB: Star-Child; Mundus Canis; Three Early

Songs. Susan Narucki (sop); Joseph Alessi (tbn);
Ann Crumb (sop); George Crumb (pno & perc);
David Starobin (gtr). Warsaw Philharmonic

Orchestra, Warsaw Boys' Choir & Warsaw

Philharmonic Choir c. Thomas Conlin.

that Fritzi, the second and most memorable of

these miniatures, was a brown male dachshund

with 'a pronounced impetuosity and irrepressibility of spirit. Judging from the CD I would
have thought that a slavering Cerberean hound
was closer to the mark: furious Bart6k pizzicato,
knuckles on wood and rapid con fuoco passage
work from the guitarist, bouncing off manifold
slaps, scrapes and trills from the percussionist's
frame drum. Quite terrifying ... cave canem.2

BRIDGE 9095.

1 In a somewhat similar fashion a low B6 pedal point played

by two solo double basses is sustained throughout the entire

CRUMB: Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos

1980s, A Haunted Landscape.

III); A Little Suitefor Christmas A.D. 1979; Five

Pieces for Piano. Fuat Kent (pno); Peter

Degenhardt (pno); Carmen Erb (perc); Hans-Peter
Achberger (perc). col legno WWE 1CD 20023.

18 minutes of Crumb's major orchestral work from the

Its UK premiere at London's Wigmore Hall on 13

December 1999 was given an added sparkle due to the
sprightly presence of the composer himself, who assumed the

role of percussionist (as on this recording).

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