So why has it taken me half a lifetime to hear anything by Roy Harris except the 3rd Symphony? It’s an interesting question, explained partly by the rarity of recordings of the rest of Harris’ repertoire, and partly by the fact that Symphony No. 3 is so complete within itself that I feel that there is no need to hear anything else.
Used to feel, that is. Now that Naxos (a CD label that has surely done more to promote classical music that any other, both through its aggressively low pricing and its concentration on good performances of as much music as possible) has put out a CD of Harris’s 7th and 9th Symphonies, plus a memorial piece for John Kennedy, I have had a chance to listen to more.
And guess what - they are just as attractive as the 3rd! All the elements of Harris’s compositional style are there; the rich melody and melodic development, the swift passage of melodic fragments from one instrument or instrumental grouping to others, the rhythmic vitality, the weight and seriousness of purpose. The harmonic shifts that are so characteristic of this composer, based upon the inherent tension between the major and minor triads and his use of distantly related simple chords are there in spades. (See Kingman pp. 371-376 for a very nice analysis-for-dummies of the 3rd Symphony and Harris’s style.)
No other composer writes in quite this way, and to hear Harris manipulate fresh and interesting material with these symphonies is a real treat. Hopefully Naxos will get around to recording his entire symphonic output (a new recording of the 3rd and 8th symphonies is in the way). The current recording was made with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine of all places, and it is surely ironic that these vital American symphonies are getting a splendid and enthusiastic workout from the not-long-ago foes of the Cold War.
It took a little while for the 3rd Symphony to grow on me, and as I listen again to these new recordings, I feel the same process at work. For all the instant attractiveness of Harris’s melodies, it is the way he develops those melodies that really grabs you. This is Abstract music in the Partch scale, but, like the 3rd, just a hint of a dramatic & an implied program (particularly in the 9th where the three movements are entitled “We The People…”, “…to form a more perfect Union” and “…to promote the general welfare” respectively) to give it a touch of the Corporeal.
“…to promote the general welfare” – how quickly that gets forgotten.