Yesterday I travelled to Cardiff in South Wales for a concert treat. It was one in a series called ‘Americana’ featuring a number of well-known American C20th composers, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Eric Stern and went out live on Radio 3. The programme comprised Ned Rorem’s Eagles, John Adams’ Gnarly Buttons, David Diamond’s Rounds For String Orchestra and Roy Harris’ 9th Symphony. I enjoyed the Adams and the Diamond – the former has an interesting mixture of instruments, the latter ha some vigorour and lyrical string-writing. But what enticed me to make the journey was the chance to hear a Roy Harris symphony live – I think for the first time. His music is rarely played in the UK.
Harris is a composer I discovered thanks to the budget CD label Naxos. They began releasing a Harris series in the mid-90s. Harris piqued my ear because he seemed to be using chords in an unusual way and also using certain types of chord with an expressive broad, open-air quality (probably voicings that stress 4ths, 5th, and 9ths). His music cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. I latched onto his Third Symphony – a one-movement 18 minute work which was first performed the the early 1940s and was hailed at the time as the first great American symphony. I also discovered his Seventh and his Epilogue for JFK (on the same Naxos CD). I gradually acquired a dozen Harris CDs, including some chamber music. The character of the music is assertive, muscular, brash at times, curiously innocent also, based on a perspective not entirely free of cultural chauvinism – Harris was very fond of flying the flag.
With increasing familiarity I came to the conclusion that Harris is a perplexing case. His music is grounded in triadic harmony but not organized according to the principles of usual tonal music. This means that on a bar-to-bar basis it sounds engaging and full of fresh chord changes, but over the longer term creates a feeling of aimlessness because the key centre is never there. Perhaps other listeners can hear it, but I cannot usually even hear a single pitch functioning as a tonal center. Paradoxically, this may mean that his music is actually heard as atonal despite its triadic content, yet it sounds nothing like what most people associate with the term ‘atonal’. Harris’s problem with the symphony is to find a way of building narrative, conflict, resolution, when his musical language mitigates against these things.
I certainly enjoyed hearing his 9th live – quite a different experience to a CD. If you want to try him have a listen to the Epilogue for JFK (8:30 mins) or the Third Symphony, of which there are many recordings.