Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Posts tagged “Roy Harris

First month of the ‘symphathon’

It’s February and I have so far kept to my resolution of listening to a symphony a day. As New Year resolutions go, this has been pretty easy (in comparison to typical ones like going for a run before work, losing weight, giving up chocolate, learning a foreign language, etc). In January on my ‘symphathon’ I listened to:

Alwyn 4, Atterberg 6, Borodin 2, Dutilleux 2, Honegger 4 and 5, Harris 3, 5 and 7, Martinu 3, 5 and 6, Merikanto 3, Miaskovsky 21, Nielsen 3 and 6, Rubbra 6 and 8, Rangstrom 3, Rautavaara 3 and 7, Schoenberg Chamber Symphony 1, Tubin 1,2,3,5,6,7,8,9, and 10, Vaughan Williams 5 (a concert in London), Weinberg 2, 20 and Chamber Symphony 4. That’s 35 symphonies. The nationalities are English, Swedish, Russian, Swiss, French, American, Czech, Finnish, German, Estonian, and Danish. I made a point of working through the Estonian Eduard Tubin’s cycle, omitting the 4th which is a big favourite. I would say I’ve heard most of these symphonies once before. Of these 35 symphonies I would say that Martinu 6, RVW 5, Nielsen 6 are all C20th masterpieces, with Harris 3, Nielsen 3, and Rubbra 6 close behind.

I was on several occasions reminded that with the symphony one must always make allowances that a piece that doesn’t have much impact one year may do so later. This applied to Edmund Rubbra’s Sixth Symphony, in particular its magical slow movement. I’m temperamentally disposed to like Rubbra very much, but the Sixth had somehow not registered. Same thing happened with Honegger’s elegant tribute to Basle, the Fourth. Martinu 5 turned out to be more listenable than I recall, and I’m now persuaded that Roy Harris’ one movement Seventh is worthy to stand along his celebrated Third. Rautavaara’s Seventh (‘Angel of Light’) also impressed me for the first time as an atmospheric piece. Atterberg 6 can be tried for its wonderful romantic slow movement. Nielsen 6’s second movement is the sarcastic Humoureske, complete with yawning trombones bored by the modern music the perky wind section serve up. It whets the appetite for the genius of the whole symphony.

youtube links if you want to have a listen:

Edmund Rubbra 6 mvt 2            from 9:19

Roy Harris 7 drum-driven coda         from about 18 mins

Atterberg 6 mvt 2           from 10:07

Nielsen 6 2nd mvt Humoureske          from 13:12

If any of these grab you, write a comment and let me know.


Music for JFK

I am a little late with this, owing to work (finishing the next songwriting book), but I thought it worth writing about regardless. On the evening of November 22, I attended a choral concert in Exeter College Chapel, here in Oxford, titled ‘Requiem ’63’. The music chosen was intended to mark the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, as well as mark the 50th anniversary of the deaths of C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy. The piece selected for JFK was Herbert Howells’ setting of ‘Take him, earth, for cherishing’ (1964). The BBC’s music magazine had published an article about music connected with the death of Kennedy which was rather disappointing. In previous blogs I’ve mentioned Roy Harris’ superb ‘Epilogue – Profiles in Courage’ as the best elegiac JFK piece I’ve heard (it’s available on the Naxos label).

Investigating the topic reveals a number of other pieces in the classical field. Robert Bernat wrote ‘In Memoriam: John F. Kennedy (Passacaglia for Orchestra)’ which is not well-known but was released on an Albany Records LP played by the Louisville Orchestra in 1980. Ronald Lo Presti wrote ‘Elegy for a Young American’ for brass band. Stravinsky produced a very short (90 seconds or so) setting of a W.H.Auden poem ‘Elegy for JFK’. The French composer Darius Milhaud wrote ‘Meurtre d’un grand chef d’etat’. Leonard Bernstein dedicated his third symphony  (‘Kaddish’) to Kennedy, and Roger Sessions his third piano sonata which he was then at work on in Berlin (regarded as one of the hardest pieces in the piano repertoire). There are probably many more, not so famous either because the composer is not well-known, or the title disguises the subject – as is the case with John Barry’s ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ from his album The Beyondness of Things.

2013 saw newly-commissioned pieces added to the list. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed ‘The World Is Very Different Now’ by 19-year old Conrad Tao (about 17 mins long) and the Nasher Scuplture Center’s ‘Soundings’ concert series included Steven Mackey’s ‘One Red Rose’ for string quartet.

In popular music there have been many songs about the death of Kennedy, though very few have much of a profile. Probably the most notable are Dion’s ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, memorably covered by Marvin Gaye, from the late 1960s, ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’ by The Byrds (1965), Phil Ochs’ ‘Crucifixion’, and The Kingston Trio’s ‘Song For A Friend’ (written by John Stewart). The edition of the famous British TV satire show That Was The Week That Was broadcast on November 23, 1963 featured Millicent Martin singing ‘In the Summer of His Years’ which was covered by Mahalia Jackson and Connie Francis, but is only remembered in the context of the impact of TW3. Two songs with a more oblique connection are Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’, which for many captures the desolation of the post-assassination period, and The Beach Boys’ ‘The Warmth of the Sun’, which was written after a concert on the night of the 22nd.

At the time there were a number of Kennedy-themed LPs released. Some of the songs have been collected on albums such as Can’t Keep From Crying: Topical blues on the death of President Kennedy (1994) and Tragic Songs from the Grassy Knoll. There are many songs which make passing mention of the assassination or draw on imagery associated with it – Tori Amos’ ‘Jackie’s Strength’ and Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ which had its lyric re-written for the US market by changing the reference to Oswald Moseley, the 1930s British fascist, to Lee Harvey Oswald.

And finally I should mention my own 12 minute piece for orchestral strings ‘At Runnymede’ (2002), revised a couple of times, and which I hope to put online at some point.

Americana in South Wales

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.