Life & Liberty: Symphonies for the New World


The United States of America and the "spiritual inquiry for orchestra" (better known as the symphony) are two of the most important children of the Enlightenment, but strangely there has never been much of a market for American symphonies in this country. As a rule, our classical music snobs have preferred imported to domestic stuff. The American composers, being by nature Romantic, have simply converted this indifference to them into individualistic isolation. They have composed the kind of music they liked and as a result have produced, in addition to an inordinate amount of eccentric and preposterous drivel, a few works of real merit.

The typical 19th-century American symphonist was, like all Romantic composers, hardheaded and empirical in his approach to art—no "abstract music" for him—and thus tended toward the musically concrete, the programmatic. For example: Anthony Philip Heinrich's Ornithological Combat of Kings, or The Condor of the Andes and the Eagle of the Cordilleras (1847), a "grand symphony" about a battle between carnivorous birds (the condor wins); William Henry Fry's "Christmas Symphony," Santa Claus (1853); Louis Gottschalk's Night in the Tropics (1858), which ends with a rumba.

Bad as these works are, they are fascinating for their indifference to, or ignorance of, standard models of symphonic form. The real significance of American symphonic programs is the composers' attempts to wriggle free of the conventions of symphonic structure. The "stories" in such works usually are claptrap and best ignored, but they push musical architecture into unique positions and thus enlarge the expressive possibilities of the works. The first truly good American symphonies were those by John Knowles Paine in the 1880s; but since he adhered strictly to European models, his works sound less original and less pregnant with potential than those of his more wacko colleagues.

The American symphony really acquired its own identity with insurance man Charles Ives's Third Symphony, The Camp Meeting (1904). Ives was first to combine an indifference to European models of form with musical genius. His first two symphonies are more traditional, but his third strikes out into wholly new territory, although its basic harmonic language is rooted in the hymn tunes it quotes. (Unfortunately, the composer's fourth and last symphony descends into the cacophony of his final creative years.)

There have also been fine works from Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, Walter Piston, and Aaron Copland, but the culmination of the American symphony (to date) is the work of Roy Harris (1898–1979).

It is edifying to compare Harris's work with that of his more well known colleague, Copland. Harris is to Copland as Mussorgsky is to Tchaikovsky. Copland is more graceful, more accessible, and more technically accomplished, but Harris is a visionary. Copland was an eclectic. He had no qualms about using a large selection of conventional styles, including Schonbergian serialism. The heroic symphonic style, which Copland employed in his Third Symphony, is nothing more to him than another compositional tool, and he rarely used it.

Harris, on the other hand, never evinced the slightest interest in "atonality." His symphonic heroism is not an externally applied idiom but a unique manifestation of his own spirit, so much so that at times it sounds peculiar and eccentric.

A number of writers have commented on the essential "religious" character of Harris's music, but this is misleading. His outlook is in fact secular, but it sounds religious because it is so devoid of the antispirituality of atonality and other modernist schemes. The problem with discussing spirituality in music is that it is invariably misunderstood, being associated almost automatically with the supernatural. But the human spirit exists as a natural force, its existence proved in every product of human creativity, including art, science, and commerce.

Music serves as the purest means of understanding humans' spiritual nature on an emotional level and of exploring the myriad variations in spiritual nature known as individuality. Harris, whatever his faults, always expresses himself in his music. Beginning with his first symphony, his unmistakable style is manifest, and the "religious" quality of his music, the white-hot intensity that infuriates some and others find revelatory, is solidly in place. Even when his music is clumsy and inept, it is clumsy and inept so honestly that it is more useful for its spiritual insights than are some of the best works of lesser composers.

Like the Ives of the Third Symphony, Harris could muster little enthusiasm for the standard forms of symphonic construction. Such forms have served other modern composers well, but Harris clearly saw the symphony as something more than a set of forms. His works are often well constructed, but on their own terms.

Some of Harris's works create the initial impression of being jerry-built affairs, because his themes are too long and complex to immediately impinge on the memory. His symphonic movements, on the other hand, are often quite short. Thus the music begins to develop almost immediately in a Harris work. Themes not yet fully revealed in one section suddenly appear contrapuntally later in the work. This creates the impression of a living thing struggling to grow out of the "germs" or motives that the melodic line creates.

Harris often utilizes modalities, which increase the sense of the composition structured as an organic flow or a process rather than as a piece of architecture, as is the tendency in more harmonically complex music. But like all great symphonists, Harris also has a profound sense of the dramatic, which is facilitated by his original and vivid orchestration.

Listen to his most famous work, the Third Symphony (1938): hear the long opening melody in the low strings, noble, impassioned, and yet strangely cold, like marble; the entrances of the other strings, developing the initial material and carrying it further; the histrionic interjections of the brasses; the plaintive woodwind figures; at length the soaring line in high strings and woodwinds, which leads to the fantastic pastoral episode, with its rustling strings and winds crying out as from the recesses of some vast Venusian aviary; then the fugue, with its unforgettable tune and its exhaustive development in the brass and strings, the moving secondary theme in the woodwinds; the searing conclusion of this section, with the strings ascending to contrapuntal ecstasy, the brass whooping their enthusiasm, the tympany pounding its reminiscences of the fugue's rhythm; and finally the last section, where the opening material is further developed while the tympany beats funereally, and the rest of the orchestra laments objectively in one last great polyphonic flow—all of this in 17 minutes. It is fundamentally Romantic, but Romanticism purged of Mahlerian overkill. In character it is a creation unique to this century and this country.

Harris's Americanism has often been duly noted, as has the difficulty of defining its exact nature. It is not a matter of the usual nationalist quotation of folk songs, since he rarely indulged in this practice. Harris was born in the Oklahoma Territory, more or less in the wilderness. The young hayseed studied music in Paris in the '20s under the supreme sophisticate Nadia Boulanger.

Although Harris received a thorough grounding in the fundamentals of the art, he never developed a cosmopolitan attitude, as did the other American composers (that is, almost all of the famous ones) who studied under her. On hearing something like his Symphony 1933 (his first symphony), it is easy to jump to the conclusion that this intoxicating but rather oddball music is the product of a crude primitive, of someone who had never heard a symphony before. Despite the idiosyncratic originality of his music, or perhaps because of it, it remains one of the best musical evocations of the American spirit, or, specifically, the spirit of freedom.

This brings up the question of Harris's politics. Some fuss was raised by McCarthyite forces in 1952, when Harris's Fifth Symphony was scheduled to be played at a music festival, because the piece (written during World War II) had been dedicated to "the peoples of the USSR." The U.S. military alliance with the Soviets may have been one of the colossal political blunders of modern times, but it was hardly Harris's fault.

The right-wingers should have noted certain statements made by Harris concerning his Symphony for Band ("West Point"), which was first performed earlier that year by the West Point band. This symphony's coda, according to Harris, "emphasizes the sense of profound gratitude which all mothers and fathers of our nation hold towards our fighting forces—one might call it almost a religious expression." Harris, in short, was a patriot and a rather sentimental and silly one, but there has never been a composer with a really unclouded understanding of political issues.

Cynics may view works like his Ninth Symphony (1962), based on the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, or the Abraham Lincoln Symphony (1965), his tenth symphony, to be mere propagandist corn, but the fact is that Harris's cornball political inspirations often resulted in excellent music. In the Sixth Symphony (1944), for example, each of four movements is based on a phrase from the Gettysburg Address. The first, "Fourscore and seven years ago…," is a stunning musical description of the Spirit of '76. In seven minutes Harris evokes the soul of a free people in a way that would require a hundred volumes of political theory to clarify.

And what of the American symphony since Harris? The neglect that has accompanied the work of the master is not exactly encouraging to those who would follow him. Fewer than half of his 15 symphonies (and none of those after the seventh) have been recorded. Americans John Harbison and Ellen Zwilich recently have done some good symphonic work. Although it is not great stuff, at least it keeps alive the tradition of American symphony.

Free-lance writer Kyle Rothweiler is a regular contributor to American Record Guide.