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CD Review

Roy Harris

I Hear America Singing! - Choral Music

  • Easter Motet, Alleluia
  • Mass
  • Madrigal, They say that Susan has no heart for learning
  • Whitman Triptych
  • Three Songs of Democracy on Poems of Walt Whitman
  • Symphony for Voices on Poems of Walt Whitman
  • When Johnny Comes Marching Home
The Roberts Wesleyan College Chorale/Robert Shewan
Albany TROY164 70:12
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Important and neglected work from an important and neglected composer, and it will probably stay that way.

When one thinks of Roy Harris, one thinks of the American symphony, with good reason. Harris, however, lived a rather peripatetic life, from one academy to another. At one point, he found himself professor of composition at the distinguished Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. He had written important choral pieces before the appointment and would write others after, but I'm convinced this stay confirmed his commitment to the genre. For one thing, he had access to at least one great choir under the leadership of the important choral conductor John Finley Williamson. It's a rare composer indeed who can turn down a musical Rolls with the driver's door open and the key in the ignition.

Considering how low under the radar Harris's music now flies, you may be surprised to learn that at one time he and Copland ran neck and neck for the title of Most Significant American Composer. As late as the Fifties, one could find fierce partisan battles between Harrisonians and Coplandsmen, but the musical controversies of postwar American life took a different turn and to some extent swept both men under for a time. Copland has come back to something very like his worth. Harris hasn't.

The CD mixes masterpieces with pieces that aren't, and thus gives you a good idea of Harris's range. Not everything, of course, need be a masterpiece. Even Schoenberg has his trifles. All the works here come from the period of Harris's greatest critical reputation, the Thirties and Forties. It was a time, of course, of great social ferment, with the western democracies under threat from right- and left-wing totalitarianism and from economic collapse. Curiously, however, it was also a time of great optimism - unlike our own. Whitman and Whitman's idealistic vision of the American democracy had great appeal to liberals and socialists alike, particularly among writers and composers, not only in the U.S. but also abroad. One sees this in such disparate figures as Sandburg and Vaughan Williams, of course, but also in Weill and Hindemith, refugees from the Reich. Harris probably fell hardest for Whitman among the major American composers of his time. Almost all the really important work on the CD sets Whitman texts, and not just the anthology pieces either. With lines from Sands at Seventy and Inscriptions, Harris obviously knows his Whitman pretty well. I have no idea of Harris's politics, but the rhetoric he uses about Whitman differs not a jot from the Thirties liberals and socialists. To quote Harris from producer John Proffitt's fine liner notes:

Walt Whitman was the great singer of Democracy. He believed in the preservation of the individual in serving to his maximum / optimum, the cause of a free society….Whitman had the power to believe, yet who better than he knew the unavoidable cost of every step toward freedom, whether that freedom be the wages of self-imposed discipline or the willing allegiance of all to the purpose of honest, hopeful social order which can serve in turn the cause of international good will and understanding.

Politics aside, Whitman's expansiveness suits Harris's artistic nature down to the ground. Both rely on the cumulative power of their material, the continual variance of a basic idea or rhetorical trope. You wouldn't call either artist "streamlined," exactly. If concision is a hallmark of Modern music (and Modern art in general), then, despite its idiom, there's something a bit old-fashioned about Harris's symphonies. I usually sense somewhere in the background the School of César Franck in Harris's symphonic thought. I happen to dislike the Franck symphony but do like Harris's, so this isn't an evaluation so much as an attempt to describe how he goes about writing.

However, the choral pieces achieve brilliant concision. This is Modern Music and no fooling. Harris rises to the challenge set by the limitations of the human voice, as opposed to a mess of instruments. He radically simplifies his usual complex instrumental counterpoint. Indeed, most of the writing is declamatory, putting the words foremost, much like the choral music of Harris's pupil William Schuman. In fact, Schuman's choral writing simply takes Harris's to one extreme.

I'll deal with the trifle first. They Say that Susan has no Heart for Learning, for women's voices and piano, shows Harris in a surprisingly suave mood. The rough-hewn, "rail-splitter" quality of so much of his music is absent here. Indeed, the choral writing and the harmonies are far more Stravinskian than usual, reminding me of the polished Irving Fine's (earlier) Alice in Wonderland series. It's a sophisticated charmer. On the other hand, When Johnny Comes Marching Home (a Harris favorite, by the way, which also shows up in the "Folk-Song" Symphony #4 and in its own short instrumental setting) comes across as far more obviously "American" than usual and makes fewer concessions to vocalism. Of all the items on the program, and short as it is (two minutes), this comes closest to Harris's orchestral writing. Its rhythmic and harmonic vigor appeal to me most.

The Mass, for men's voices and organ, unfortunately strikes me as an ambitious failure - Harris just noodling around for close to half an hour. The choral writing is quite expert, especially considering the limited range of men's voices, but the music doesn't seem to go anywhere or to stick in the memory. Furthermore, Harris does nothing to "open up" the range of notes. Just about everything "sounds" in a middle register. Eventually, it wore on me. On the other hand, I've read rapturous write-ups of this work, so your mileage, as they say, may vary.

On the other hand, the Easter Motet, Alleluia, for choir, organ, and brass uses simple word-painting to create great drama. The text asks the risen, victorious Christ to have mercy on us. Christ rises to an ascending musical line and has mercy to a descending one. The alleluias are strong and simple, with mainly two-part antiphony (back-and-forth) between the men and the women. Harris wrote it on commission toward the end of the war, and it's a strong effort, reflecting the hope of the time.

The Whitman pieces, all a cappella, begin with the Symphony for Voices of 1935, written for Westminster and Williamson. The Whitman Triptych for women's choir (1938) and the Three Songs of Democracy for mixed (1941) both use Harris's discoveries in the earlier work, so it makes sense to deal mainly with the Symphony.

Harris originally wrote four movements but decided to scrap the first one (he reworked it for women's voices and inserted it into the Triptych). My acquaintance with the Triptych convinces me there was nothing musically wrong with the movement. It may not have fit Harris's philosophic program. Harris wrote explicitly about the meaning of each movement. The present first movement, "Songs for all seas, all ships" (familiar to listeners of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony), talks of the sea as a shaper of human life and as a metaphor of humanity in progress. The second movement, "Tears," means to Harris the "sea of human suffering, the cost of freedom." The finale optimistically hymns the progress of humankind. Musically, what's left is a monument of the American choral repertoire. It may not be a true symphony, unlike the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony, but it is indeed genuinely symphonic in the way it moves. One can hear this most clearly, I believe, in the last movement, which sets the text:

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing

Each of those lines gets its own characteristic musical idea. Each is introduced, then combined in a spectacular contrapuntal and choral display with the other two, which winds down into a kind of coda. The number of parts grows to as many as eight, but Harris uses the choir as a vocal orchestra, again keeping to the limits imposed by the voice. The elaborate - even extravagant - forces usually create new colors, rather than a sonic mass, and Harris comes up with some inventive textures indeed, sometimes combining spoken voice with the singing. Before this CD, I had never heard the piece, although I had come across mentions of it. I've still got to study it for a while before I really "get" it in my imagination's grasp. Right now, its power overwhelms me. For those of you wondering what it might sound like, I'd recommend listening to William Schuman's Prélude for Voices as something approaching its scope and emotional punch. Indeed, Schuman very likely appropriated his teacher's discoveries for his own work, especially his own Whitman settings.

Most of this music demands a great choir and a great choral interpreter. Roberts Wesleyan is a good, well-trained, disciplined group. Its attacks are clear, its diction is, at its best, good enough. However, it lacks a great choral sound. Though the students are well-trained, their voices are too young, and they don't blend well, either within or among sections. More problematic, however, is Shewan's direction. I lay the problems on Shewan's doorstep because the choir has made it obvious that it does what it's told. Shewan is a wonderful choral technician. However, these performances offer, almost constantly, an undifferentiated wall o' sound, where Harris's music requires a hierarchic layering of vocal lines. Some lines, at almost any point, need to be heard more than others, and it's Shewan's job to figure out which ones. Most obviously, obvious "grounds" (short phrases repeated to the same text) almost always cover up lines which extend and vary. This elementary mistake may be most obvious in the first movement of the Symphony, but it crops up throughout the entire program. In the second movement, the choir erases the soprano soloist. Indeed, the problem of proper balance is so acute that despite the individual diction of the sections, the words - the meanings - Harris took such pains to communicate are mostly lost, even with my copy of Leaves of Grass open before me. However, the music is so difficult, I have to admit that it's a feat getting choirs to this level. Surely, no choir in my city of New Orleans would do as well as Roberts Wesleyan. In the Mass, Shewan fails to shape the lines, but it's hard for me to say what that shape should be. The effect, at any rate, is this "undifferentiated middle" and adds to the monotony of the piece. Harris gives no help at all.

Despite all, I recommend the disc. The performances give you the measure of these works, even if they don't reach an ideal. This is a rare opportunity to hear great music. Hardly any one in the United States is doing major a cappella choral work before a large public. We should be grateful someone is willing to invest the incredibly hard work of Shewan and his singers. It's just so rare. I see very little interest, even among professionals and academics, in serious choral music these days. Professionals don't want to spend time sweating over the preparation of Ives if the public is just going to sniff. I'm told by my local public radio station that if it plays a choral work at a time other than Christmas, listeners switch stations. I have no reason to doubt it. The a cappella choral concerts - unless a program of Spirituals - in my city play to a few oddballs, the crickets, and the wind. Part of it may arise from the lack of decent public-school music programs, which devote resources, if any, to the marching band - music as the soundtrack for jockolatry. I've never really understood this, since a decent choral program costs a lot less and affects a greater number of students. So much for progress.

Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz