Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Roy Harris

Roy Harris (1898-1979)
Roy Harris (1898-1979)

I continue on my self-avowed mini-mission to bring to you some of the most glorious music (and recorded performances) I know, music by mid-century, so-called American “populist” composers. This week and next will feature symphonies by two composers who are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet: Roy Harris (1898-1979) and William Schuman (1910-1992).

Never heard of them? AAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!! (That was primal.) 

During the salad days of the American symphony – the 1930s, 40s and 50s – Harris and Schuman were musical household names. Their music was played and replayed live by symphonies great and regional; recorded, reviewed and celebrated; and broadcast constantly on the concert music/classical radio stations that at that time so dominated the airwaves. Today we might have smart phones and tablets and readers and YouTube and Adele, but in comparison to the mid-twentieth century we here today in the U.S. of A. are culturally and nationally bereft. That we, as a listening public, have, for the most part, forgotten the names and music of Roy Harris and William Schuman is nothing short of a cultural tragedy.

Harris’ life-story reads like a rags-to-riches novel, and Harris himself was not above doctoring his life story whenever it was to his advantage to do so. But really, he didn’t have to, because the storybook facts surrounding his early life and rise to fame don’t require any exaggeration. 

Roy Ellsworth Harris was born in a log cabin on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday – February 12, 1898 – in Lincoln County, Oklahoma in the city of Chandler, northeast of Oklahoma City.

Harris was born nine years before Oklahoma became a state and grew up on a hardscrabble farm. In 1904, when Harris six years old, his family pulled up stakes and headed to California, where Harris’ father Elmer (yes: Elmer Harris) bought a piece of pasture land and started a farm in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Pasadena in Los Angeles Country. It was a part of the country at the edge of a phenomenal degree of change, change that Harris witnessed first-hand growing up, as the orange groves and ranches disappeared and were replaced by rapidly emerging towns and cities. Harris later said that he witnessed:

“The end of the pioneer days and the beginning of commercial America.” 

This urban development notwithstanding, it was the wide-open spaces and pioneer environment of the American West that remained, for his life, Harris’ singular artistic influence. 

He took piano lessons as a kid and played clarinet in the Covina Public High School band. His interest in music was intense, although it was an interest not looked upon kindly by his peers. In a profile written in 1952, Madeleine Goss observed:

“[Harris’] fellow pupils were inclined to look down on his musical accomplishments. In those days, people were apt to consider the ‘long-haired arts’ as they called them, effeminate. Roy, anxious to prove his virility, decided it would be better to give up music and go in for athletics. In the process (as a football player) he broke his nose and arm and ended all possibility of a pianist’s career by badly injuring one of his fingers.” 

During the First World War (American involvement 1917-1918), he served in the heavy artillery. After being discharged, he spent a year bumming around the country and found himself, in 1920, at the age of 22, with “neither money nor connections.”

Harris returned to Southern California and got a job driving a truck for a local dairy, and so made his living for the next few years delivering milk, butter and eggs to the locals. 

Composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981)
Howard Hanson (1896-1981)

But he also began attending Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts, though as he couldn’t afford tickets he served as an usher. His passion music reborn, Harris got his act together: he took some private lessons and then applied to and was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, where, now in his mid-twenties, he finally began to get some formal musical training. He stayed in Berkeley for two years, went back to Los Angeles for private study with a well-known local composer named Arthur Farwell, at which point things started to snowball. He composed a piece for orchestra entitled Andante, and through a route way too circuitous to detail here and now, the piece ended up in the hands of Howard Hanson (Dr. Bob Prescribes, March 19, 2019).

Hanson – who conducted the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and directed the Eastman School of Music – agreed to perform it there in Rochester, New York. Invited to attend the performance, Harris scraped together the train fare for what was supposed to be a two-week trip. He didn’t return to California for five years.…

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