Roy Harris

Roy Harris was as renowned a composer in the 1940s as any of his American contemporaries, owing to the immense popularity of his Third Symphony. He helped develop, mainly with Copland, what has come to be regarded as a uniquely American idiom in concert music. His mature compositions incorporated folk music or folk-inspired elements with fresh harmonies, often in orchestration that favored wind instruments, fashioning a style that could embrace a mixture of savagery, lyricism, celebration, tenderness, and rural Americana. His themes tended to be short or, in slow sections, often unfolded gradually; and his choral music divulged characteristics of both chant and the hymn and folk styles of his rural background. He favored orchestral and choral writing, but also composed a large number of works for band. He produced a significant body of piano music, as well, mainly for his pianist wife, Johana Harris. Patriotic subjects often served as the basis for many of his compositions, such as Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (1953), for mezzo-soprano, violin, cello, and piano, and the Abraham Lincoln Symphony (Symphony No. 10) (1965). He also wrote a fair amount of religious or religious-inspired music, including his Mass (1948), for men's chorus and organ, and the Pere Marquette Symphony (Symphony No. 12) (1969). While his stature declined in the 1950s and '60s, Harris experienced something of a revival in his last decade and has rightly come to be regarded as a pioneer, at least in the music of his earlier years. He was a pioneer in other ways, too: Beginning in 1938 Harris became one of the first composers to become involved in radio on a regular basis. He hosted a show for CBS called, Let's Make Music and remained involved in the medium into the 1950s.

Roy Harris was born in Lincoln County, near Chandler, in the territory of Oklahoma, on February 12, 1898. The date of his birth has been brought into question, as a land deed made public in 1979 suggests the year could be 1901. The composer, whose recollection about events in his life, cannot always be trusted for complete accuracy, is the main source of information regarding his birth date. His father, Elmer Harris, was a farmer and his mother, Laura Broddle, a talented amateur pianist. She would give birth to five children altogether, only Roy and his sister Irene, born in 1907, surviving childhood, however. Laura Harris developed malaria shortly after Roy was born and fought off its effects for nearly a decade. About midway through this period Elmer, on the advice of a physician who suggested a warmer climate might offer prospects of improved health for his wife, moved the family to the San Gabriel Valley in California. Around this time, too, young Roy developed typhoid and carried on a struggle of his own for a time before finally recovering.

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