Roy Harris

American composer Roy Harris (1898-1979) was a leading figure of the "American" movement in music in the 1930s and 1940s; he composed over 200 works.

Roy Harris was born on Feb. 12, 1898, in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. He migrated to California with his parents while still a boy. After military service in World War I, he began serious musical study at the University of California at Berkeley. His mentor was composer Arthur Farwell, who introduced him to the poetry of Walt Whitman and encouraged him to develop a distinctive style. He also studied with Charles Demarest, Fannie Dillon, Henry Schoenfeld, and Modest Altschuler.

Harris's first orchestral composition, Andante, was performed by the New York Philharmonic in 1926. With the encouragement of Aaron Copland, Harris then spent three years working with composer/pianist Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Under her tutelage, he wrote a Concerto for piano, clarinet, and string quartet which established him in Paris as one of the premier young American composers. His return to the United States was followed during the 1930s by a rapid rise to prominence, with numerous performances, recordings of most of his major works, and many commissions. One of his best known works, The Third Symphony dates from this period.

Harris's name and music has been associated with a visionary view of the United States and is linked with poets Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. He composed music for ballet, orchestra (including 16 symphonies), chamber ensembles, and one film. Some of his explicitly American themes are suggested by such titles as What So Proudly We Hail, Gettysburg Address, The Abraham Lincoln Symphony, Kentucky Spring, Epilogue to Profiles in Courage: JFK, and the well-known overture, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

Harris's highly original style reveals constant development and cultivation, most characteristically expressed in his Symphony No. 3 (1938). His most frequently performed work, this symphony is classical in attitude, tonally organic, and intensely dramatic. Melodies spin out in long, free lines, evolving gradually into direct and affirmative motifs. The symphony has a sense of open spaces and harmonies, rugged rhythmic inventiveness, modal character, and hymnlike sections. It displays qualities considered American that are characteristic of many of his compositions.

Harris was associated with a number of academic institutions as a teacher of composition, as composer-in-residence, and as recipient of creative grants. During World War II he was chief of the Music Division of the Office of War Information. In 1958 he visited the Soviet Union as a cultural representative, becoming the first American to conduct his own symphony with a Soviet orchestra. His academic posts were at Westminster Choir School, Cornell University, Colorado College, Utah State Agricultural College, Peabody College for Teachers, Pennsylvania College for Women, University of Southern Illinois, Indiana University, the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, the University of California at Los Angeles, and, as composer-in-residence, California State University, Los Angeles. Among his many honors was the title, Composer Laureate of the State of California.

Roy Harris died in 1979, in Santa Monica, California. The Roy Harris Archive is housed at the Kennedy Memorial Library, California State University, Los Angeles.


Further Reading on Roy Harris

Biographical details, Harris's own remarks, and stylistic observations are in David Ewen, The New Book of Modern Composers (1942; 3rd ed. 1961); Major works are discussed in Ewen's The World of Twentieth-Century Music (1968); for an evaluation see Wilfrid Mellers, Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music (1965); For recent works, see Dan Stehman's Roy Harris: An American Musical Pioneer (1984); and Roy Harris: A Bio-Bibliography (1991).