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Roy Harris, Contemporary Classicist

In 1969, at the end of a rambling series of oral history interviews, American composer Roy Harris called himself “a contemporary classicist,” saying: “I am trying to make forms which have contemporary rhythms... and forms as large as our nation. I am trying to write something... which is not ashamed to believe something or not afraid to make a declaration. I don’t believe in ambiguity at all. I don’t think nature believes in it. Nature doesn’t try to have a rose grow on the pine tree.” Presumably spoken more or less off­-the -cuff, this credo bears Harris’s trademark nationalism, his unabashed embrace of artistic “truth,” and his free­-wheeling botanical metaphors. Not far below the surface it also reflects his attempt to distance himself from neoclassicism, particularly as exemplified by Stravinsky and by his countryman Aaron Copland (sometimes friend, sometimes rival). Yet Harris did not wish to yield the melodic contours, harmonic palette, or musical forms arising from the classical tradition.

Drawing upon reception history, archival documents, recordings, and detailed analysis of Harris’s scores, this paper aims to show how Harris used classical resources in profoundly UN­neoclassical ways in his earliest works (the Piano Sonata and Symphony 1933), at the height of his fame in the 1930s (the Piano Quintet and the iconic Third Symphony), and indeed until the end of his creative life in the 1970s. Harris felt compelled to fertilize what he considered the “sterile” forms of neoclassicism and at the same time to naturalize the Schoenbergian Grundgestalt. I argue that Harris’s heartfelt and sometimes noisy affirmations of tradition sprang from his position on the cusp of two different understandings of organicism: one steeped in a romantic emphasis on “authentic” and apparently spontaneous growth, and one reflecting a modern preoccupation with motivic unity and systematic control. In tracing Harris’s fraught stance vis-­a­-vis classicism and the conundrums that critics have faced when describing his style, this paper also sheds some gentle light on the power and peril of stylistic labels in the rapidly changing and ever­-self­-conscious realm of twentieth-­century music.


Beth Levy is Associate Professor of musicology and Chancellor’s Fellow at UC Davis.  Her book, Frontier Figures: American Music and the Mythology of the American West, was honored by the American Musicological Society’s “Music in American Culture” Award, the Society for American Music’s “Lowens Book Award,” and an award from the PEN Center USA.  She has published scholarly articles in American Music, repercussions, and the Journal of Film Music, and her contribution to Copland and His World (edited by Carol Oja and Judith Tick, Princeton UP) won the 2005 Irving Lowens Award for the best article on American music from the Society for American Music.  In 2006-07, she was a fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History, where she studied music critics’ reactions to World War II and in 2012-13 she was Interim Director of the UC Davis Humanities Institute.  In addition to writing program notes for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players for twelve seasons, she has recently served as Local Arrangements Chair for the Society for American Music annual meeting in Sacramento (2015) and as the President of the Northern California Chapter of the American Musicological Society (2013-15).  Her current research projects include work on Roy Harris, music and the Marx Brothers, and the community and historical pageant in California.