Roy Harris’ Third Symphony in China in 1973
After Richard Nixon’s famous trip to China in 1972, there was a thawing in the icy relations between that country and the United States. Who knew that would ultimately lead to such close economic ties as we have today and what it would do for Walmart? Another development was the cultural exchanges that were to follow and the growing interest in China in western classical music. Now we have Lang Lang!
But earlier in the Chinese embrace of western music, in 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Eugene Ormandy became our musical ambassadors, bringing Mozart, Brahms, and Roy Harris to China. Roy Harris? Yes. Having one of our finest orchestras performing Mozart and Brahms in Beijing are obvious choices for representing the best in western musical tradition, but when it came to music representing our country, Ormandy chose the Third Symphony of Roy Harris. It was on this date in 1973 that a Beijing audience got to hear this important work.
Roy Harris is as American as apple pie, born in a log cabin in Oklahoma in 1898 on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and grew up in California. Like some other American composers of his time, he found his way to France in the 1920′s where he studied with Nadia Boulanger. His Third Symphony was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1939 and has been called “the quintessential American symphony.” Some may first think of Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson, Virgil Thomson, or Leonard Bernstein, but this is one of the great American symphonies, even if it is under twenty minutes long and in only one movement.
It is a very strongly unified work in five sections. It evolves organically from the opening bars like a tree developing from a seed. Harris was much influenced by pre-classical forms such as the fugue and passacaglia and admired Renaissance polyphony. He also admired and was influenced by the symphonic writing of Finland’s Jean Sibelius, whose music was popular in American concert halls at the time. Harris went on to write more symphonies, his last being a commission for the American Bicentennial in 1976, but his Third is regarded as his finest.
Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to China to hear Roy Harris’ Symphony No. 3. Join me this evening on Symphony @7 for this seminal American masterpiece. Meanwhile, here’s a sample: