Lou Harrison's "Elegiac" Symphony

By James David Jacobs

Jan. 30

On December 7, 1975, I went to a concert at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, to attend a concert of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra. At that time I was fourteen years old, playing cello in the Berkeley Junior Orchestra and eager to check out what I considered to be the "big kid's orchestra," which I would in fact join two years hence and go on a European tour with, though I certainly had no idea of that at this time. On this day I was content to listen to the orchestra do a long and wildly ambitious program that included an overture by Robert Muczynski, Saint-Saens's tone poem Phaeton, Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony, and the world premiere of a new symphony (titled Elegiac) by Lou Harrison that I had heard was giving the orchestra a lot of trouble during rehearsals, due in no small part to the composer himself; in fact earlier that very afternoon when they played their final dress rehearsal they found 15 additional measures for the fourth movement stapled to their parts. The symphony was a major work, in five movements, over a half hour long; the earliest sketch for the work is dated October 11, 1942, which means Harrison had been working on this piece for a third of a century. (And he wasn't done yet; he made significant revisions in 1988.) If the orchestra knew that they were taking on the magnum opus of one of the major figures of twentieth century music, neither the orchestra nor the composer acted like it.

There's a Boston connection here: like so many other 20th-century masterpieces, the impetus for this symphony came in the form of a commission from the Koussevitsky Foundation. The passages for two solo double basses in the third movement were intended to be a tribute to Koussevitsky, who in addition to being a conductor was a virtuoso on the double bass. The symphony is dedicated to the memory of both Serge and Natalie Koussevitsky. Another BSO conductor, Pierre Monteux, encouraged the creation of the second and fifth movements.

Despite the dedication, however, it's the deaths of both his mother and his close friend and fellow composer Harry Partch in 1974 that really inform the emotional tone of this work, which incorporates materials from different phases of his career. It can be considered a summing up of his work and influences. The mixture of personal grief and Eastern spirituality that runs through the work is reflected in these comments he wrote about it, explaining the titles of the movements: "The angel of music, Israfel ('whose heartstrings are a lute' - Edgar Allan Poe') stands with his feet in the earth and his head in the sun. He will blow the last trumpet. Six times daily he looks down into hell and is so convulsed with grief that his tears would inundate the earth if Allah did not stop their flow."

Lou Harrison (left) was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1917, and spent much of his life in Northern California. He studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, wrote music for modern dance choreographers, and produced percussion concerts involving found objects like automobile brake drums. In the '30s and '40s, his career resembled that of John Cage, and they collaborated together in various contexts. Harrison ultimately took a different path, however. He moved to New York in 1943, where he joined Virgil Thomson as a music critic for the Herald Tribune. He befriended the elderly Charles Ives, editing the never-performed 40-year-old manuscript of Ives's Third Symphony and conducting its world premiere in Carnegie Recital Hall, actions that won Ives the Pulitzer Prize, which he shared with Harrison. (He also wrote music for the Living Theatre, directed by Judith Malina. I did not know this until I wrote music for a couple of Living Theatre productions in the 1990s and heard Judith talk about Harrison, whom she considered one the greatest artists she ever worked with.)

But perhaps Harrison's greatest contribution to the culture is the American gamelan. In collaboration with William Colvig, Harrison meticulously turned scrap metal into instruments that emulated the sound and pure intonation of a Balinese gamelan orchestra. Soon American gamelans sprung up everywhere, especially on college campuses. If you've heard live gamelan music outside of Asia, you have Lou Harrison to thank.

This influence is especially prevalent in the two movements of the symphony, the first and third, that share the title "Tears of the Angel Israfel." Both make use of Balinese pentatonic scales and ancient modes; the third movement utilizes a mode first notated by Claudius Ptolemy in third-century Alexandria. About two minutes into the first movement you hear the sound of a tack piano, a regular piano with tacks pushed into the hammers, giving it a tinny sound that for Harrison evokes the sound of Asian instruments. While Glenn Gould and various rock bands experimented with tack pianos, this piece contains the most serious and significant use of the instrument. The Greek mode in the third movement is played, as mentioned above, by two double basses utilizing their upper harmonics, creating a magical texture accompanied by horn, celesta, harp and muted strings.

In between these two movements is a shorter movement titled simply Allegro, poco presto, one of the movements suggested by Monteux to give the work a more symphonic dimension. The movement, while more animated than the other two, still essentially inhabits a modal sound-world.

The fourth movement, titled "Praises for Michael the Archangel," is quite different in style. It originated as an organ piece Harrison wrote in the 1940s, very much influenced by his work with Schoenberg and his encounter with the music of Carl Ruggles. In the context of the essentially mournful-yet-lyrical style of the other movements, the bracing modernism of this movement stands out. To the extent that this work is an expression of the process of grief, this movement could be said to reflect the stage of anger.

The last movement, titled "The Sweetness of Epicurus," reflects acceptance. The long oboe melody spinning out over the descending line of the Koussevitsky-inspired double basses and the modal intervals of the horns weave all the elements of the symphony together into a tapestry that I will go out on a limb and declare is the most beautiful movement of American symphonic music yet written. This movement was repeated at its premiere; the conductor Denis de Coteau told the audience that he felt that they hadn't done the work justice the first time. He was right; the second performance transfixed the audience, followed by a long silence, then thunderous applause.

In the score, Harrison added two epigrams:

"Where Death is, we are not; where we are, Death is not; therefore, Death is nothing to us." - Epicurus

"Bitter sorrows will grow milder with music." - Horace

I was privileged to hear one other live performance of this work, given by the Juilliard Orchestra, that took place three days before the composer's death in 2003. The performance confirmed for me and for everyone present that this is one of the great American symphonic works. The Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra's own LP recording for the 1750 Arch label is long out of print, but fortunately the American Composers Orchestra recorded Harrison's 1988 revision of the work, which we will hear today, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

All this month, I have been pairing American symphonies with symphonies from the standard repertoire. I knew that Harrison was displeased with its pairing with the Tchaikovsky at its premiere, so I chose instead Brahms's Fourth Symphony, which also seems to speak of grief in an indirect language. Brahms wrote the last movement in the form of a chaconne, with a bass line borrowed from one of Bach's earliest cantatas, BWV 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, or "Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul." We'll hear the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Carlos Kleiber.

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