"Let's not kid ourselves," wrote Roy Harris, "my Third Symphony happened to come along when it was needed."
These days, the idea that anyone NEEDS a new symphony feels very remote. When we consider that Harris's symphony "came along" in 1939, with the world on the brink of catastrophe, it becomes even harder to imagine that people were waiting with bated breath for a new American symphonic work. Yet Harris was certainly right, as far as the needs of American orchestras were concerned. And not just the orchestras: as America readied itself to play its role on the world stage as a force for freedom against the forces of tyranny, culture was not an insignificant element of that force. Hitler was not shy about using Germany's perceived cultural hegemony (especially regarding music) as a rallying point, and Italy and Japan both boast even older and greater cultural traditions. The USA is a relatively young upstart in this company, yet by 1939 much of the world was tapping its feet to jazz and flocking to Hollywood movies, and, fueled (and funded) by the cultural ambitions of FDR's administration, there was an eager contingent of American artists eager to show what they could do in European art forms. At this pivotal moment in world history, America had something to prove, not just militarily but in every aspect of civilization. We did indeed need a great American symphony at that moment, and Roy Harris, probably the greatest truck-driver-turned-composer in history, became a cultural hero for a time.
Harris rejected the prevailing stylistic trends of the time: jazz, serialism, Stravinskian neo-classicism (which is the direction he was being nudged by Nadia Boulanger). If we accept Grove's Dictionary of Music's characterization that "the sweep of his forms may be related to the open spaces of the American landscape," then it should be added that Harris's landscape looks different from Copland's or Virgil Thomson's. This may have to do with Harris's interest in Renaissance polyphony, his not-quite-complete musical training (Boulanger called him "my autodidact"), and his interest in older, rawer forms of American folk materials than the ones his contemporaries were drawing upon. It's telling that he was good friends with his fellow Oklahoman Woody Guthrie, who had a similar primal, untamable quality. One also hears echoes of Sibelius and Nielsen, a kind of Nordic cragginess.
What makes the public's embrace of this symphony so interesting is that it's not a Big Statement (like the symphonies we heard last week, Beethoven's Eroica and Copland's Third.) It's one 18-minute movement, five sections that flow into one another all beginning with a cello theme that resembles a Gregorian chant. It almost sounds as if the cellos had already been playing for some time before the symphony begins, and we just happen to be joining them mid-chant. As it goes through a variety of moods that Harris labels Tragic, Lyric, Pastoral, Fugue-Dramatic and Dramatic-Tragic, we never get too far away from the course of that quasi-chant; it's about halfway through the Fugue that we get the nearest thing to a Copland-esque folk melody. The last movement takes an unexpectedly dark turn, and the ending truly is dramatic and tragic, coloring everything we have heard before and making it nearly impossible to separate the work from the year it was written in. Perhaps its necessity came from the catharsis of the ending, eloquently expressing the collective anxiety of that moment and fulfilling the role of artist as prophet.
Mozart's Symphony No. 41, the "Jupiter" (that's the coda in Mozart's manuscript at left), written in 1788 but probably not performed until after Mozart's death, may be quite familiar to some listeners, but for its initial audience it, too, was a highly necessary symphony that changed the landscape. (And with the right performance it can still exert a similar kind of world-changing power for modern listeners as well.) But for its initial audience it, too, was a highly necessary symphony that changed the landscape. This was the first symphony in which the weight of the work increases as it progresses and culminates in the finale - a finale that, in its contrapuntal fireworks and operatic splendor, seems to sum up the entire eighteenth century. (Some 19th-century commentators even saw in this work a prophecy of the French Revolution!) Only in an instrumental work could Mozart combine elements that sound simultaneously sacred and secular, transcendent and worldly. The fact that he used this four-note motif
in several compositions written throughout his life (including his first symphony written at age eight) makes this seem like a summing-up of Mozart's own career as well.
It's also, I feel, a statement of belief, perhaps even Mozart's true faith. I've always been struck by the fact that there are moments in Mozart's comic operas that possess a depth of expression that most composers reserve for their most devout religious works - and that one never finds in Mozart's own religious works, which even at their best seem impersonal by comparison. Unlike composers like Bach and Beethoven, who seek solace in an idealized plane far removed from everyday life, Mozart seems to find divine nature in humanity the way it is (and how it's presented in comic operas), rather than it its ultra-noble or ultra-pious state. By weaving elements of opera buffa and the kind of counterpoint one associates with Baroque religious works into this breathtaking, whirlwind finale that also feels like a hymn of glory, he seems to be making a Big Statement indeed. The fact that he once used this four-note theme as the basis for a Credo in one of his masses gives weight to the idea that this finale is a statement of belief and faith - in the human creative spirit. Considering the way in which subsequent composers took up this credo and infused it with the Romantic spirit, this may be the most necessary symphony ever written.
I hope you'll join me for these two essential symphonies after 9am on Sunday.
Comment on This Article
Subscribe to WGBH Arts & Drama Emails
Support for WGBH is provided by:Become a WGBH sponsor