Symphony No. 3 by Roy Harris

Next up on the listening list comes a piece that I have known well since I was a teenager. Indeed it is one of my favorite musical works. Significantly, Kingman devotes a lot of time to this symphony both in his text and on his accompanying CD set – it’s the longest single piece on a set that is composed of mostly very short performances. But his thoughts are not going to be part of this – I have deliberately not read his comment.

Actually, I cannot listen to Roy Harris’s 3rd Symphony without generating a considerable emotional response. There are few other pieces as weighty, with such gravitas, and with such such entrancing melodic invention as this. This was one of the first pieces of 20th century music that I fell completely in love with, and it sent me on a search through much of the 20th century repertoire to find similar works.

Now, looking back, I hear a lot of Paul Hindemith in this piece, particularly the Hindemith of Mathis de Mahler (1934) and Nobilissima visione (1938). Harris’s symphony dates from 1937-38, and although it is possible he was aware of Hindemith’s work, I sense that he arrived at his style in parallel. Other contemporary composers who plowed similar turf were the British composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and especially Edmund Rubbra. This was fertile ground.

The work begins with a melody in the low strings that echoes those of early church music and hymns and this sets the tone for the entire work. Similarly weighted counter-melodies from the mid-range strings are introduced, and the orchestration fills out with the introduction of low pitched horns. A slow and measured pace is maintained as melodic elements are repeated and used as the basis for slowly developing variations, migrating now to woodwinds and high strings. The whole effect of the work is of slow and inexorable growth and development. A less weighty passage in the middle of the symphony passes melodic fragments between woodwinds over a lightening string texture, moving to a faster paced interplay between horns that climaxes with all the instruments of the orchestral being joined by timpani. A general sense of playfulness and vitality emerges here – it really is hard not to imagine the buffalo roaming the plains and the galloping horses of the hunter at this point. Pizzicato strings and call and response phrases from orchestral groupings end this passage, and from below a stately hymnal string theme reemerges. This finally consolidates with the whole orchestra over a pronounced and steady kettledrum beat that continues with an almost unbearable emotional tension that is never really resolved despite a conventional symphonic ending. I always feel this is one classical work that it would be better to fade out rather than try to tie the loose ends. But no matter – it’s a marvelous work that has stood the test of time for me.

Oddly enough, it is the only symphony of Roy Harris that I know. His other work has been neglected by recording orchestras, and I’m looking forward to hearing a recent Naxos recording of his 7th and 9th symphonies. That’s on the way.

So were does this fit in the Partch analysis? Well, it is obviously an Abstract, highly composed, work for symphony orchestra. There is no explicit program. Moreover, the use of melodic elements that echo vocal techniques used in church music, place the ‘vocal’ elements of this work into the type of use that Partch regards as being far from Corporeal. Nonetheless, the work consistently suggests a program, that, along with its visceral power particularly in the final passage, leads me to give it a significant Corporeal quality.

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