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Harris's 13th


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Author Topic: Harris's 13th  (Read 1291 times)
Gauk
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« on: March 15, 2013, 03:38:35 pm »

Following on from a mention by Latvian in another thread, I thought it might be worthwhile to draw attention to this discussion of the piece:

http://conductingmasterclass.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/almost-forgotten-bicentennial-symphony-will-re-debut-in-long-beach-at-juneteenth-event-roy-harris-almost-lost-piece-rescued-by-friend-and-music-lover-john-malveaux/

Personally, I tend to the opinion that the piece is unbelievably dire. I can't understand how a composer of Harris's stature could write such stuff. I have a nice poetry anthology which has sections titled "The bad poet at his best" and "The good poet at his worst" ("Across the wires th' electric message came/ He is no better; he is much the same."). If we take the "Bicentennial Symphony" as "The good composer at his worst", is there a more extreme example?
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2013, 04:03:13 pm »

I have written about the Harris 13th many times both here and elsewhere Grin

It is indeed quite excrutiatingly bad. It does not even have the brash, self-confident awfulness of the Khachaturian 3rd(another candidate for the worst symphony ever written).

Khachaturian MAY have written his 3rd slightly tongue-in-cheek and he was composing in a totally different political environment.

Harris seems to have simply almost completely "lost it" towards the end of his life and, having previously attempted to emulate the success of his Third and Fifth by repeating them in later symphonies, tried to write for unusual combinations of forces, including voices.

He would have been better advised to "do a Sibelius" and simply shut up and consign his efforts to a bonfire Sad

I am only speculating here.....but I really wonder whether Naxos and/or Marin Alsop, having decided in principle on a Harris cycle, actually looked at the 12th and 13th (for example) and decided that they were too poor to actually record Huh
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cilgwyn
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« Reply #2 on: March 15, 2013, 05:42:33 pm »

Isn't it great that the Harris thirteenth has got it's own thread?!! That in itself is quite an achievement! Shocked Grin

The Khatchaturian is rather good fun now & again,especially in the old Stokowski recording. Very Vincent Price,who was,incidentally,very funny on the itv4 repeat of Tommy Cooper,the other day! Definitely,one to put on full blast with plenty of bass! (The Tommy Cooper,I mean! Grin)
That aside,I can't help wishing,sometimes,that Harris had stopped at No3. I think it might have enhanced his posthumous reputation. As it is,numerous posts on the GMG thread always lead to the same conclusions, ie; that No3 is the best one! A few people seem to think that No7 is even better,while No 6 has it's admirers. The others are not as good,with No5,usually in the lead! No 8 & 11 have some good points & maybe,the Symphony 1933. The rest are okay,at best! (Although,I know the Second has one admirer!) And one member who thinks Harris is not even worth bothering about,at all! But all this after page after page after page after page of exchanges as to whether there is any merit in Harris,beyond his famous third?!!! Unlike Walter Piston,William Schuman or David Diamond (for example) where people are actually  posting about their enjoyment & admiration of the actual music itself!!!
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #3 on: March 15, 2013, 06:12:12 pm »

I suppose that one issue may be that Harris achieved a sort of status as the quintessentially "American composer"......a symphonic mid-period Copland Grin

Piston is a drier, more academic but more consistent composer. Schuman, Diamond and Mennin are more obviously "modern" than Harris or the Nordic, Sibelian Howard Hanson.
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cilgwyn
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« Reply #4 on: March 15, 2013, 09:48:38 pm »

I've been trying to think of a symphonist of quality who composed anything that could be considered as awful as Harris's thirteenth,but while I can think of many cycles that have their ups and downs,I can't think of anyone who sunk as low?! Maybe Knipper,with his infamous Fourth? But that all depends on the quality of the rest of his output & let's face it 1) the soviets liked it,even if 'we' don't;and 2) the USSR was a dictatorship,so Knipper had to compose stuff like that,even if he was a little bit dodgy himself! (The more wholesome Khatchaturian,was obviously under even greater pressure!)  On the other hand,despite all the the brazen patriotism,the Americans haven't exactly taken Harris's thirteenth to their hearts,have they? Or even,any of the other symphonies,it appears. Yet,unlike soviet composers,he didn't have to write patriotic drivel like that! On the other hand,as you suggest,maybe Harris was just trying to convince his critics that he could come up with something different?! Of course,the superstitious,Harris initially numbered this one as his Fourteenth!!! Unfortunately,it was too late to start worrying about bad luck,by then!!! Grin Sad
By the way,I almost forgot,there is someone on the GMG forum who enjoys his tenth symphony!! (Not me,by the way!) So you can please somebody! Grin
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #5 on: March 15, 2013, 11:27:31 pm »

Harris's mistakes with the Symphony No.10 were-

(a) calling it a "Symphony"
(b) using the most horrendously dreadful words for his speaker
(c) apparently attempting a more "modern-sounding" idiom

The result is almost unlistenable to Sad
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Gauk
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« Reply #6 on: March 16, 2013, 09:20:11 am »

Khachaturian 3 was a great disappointment to me when I first heard it; one charitable explanation I've heard is that he was trying to emulate Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture - but his compositional powers were not up to the task. It's still not unlistenable, as note the number of recordings.

Some pieces will always be sunk because of the choice of text. Calling a piece "Ode to Stalin" is not going to promote its longevity. But aside from the crude text in Harris's 13th, the word setting is just so poor, shouting out one syllable at a time. It's almost as if he was trying to channel Philip Glass or Harry Partch.
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cilgwyn
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« Reply #7 on: March 16, 2013, 04:12:28 pm »

In Lp days,I always used to pick up the needle & move it to the fun organ bits. I was convinced Dr Phibes was playing the organ,but on second thoughts,he probably would have better taste!The exotic melody is dragged out,seemingly endlessly,almost to the point of dissonance. Ouch! I And then there's that wierd 'Oompah! Oompah! accompaniment at one point,almost syncopated. I did like those bits when I was a youngster,I'll admit. But Khatchaturian's First & Second got the most playtime.
It's still better than Harris's tenth or thirteenth,in a horrible,over the top,lurid kind of way. It seems to epitomise all the worst excesses of the Soviet regimes bad taste;although,to be fair to them,they probably saved the masses from acts like tatu & the Cheeky girls! Worse was to come,later,from the decadent West! Grin

On a purely musical level,Khatchaturian's third is a disappointment,though. The Second Symphony has it's excesses,but there are moments of poignancy,amidst all the bombast. No 1,has a sweep & grandeur to it. I only wish they would release the marvellous RCA Red Seal Tjeknavorian performance on cd. (Not to be confused with his scrappy ASV revisit)

I just remembered,Kabalevsky's third symphony is subtitled a 'Requiem for Lenin'. It's on the Cpo symphonies set. I must have another listen. I seem to remember it's quite a subtle propaganda effort in comparison to Khatchaturian's third. (I must put their recent Piano Concertos set on my shopping list!).

Try as I might,I just can't think of any symphonist who has fallen as far as Harris! There must be someone!!! Although,not wanting to upset his many admirers,I do find Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony embarassingly pretentious & with the best will in the world,devoid of any musical merit,whatsoever!. If it was by anyone except dear old Lenny,I don't think anyone with any good taste would have bothered with it! Roy Harris,eat you're heart out!! Maybe,if you'd been able to write musicals & been a famous conductor,you would have got away with it? Absolutely awful!!! Shocked Shocked Not that there have been that many recordings or performances,but the way some of his admirers go on about it. I could say the same for a couple of his other concert pieces,too.......but I won't! Not here,anyway!! Give me Roy Harris,at his best, (the composer) any day,whatever his faults!
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Jim
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« Reply #8 on: March 17, 2013, 10:08:45 pm »

I do find Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish Symphony embarassingly pretentious & with the best will in the world,devoid of any musical merit,whatsoever!.

I couldn't let that pass without comment. Yes, music with a spoken element tends to divide listeners (even the RVW Oxford Elegy - of which I am personally fond). But Kaddish cannot be compared with what I have heard of Harris 13! Those excerpts do not sound promising. In Kaddish, Bernstein develops themes symphonically and cyclically across the work (surely there is merit in that?). There are twelve note elements (used tonally) and a lush melodic ending. Then again I am also a fan of his Mass and both these works have the similar theme of faith in crisis and a search for meaning. Kaddish took longer for me to understand until I remembered Tevye in 'Fiddler on the Roof' - the personal discussions and arguments with God appear to have an element of Jewish tradition. This even surfaces in Gurrelieder when Waldemar curses God after the death of Tove - and this piece also ends with that wonderful spoken text  Wink on nature and the renewal of life.
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Gauk
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« Reply #9 on: March 17, 2013, 10:37:47 pm »

Oh dear, the Kaddish ...

That's another piece, which, whatever you might think of the music, the text is so toe-curlingly embarrassing as to doom the entire work out of hand. Bernstein 3 may be musically better than Harris 13, but the text is even worse.
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Jim
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« Reply #10 on: March 17, 2013, 11:15:14 pm »

the text is so toe-curlingly embarrassing as to doom the entire work out of hand.

Careful, if you put Kaddish into room 101, Tippet 3 will have to go too Grin

PARTS of the text are embarrassing, but then it is supposed to be the composer's inner voice, 'warts and all'. I don't think it worse than Harris 13 because as inner dialogue it is more convincing than Harris' outer empty declamations. Maybe it is a peculiarly English thing but even the Copland Lincoln portrait is a bit embarassing with all the, 'That's what he said' repetitions.

Let me make a suggestion: go and hear Carmen sung in English and I am sure you would agree that it is pure doggerel (unless brilliantly improved by Hammerstein for 'Carmen Jones'). You may even say that the 'text is so toe-curlingly embarrassing as to doom the entire work out of hand'. Now the question arises, how many choral/vocal works that we consider masterpieces have substandard texts that we monoglots are blissfully unaware of?
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Gauk
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« Reply #11 on: March 18, 2013, 12:54:11 am »

Now the question arises, how many choral/vocal works that we consider masterpieces have substandard texts that we monoglots are blissfully unaware of?

Plenty, and that is why (for instance) that one doesn't hear Schubert's operas much.

And you can add Tippett's later operas to Tippett 3 as well. It constantly irks me that so many composers think that because they know how to write music means they know how to write poetry as well. The result is as daft as a poet deciding he might as well write his own music for his poems. It's possible that a good composer might be a good poet as well (or vice versa), but it's statistically unlikely.

Kaddish, though, is just too cringe-making to be listenable to.
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #12 on: March 18, 2013, 03:51:39 am »

I must confess to not having listened to Bernstein's Kaddish for some time.....but as for Tippett's 3rd Huh Well, I could happily live without ever hearing that work again Roll Eyes
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Jolly Roger
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« Reply #13 on: March 18, 2013, 08:21:45 am »

Perhaps Harris was trying to write something for the "me" generation and failed in a format for a "new" banal patriotism.
Perhaps he was simply forced into an unsuitable situation by the thematic material.
Every prolific composer has works which did not deserve to see the light of day, and this is one of them..
But let's not judge Harris to harshly.. Much of his music is quite memorable and unique..Patriotic or not..
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Dundonnell
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« Reply #14 on: March 18, 2013, 06:47:03 pm »

Oh...I totally agree Smiley

I am very fond of the earlier Harris. He was a substantial American composer and his music should not be judged simply on the basis of the rather feeble works of his old age.
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