Johana Harris plays Roy Harris

The performances on this CD by legendary pianist Johana Harris are taken from recording sessions carried out during the late summer and early fall of 1987 at the Hollywood-based Crystal Studios of engineer-producer, Andrew Berliner. Over a period of three months the 74-year-old Johana committed to tape more than a hundred works, covering a time span of some five centuries, by thirty-five composers, to which were added a pair of extended improvisation sequences (one of her long time specialties). The anthology as a whole was aimed at showcasing both the extent of her repertoire and her remarkable artistry which had flowered over a period of some sixty years. It was also a reflection of Johana’s discriminating taste and very personal approach to programming. All of the music meant a great deal to her though at the sessions she chose to record only particular movements of works. Remarkably, the ambitious project was begun without a particular label in mind for release. MCA Classics showed interest in a CD release of the series but got only as far as bringing out twenty-eight tracks of Bach and Debussy. The resulting two CDs, however, enjoyed a regrettably short catalogue life for hardly six months following their release, MCA opted out of the classical music field.

To represent 20th century music of the Western Hemisphere in her anthology, Johana Harris chose the work of five composers, three of whom appear on the present disc. She began with the handful of solo piano pieces by her marital and professional partner of forty-three years, Roy Harris (1898–1979), one of the key figures on the creative scene in American symphonic music during the middle third of the Twentieth Century (along with Hanson, Copland, Piston, Barber, and Schuman). Two of the other composers represented in the collection, John Edmunds (1913–1986) and Robert Evett (1922–1975), studied with Roy Harris at Cornell University and Colorado College respectively, while the third, John Heggie (b. 1961) was a piano student with Johana and became her second husband in 1981. (Since Johana’s death in 1995 he has been making a name for himself as a remarkably gifted composer for the voice.) The one composer chosen from south of the border was Mexico’s Carlos Chávez (1899–1978). On this CD, we have the Roy Harris works, plus the single pieces by Evett and Chávez.

The Roy Harris Sonata for Piano is one of his significant achievements from the period of his study with Nadia Boulanger (1926–29). Also from this period were a Song Cycle on Words by Whitman for women’s chorus and 2 pianos, the Concerto for Piano, Clarinet, the String Quartet, and the American Portrait Symphony (given a rehearsal reading by Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, but never publicly performed). Elements of the Sonata appear to have been sketched out prior to Harris’ European sojourn, but the excitement of a brief return voyage to New York in November 1928 proved a major stimulus toward finishing the work: “I was determined to put this intoxication into a musical form which one musician could utter on one instrument—something of ringing steel - taut - swift - impatient of the wisdom of our yesterdays.”

The opening Prelude, declamatory and dramatic (Maestoso, con bravura), lasts barely more than two minutes and grows autogenetically out of the initial descending fourth. In her performances, Johana Harris takes a sixteen bar composer-sanctioned cut which makes the movement sound even more taut, reaching the finish line in two minutes flat. The Andante ostinato slow movement embodies the lyrical essence of the work and has been described by the composer as “a variation study of two melodic types.” One is the 11/4 left-hand bass pattern, the other, moving concomitantly, is in Harris’ words “a free scale line polytonal pastoral style of melody.” The total effect is an amalgam of linear serenity and great harmonic richness. The breezily brilliant Scherzo builds from its initial four-note germ into a bracing study in the form of two- and three-part invention. A cadenza leads directly into a highly rhetorical Coda (again Maestoso, con bravura) built largely on materials from the Prelude and concludes (Con tutta forza) with a massive succession of polytonal chords. Robert Evett, in a December 1969 Atlantic Monthly article on Harris, sums up the Sonata as “an affront to the listener—a punch in the gut, a slap in the face.”
Pianist Harry Cumpson, an early Harris proponent, gave the Sonata its world premiere on February 24, 1929 as a part of the Copland-Sessions concert series at New York’s Little Theatre. (Though it may have been the most substantial piece on the program, it was the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein Capital Capitals for male quartet and piano which stole the show in terms of audience reaction.) Johana Harris’ first recording of the Sonata was done for RCA Victor in Mid-December 1937 and released in August 1939.The early Roy Harris “in your face style” persisted most notably in such works as the Symphony 1933, the first version of When Johnny Comes Marching Home—An American Overture, and the choral pieces, A Song for Occupations and Symphony for Voices—both based on Walt Whitman texts. However with the coming of Johana into his life as wife number four (they were married on October 10, 1936 at Union, Oregon), the Roy Harris musical language began to take on a perceptibly gentler image, reaching its apogee in the celebrated Third Symphony (1939).

Roy Harris, the self-made man, and, to a significant degree, an autodidact in matters musical, was now living under the same roof with a highly-trained fellow musician. Johana’s cultivated musicality may not have wholly diluted the distinctive early Harris idiom, but he did move away from rhythmic and harmonic abrasiveness and toward a rich-hued modal-infused lyricism. The full extent of Johana’s direct influence on Roy’s compositions has become subject to a great deal of speculation, but her impact on his later writing for piano is significant.

Late 1938 saw Roy and Johana well ensconced at Upper Montclair, New Jersey where Roy commuted to Princeton for his teaching at the Westminster Choir School, and where he completed the Third Symphony. When plans for its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C. did not materialize, Roy partially allayed his disappointment by composing a five-minute mini-suite for piano as a Christmas gift for Anne Norton, daughter of M.D. Herter (“Polly”) Norton, a patron and musical collaborator (on the string quartet transcription of Bach’s Art of the Fugue). The four brief movements of the Little Suite, reveal Harris to be an adept and poetic miniaturist. Bits of the Christmas carol Joy to the World turn up in Bells, surrounded by rich polychordal textures. Children at Play is an evocative 30-second study in 7/8 time with irregular metrics for the right hand. Dan Stehman in his 1984 study Roy Harris — An American Musical Pioneer (Twayne Publishers; Boston) characterizes the Little Suite as “an excellent introduction to Harris’s harmonic style.”

This is Johana Harris’ third recording of the Little Suite. The first dates from 1939 and was titled “Children’s Suite” when RCA Victor used it as a fourth side filler for her initial recording of the Sonata. The second was part of a Harris group done for MGM records in the middle 1950’s but never released, as MGM bowed out of the classical recording picture in 1959.

From Upper Montclair, Roy and Johana moved on in 1941 to Cornell University, this time as academic colleagues, and then in 1943, to Colorado College which saw them through the latter years of World War II. While in Colorado much of the Harris activity outside the classroom involved radio broadcast concerts and other entertainment for the Sixth Army Air Forces troops stationed at nearby Fort Logan. (By this time, Roy had been achieving major successes with his Folksong Symphony, not to mention attending the nationwide broadcast of The Fifth Symphony with Serge Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony Orchestra.) A major stock in trade for Roy and Johana’s broadcasts and live appearances was the American folk song repertoire whose musical language came as second nature to both. The ever-voluble Roy handled the commentary while Johana with her fine singing voice took care of the music, adding to the mix her flair for clever and brilliant improvisation. This in effect provided the seed-bed for the American Ballads. They were intended initially, it seems, as interludes in a 1942 series of fifteen broadcasts over Denver’s radio station KOA under the auspices of the Rocky Mountain Radio Council. As Roy put it in his introduction for the Carl Fischer publication of Set I (1947), “so many pianists and pupils requested the interludes that it became necessary to enlarge them somewhat to make them long enough for separate piano pieces.” Ten were planned for Carl Fischer publication, but only the first series of five were completed. Two others did make it to light in the mid-1980’s and were published in 1987 by the California State University Roy Harris Collection as edited by Roy’s musical executor, Dan Stehman.

Here it must be said that the Roy Harris treatment of folksong material is a far cry from that of Aaron Copland or Virgil Thomson. Harris brings to bear his own special brand of harmonic textures. The atmosphere throughout the set, save for the extroverted Cod Liver Ile, is for the most part spare, ruminative, even brooding as in Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.
Streets of Laredo is the familiar Southwest tale of the cowboy shot in a brawl and his subsequent funeral rites — “O beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly...” (see Lomax: Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads; Macmillan, New York, 1938). Wayfaring Stranger, also known as John Riley, was for many years the signature tune associated with folksinger-actor, Burl Ives, with whom the Harrises enjoyed a warm friendship. Save for the beginning and the end, the Harris treatment is essentially ruminative. The Bird offers an interplay of The Blackbird and the Crow (or Leatherwing Bat, as learned from Burl Ives) along with the Appalachian tune, Hop up, my Ladies. For the hauntingly beautiful Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair as adapted by John Jacob Niles, Harris uses only the first line, but brings to bear the fullest measure of his harmonic resourcefulness, leaving the music at the close in a state of timeless suspension. Cod Liver Ile was originally an 1870’s British music hall song that found its way into the Newfoundland fishery as a kind of Sea Chantey (see Elizabeth Briston Greenleaf & Grace Yarrow Mansfield: Ballads and Sea Songs of Newfoundland; Harvard University Press, 1933). “O doctor, dear doctor, o doctor, dear John, / Your cod liver oil is so pure, so strong / I’m afraid of my life, I’ll go down to the s’ile, / If my wife don’t stop drinking your cod live ile.” (So runs the refrain). In the Harris version we get a spirited jig with all the harmonic-rhythmic trimmings. The first Johana Harris recording of the American Ballads was for MGM in the mid-1950’s, but like the Little Suite, unreleased.

Over their first half-dozen years of marriage, Roy had made various attempts to come up with a large scale solo piano work for Johana. While he was more successful production-wise in the concerto medium — writing three piano concertos, a two-piano concerto and two fantasias for piano and orchestra, all of which Johana premiered — a satisfactory big solo work failed to materialize. G. Schirmer had announced in the 1930’s a “Second Piano Sonata” and RCA Victor had promised a set of “Four Etudes.” Finally on a 1942 commission from the League of Composers for its twentieth anniversary, Roy assembled a 9-minute Piano Suite in Three Movements. Only the exquisite middle movement, Contemplation, was wholly new. The first movement, Occupation, is a powerful elaboration on the African-American railroad work song, Tie Shuffling Chant (“Ho, boys cain-cha line ‘em?”), that appears in the 1940 Singing Through the Ages anthology which Roy had prepared with Jacob Evanson. In pianistic guise, it emerges as a highly effective study in sonority and harmonic texture as applied to African-American speech rhythm. Contemplation takes the form of variations on the hymn tune Slane (“Be Thou My Vision, Lord”). The whole calls for the pianist to execute most subtle shadings and coloration at the lower end of the dynamic range. The later pages are replete with delicate fioritura ornamentation, evocative according to Harris, of his boyhood memories of having to be in church while his thoughts were of the beauties of Nature outside. The third movement, Recreation (not recorded by Johana), is akin to the finale of the Little Suite: onomatopoeia imagery of childhood play with amusing references to familiar nursery songs and dances. Johana gave the first performance of the complete three movements set at the League of Composers anniversary concert at New York’s Museum of Modern Art on December 27, 1942.

The three-minute Toccata for Piano was written to mark the 1949 American Music Awards program of the Sigma Alpha Iota musical sorority, which took place at the Hotel Drake in Chicago, August 29, 1950. However, Johana had given the piece a trial run over Nashville’s radio station WLAC the previous fall. Beveridge Webster gave the first public performance at New York’s Carl Fischer Hall on January 23 as part of a publisher’s promotional concert.

Roy had made a previous try at a toccata for Johana in 1939, but was dissatisfied with the outcome. The music of the Toccata in its definitive 1949 guise adds up to florid display in a Twentieth Century baroque manner recalling the Buxtehude or early Bach organ works in toccata style; but the treatment of the thematic material has its own special resonances, notably in the placing of chordal punctuation after each of a series of highly varied and virtuosic quasi-recitative episodes. In her performances Johana, with Roy’s acquiescence, chose to abbreviate the lyrical matter with the aim of further tightening the music’s structure. As with the Little Suite and the American Ballads, Johana’s mid-fifties recording of the Toccata for MGM remains unissued.