SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 3. HARRIS: Symphony No. 3

W. SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 3. HARRIS: Symphony No. 3. New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 419 780-2 (compact disc [DDD]); 51 :12) 

During the period 1935-45, Roy Harris vied with Aaron Copland for acceptance as the embodiment of the American spirit in concert music. Whereas Copland, a Jew from Brooklyn, fashioned a musical imagery based on an outsider’s idealization of the folklore of rural America and built from the melos of American folk music, Harris, an authentic product of the American heartland, sought to develop a national musical language from more abstract elements—a vocabulary based more on metaphorical implication than on actual references—and to forge this language into an original, truly American symphonic concept. 

Influenced by developmental techniques found in the late works of Beethoven, Harris’ symphonic concept dispensed with classical forms, in favor of a through-composed musical structure with sections joined via local motivic connections. His actual musical material featured long, wide-arching melodies introduced through chant-like unison statements, a type of harmonic parallelism suggesting organum, non-tonal use of triads, irregular rhythms in bold, assertive gestures, and contrasting alternation among instrumental choirs. During the 1930s and ’40s, Harris’ symphonic approach seemed so fresh and authentically American and his carefully cultivated Lincolnesque image tied in so neatly with the populist social climate of the times that his music drew considerable attention, profoundly influencing a large portion of the generation of composers who were then coming of age—many of whom were far more talented than he.

Indeed, this was the unfortunate irony for Harris’ music and its reputation. For as synthetic as Copland’s Americana may have been, it was shaped by the tasteful, graceful hand of a master craftsman. Harris, on the other hand, for all his epic, visionary grandeur (not to mention the grandiosity of his own personal ambitions), was a hopelessly clumsy, inept composer, unable to begin to realize the artistic potential of his own conceptions. Instead, he produced mountains of awkward, flatulent music that simulates movement and growth only by lurching gracelessly from one static episode to another. These qualities are clearly apparent in Harris’ Symphony No. 3 (1939), the only one of his many works in the genre that is still performed with any frequency.

However, two years later a symphony appeared that fulfilled Harris’ conception far more successfully than he himself ever could have done. The Symphony No. 3 of William Schuman is the consummate Roy Harris symphony—in form, content, sound, and meaning—and a brilliant, exciting, and wholly satisfying work in its own right, though one that has much less to do with Schuman’s subsequent identity as a composer. Not until the late 1940s and the Symphony No.6 did the jagged, austere, hard-edged nervous energy of Schuman’s own compositional voice fully emerge. Nevertheless this earlier work did much to build Schuman’s reputation and it remains today his most popular symphony by far. Despite section titles that connote an association with the Baroque (passacaglia and fugue, chorale and toccata), the work exudes a brisk self-confidence and vigorous sense of purpose, modified by an undertone of nostalgia, all of which proclaim 20th-century America without recourse to a trace of folk material.

Historically linked to these two works is Leonard Bernstein. In his early 20s during the period when Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra first introduced them, Bernstein served as assistant to the Russian maestro, helping him learn and prepare those American works that caught the elder man’s fancy. In his own Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” composed the year after Schuman’s Third, Bernstein revealed the extent to which he too was under Harris’ spell. And he has often recounted the story of the summer in Tanglewood when he first encountered Schuman and his Third Symphony—how thrilled and excited he was by the music, how strong a kinship he felt with its composer.

Still, nearly half a century later, there has never been a conductor who could project the spirit and vitality of this music with as much conviction as Bernstein can. Though his earlier recordings of both symphonies with the New York Philharmonic displayed this special affinity, the orchestra is playing with more refinement now, while today’s recording technology captures the brilliance of the performances with far more depth, clarity, richness, and immediacy of impact. Thus, for many reasons this new release represents an important document in the recorded history of American symphonic music, allowing the qualities of these works—for better or worse—to emerge with vivid clarity.

Regarding the packaging of this and most CD releases, I must join the chorus of protesters who have been decrying the skimpy program notes that are becoming the norm. For many years record liner notes served as the most comprehensive—and often the only—source of information about the more esoteric repertoire that appeared on releases aimed at the “serious record collector.” Are collectors today that much less curious, that much less interested, that they are content with a few superficial paragraphs? Or is this yet one more instance of the industry’s contempt for those who take their products most seriously?