Roy Harris

A newspaper article written by Marion Nielsen about Roy Harris. (USU Special Collections & Archives, 10.2:27, Box 14, Folder 11)
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Surging to the foreground of American art music during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Roy Harris was widely seen by his contemporaries as having developed an unmistakably “American” approach to the modernist musical language of the day, particularly in the realm of orchestral music. His fame was matched by a carefully constructed persona that underscored his authenticity as an American composer. As Marion L. Nielsen’s lengthy biographical article for the Logan Herald Journal exemplifies, Harris’s “American-ness” was the result of a potent combination of biographical, geographical, and musical tropes. 

Nielsen, a faculty colleague at USAC, follows the well-established narrative of Harris’s origins. No discussion of Harris fails to mention that he was born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in a log cabin in Oklahoma built during the Land Rush of 1889. Similarly, Nielsen suggests that Harris is not just an American composer, but specifically a “Western American, a product of the American tradition at its most vigorous, most stubbornly individualistic.”

Harris’s American authenticity needed to be matched, however, with an equal authenticity as a classical composer. For many North Americans of the early twentieth century, this meant training through study in Europe. Americans had typically studied in Germany since the mid-nineteenth century (a tradition that Johana Harris followed when she studied in Berlin in the early 1920s), but the post-WWI era saw a reorientation towards France. This was perhaps due in part to the presence of famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979). A steady stream of American composers went to study with Boulanger, the earliest including Roy’s mentor and rival, Aaron Copland. Through Copland’s connections, Roy spent 1926–29 studying with Boulanger. Though Nielsen does not specifically mention Boulanger (suggesting, perhaps, that the general idea of European schooling was more meaningful to Logan readers), Nielsen goes on to describe Harris’s Symphony No. 3 as “the nearest thing to standard repertoire symphony by an American.”

Nielsen’s article emphasizes Harris’s efforts to build a national school of composition centered on “regional cultures” rather than urban centers: “He scoffs at the idea that there is any region or section in America, no matter how far-removed from the so-called ‘cultural centers,’ which should not be able to build a musical culture.” By 1948, Harris himself had moved to several “far-removed” locations already (having moved to Logan from Colorado Springs, Colorado) and his career is frequently described as a “restless” trajectory of a series of teaching posts and residences at American colleges and universities, as well as a stint in Puerto Rico. While the Harris family’s nomadic lifestyle may be viewed as a symbol of the “pioneer” in Harris, it is frequently assessed more problematically as a symptom of his inability to settle and build anything of consequence.