Sunday, November 13, 2011

Roy Harris: Symphony No. 6, "Gettysburg", Brief Discussion by Payman Akhlaghi

Roy Harris and Johana Harris
Awakening on YouTube

Roy Harris, Symphony No. 6, "The Gettysburg" (1944); Movement I: Awakening
A Note By: Payman Akhlaghi

Roy Harris composed his Symphony No. 6, the "Gettysburg", toward the end of WWII, inspired by Lincoln's famous address of 1863, and it consists of four movements which correspond to the salient themes of that brief note: "Awakening, Conflict, Dedication, Affirmation." The first movement is especially memorable, not the least, for its success at evoking the imagery of the "rise" of a young nation, and the spirits of its fallen. Emerging out of a quasi-eternal silence, the movement develops patiently, allowing its many short but recognizable thematic fragments to interact and converge; distinct layers of sound expose and superimpose; and a sonic mass to build in a gradual crescendo; toward an exuberant climax, an outburst of unsaid words. Given its tonal atmosphere and colorful timbres, Harris' Awakening remains an enjoyable and accessible treat on sonic terms, even on many listenings. Still, it does map large-scale strategic designs on an extra-musical, visual and conceptual, narrative to fortify formal cohesion; and as such, a sense of its narrative would surely enhance one's appreciation of the music. In that respect, this is as much a neo-Romantic work, as it foreshadows the Post-Modernism which was to fully emerge four decades later.

I first leanred about this symphony in early 2000's, in a graduate seminar led by Prof. Paul Reale of UCLA, and I immediately agreed with the visual element of the work, and more broadly, with the contention that American music after WWII would take a sudden turn toward the more atonal, serial, media. (This trend, most evident in the stylistic contrast of Elliott Carter's pre-war and post-war musics, could be in part attributed to an influx of European émigré. This consequential cultural phenomenon, in my opinion both constructive and constrictive, deserves to be addressed in a dedicated post of its own.) I also wished that the work would be more often performed.

To better understand and appreciate the work, it's best to listen to, and compare, both of the two recordings currently available in the market. I personally find the performance by Pacific Symphony Orchestra, led by Keith Clark (cf. link at the top), to be the more convincing of the two. This rendition, originally recorded in the early 1980's, sounds more true to the spirit of the work, understands how it works and what it stands for, and delineates its structure without breaking it into pieces. Here, although most thematic fragments are audible enough, it's the massive sonic pile-up, and larger melodic and harmonic phraseology, which have recieved the proper attention; and that has given the movement a more meaningful shape. The clarity of the thought has been strong enough to survive the limitations of the early digital recording technology and subsequent transfers.

In contrast, the 2008 recording made by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, suggest the inherent difficulties facing the performers of this work. In this case, one misses the overall arch of the movement, as the music sounds distracted by the many transient moments of beauty. Suppressing the sustained voices, and the strings in general, has clarified the individual melodic fragments, but it has also reduced the formal sense of the movment. Thus, some motives sound simply too scattered; the climax arrives too abruptly; and the sforzando hits of the brass and percussions appear as accidental punctuations. To be sure, the recording is superbly clear, and vividly colorful; this could be partly a result of some post-production error; and in general, the fragmental nature of the material do not lend easily to a coherent performance. Finally, to state the obvious, there are many reviewers who would insist on the exact opposite of my judgment in this regard.

November 13th, Los Angeles
© 2011, Payman Akhlaghi. All rights reserved.

(*) This original short essay first appeared as a Foto-Note on Payman's FB Profile, November 13th, 2011.
(*) Payman Akhalghi is an Iranian American composer, pianist and private piano teacher. Based in Los Angeles, his lessons cover classical music, as well as Persian and film music. He visits his students throughout the greater Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monic, Westwood, Beverly Hills, etc. For information, please contact: (310) 208-2927. 

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