Ruth French on her years in the Louisville Orchestra

Ruth French on the Plane to Carnegie

Ruth French shares pictures, newspaper clips, memories, and an original Louisville Orchestra program from 1953. She was a violinist in the Louisville Orchestra from 1949-1970 during the Orchestra’s commissioning project and First Edition recordings. She was 17 when she joined, the youngest member at that time.

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LO program page 1

 

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Roy Harris

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In the 1930s, a small group of composers responded to the challenge of creating a truly “American” classical music, whose roots were planted as deeply in the soil of their country as Bach’s was in his. Of them, Aaron Copland may be the most iconic, but Roy Harris (1898-1979) made the deepest mark in the symphonic genre, and certainly had the closest connection to Louisville. Born to poor parents in a log cabin in Oklahoma (sharing a birthday with Abraham Lincoln!), Harris grew up in farming communities in Oklahoma and California. As a young man he supported himself as a truck driver for dairy firms. Harris felt deeply connected to the iconography of America, and infused works such as his early symphony American Portrait (1929) and his ballet What So Proudly We Hail with spirited patriotism.

While Harris’s clear harmonies and folk-derived melodies link his aesthetics with Copland, his more famous frenemy, Harris was less shy about the influence of European models in his music, particularly Renaissance polyphony and the modal scales of Gregorian chant. Compare the lyrical opening cello melody in Harris’s Third Symphony (his most famous work, championed by Bernstein and turning Harris into a household name) with this Alleluia, dating from around the 12th century. In some of Harris’s chamber works, such as his 3rd String Quartet, Harris used unabashedly European contrapuntal forms such as fugues, enlivening with them with his broad, angular-but-still-sweet melodies.

Since his death in 1979, Harris aesthetic has become synonymous with an “American” style of composition: folk-influenced melodies, clear orchestration, a vivacious rhythmic energy adopted from jazz, a love for historical and popular iconography, and above all, a sweeping air of optimism. But what was particularly American about these features? Why is Harris’s sound so easily understood as “American,” but not Cage’s, Varése’s, Cowell’s, or Partch’s? According to Patricia Ashley,

What happened was that, having been told that his music was like America, Harris worked this idea into his mystique until he was able to believe that America was like his music. His rhythms and forms, based on irregular increments rather than subdivisions of the whole, may have had their origins in (besides truck driving) a study of Hindu philosophy, Gregorian chant, and very likely the music of Igor Stravinsky, but now he became convinced that these were the natural rhythms and forms of America. The assumption was not hard to make, for he was told often enough that it was true. Another generation has since discarded the idea of naturalness in a “national style,” but Harris — who has frequently been an internationalist in other respects — is loyal to nationalism in the arts.
Aaron Copland sums it up thus: “We can let posterity concern itself with the eternal [aspects] of Roy Harris’s music… the important thing is that it has something for us here and now.”

-by Jacob Gotlib, Louisville composer, pianist, and teacher

Read about Roy Harris’ unique connection to Louisville here.

 

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Roy Harris’ Connection to Louisville

Roy Harris: used with permission from Ruth French

The myth that surrounds the person of Roy Harris is indicative of the effectiveness of modern publicity methods and the American desire for perpetuation of the age- old “rags to riches” story. In Harris’ case it is the rise from truck driver to “America’s Composer no. 1.”

-from writings of Robert French

Robert French teaching theory at the Louisville Academy of Music Robert French teaching theory at the Louisville Academy of Music.

Roy Harris had a special relationship with Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra during the 1950s and 1960s, its most innovative period. Not only did the LO record his first symphony, 1933 (also recorded earlier by Serge Koussevitsky and the BSO as the very first American symphony to be commercially recorded), but it commissioned several works from Harris, including the tone poem Kentucky Spring (1949) and his Second Piano Concerto (1953) (see the original concert program here). The former — a tribute (or dig) at Copland? — is perhaps the most succinct summation of Harris’s bright orchestral style.

Harris’s Louisville connection goes even further than the orchestra. Robert French, the founder of the Louisville Academy of Music (now run by his wife, former LO violinist Ruth French), studied with Harris in Nashville, and for three years worked as Harris’s assistant. Robert French copied all of Harris’s symphonies — including the individual orchestral parts — by hand (according to Ruth, “he drew every single stem with a ruler!”). French experienced Harris’s legendary disorganization firsthand; Ruth tells the story of how her husband, on a trip with Harris from Iowa, “stopped for gas, and [Robert] went in to use the restroom, and when he came back out, Roy had forgotten him and drove off without him!”

-by Jacob Gotlib, local composer, pianist, and teacher

A Roy Harris score hand written by Robert French:

 

Listen to Ruth French’s memories of Roy Harris and the Louisville Orchestra:

 

 

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Summer Listening 2016

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Summer Listening Sign Ups are now open!!

Sign the whole family up for a wonderful month of music and celebration this July! Go to wuol.org/summerlistening for details on this year’s 4 FREE FAMILY EVENTS and broadcast times for our SUMMER LISTENING RADIO SHOW.

Look what fun we had last year… don’t miss out this year!

By signing up you’ll be entered to win local concert tickets and prizes, get a weekly newsletter with info and activities about our summer listening music, and more.

 

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