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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