Born in rural Lincoln County, near Chandler, Oklahoma, on February 12, 1898, Roy Harris grew up to become one of America's most significant twentieth-century composers of classical symphonic music. The family moved to California when Harris was a child. He attended the University of California, majoring in philosophy and economics, but soon switched his interest to music. After studying with Arthur Farwell in New York, he composed his first orchestral piece circa 1926, and it was performed in New York and California. He later studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.
Harris's first symphonic composition was written in the early 1930s and performed by the Boston Symphony in 1934; it was the first American symphony to be recorded for sale to the public. From 1933 through 1978 he produced more than two hundred works, including chamber music, choral works, and fifteen symphonies. His most important is considered to be the Third Symphony (1938), which later would be the first to be conducted by its actual composer in concert in the Soviet Union. His fourth, the Folk-Song Symphony (1941), is based on American folk music. Symphony Number Fourteen, commissioned by the National Symphony, premiered in the nation's capitol in February 1976. His themes often derived from historical subjects, such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (Symphony Number Six). Harris noted in 1978 that he had "devoted his life to writing music that would express his love of America and particularly the Oklahoma Plains and West Coast." Critics note that he was "a major creative force in the development of an indigenous American style of symphonic music."
From 1934 through 1960 Harris variously taught at Westminster School of Music (Princeton, New Jersey) and at Cornell University, Colorado College, Pennsylvania College for Women, the University of Illinois, Indiana University, and the University of California at Los Angeles.
He was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957 and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979. He was also designated Composer Laureate of the State of California. Roy Harris died October 1, 1979, in Santa Monica, California.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Ruth E. Anderson, Contemporary American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary (2nd ed.; Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1982). David Ewen, The World of Twentieth Century Music (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968). Dan Stehman, Roy Harris: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991).
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