Harrison's "Elegiac" Symphony

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Thursday, December 7, 2017

On today’s date in 1975, the Oakland, California, Youth Orchestra gave the first performance of a symphony by a Bay area resident, American composer Lou Harrison. Harrison began sketches for this symphonic score back in 1942 and tinkered with it off and off until the day of its premiere performance, even stapling in 15 additional measures to the young players’ parts at their final dress rehearsal.

The commission for Harrison’s Fourth Symphony, subtitled “The Elegiac,” came from the Koussevitzky Foundation, and in part was written as a tribute to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky, two of the 20th century’s greatest new music patrons. But the intensely personal tone of this elegiac symphony was prompted by the death of Harrison’s mother, which was followed by the death of his close friend, the iconoclastic American composer and instrument inventor Harry Partch.

The symphony’s first movement is titled “Tears of the Angel Israfel”—the angel of music in Islamic lore—and the score also bears two inscriptions: The first reads “Epicurus said of death: where death is, we are not; where we are, death is not; therefore, death is nothing to us.” The second inscription is a quote from Horace: “Bitter sorrows will grow milder with music.”