Harris No. 3

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Today’s date marks the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. It is also celebrated as the birthday of the famous American symphonist Roy Harris, who stated he was born in Lincoln County near Chandler, Oklahoma, on February 12th in 1898. Some have challenged the accuracy of the date, as a land deed associated with his family suggests his birth year might have been 1901, and Harris himself was the main source of information regarding the actual day of his birth.

There’s also some confusion about exactly how many symphonies Harris wrote, since he didn’t assign numbers to some of the works he labeled “symphonies” or “symphonic”—and in 1976 deliberately misnumbered his Symphony No. 13 as being his Symphony No. 14, being reluctant to assign the ominously unlucky number 13 to his new work. As it turned out, it was, in fact, the last symphony he completed before his death in 1979.

Despite all this, Harris’s Third Symphony from 1938 is regularly cited as one of the best American symphonies of the 20th century, if not “The Great American Symphony,” and gradually many of his less familiar 15 or so symphonies are also showing up on compact disc and on concert programs.

As the most recent Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians puts it, “the musicality, breadth of vision, and generosity of impulse that form his best music assure him long-term recognition.”

So, whether or not it was in 1898 or 1901, or even on February 12—Happy Birthday, Mr. Harris!