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Inside 20th-century music

Deeper than nationalism: the music of Roy Harris Gaining renown in the world of music is one of the slowest, most arduous feats known. Be it performing, conducting, or what-have-you, all areas are about the same when it comes to making a reputation.

About the only thing harder to do is to destroy one.

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That latter point is made abundantly clear to me in no case more certainly than that of American composer Roy Harris. Blank stares usually answer one's attempts to describe how lionized Harris was by the American musical community during the 1930s and '40s. If knighthood were our thing, Sir Roy surely would have been one of the music world's first dubbings - he and Sir Aaron (Copland).

Roy Harris was the quintessential expresser of the great American musical personality - of the sense of frontierhood, destiny, sobriety, exuberance, rugged individualism. He captured the rough-hewn pioneer spirit that was so expansively invoked during the depression years, when an inward-looking United States turned to assess its moral and cultural resources.

It is a sad irony that this towering symbol of America's musical prowess, who passed on in California in 1979, has been massively neglected during the last quarter-century - to the point of near-oblivion. But the queer phenomenon is that the man's reputation has lived on. The nodding ''ah-ha'' reaction, reserved for the unimpeachably great, has continued for Harris, among those who knew him in the first place. And on the strength of . . . what? Only a handful of major or midi performances of his music come to recent memory.

Harris's Third Symphony (1938) is positively the first work I always play for people when I am introducing them to the joys of likable, convincing 20 th-century American music. His undisputed pinnacle achievement, it packs into its 17 minutes worlds of accessible, urgent musical truth, with an inevitability that is impressive and a dramatic denouement that grips one tightly. Yet, like Bruckner or Sibelius, the bulk of Harris's music is an acquired taste for many people. Little of it is as immediately winning as the Third Symphony or the Violin and Piano Sonata (1941); a great many of his works take time and have little outright mnemonic profile - they are not easily remembered immediately after hearing.

The question of ''nationalism'' has perhaps overly complicated the understanding of Harris's music. His Third Symphony does powerfully evoke the dust-bowl specter of what one critic called the ''dark fastness of the American soul.'' It is this image that has habitually attached itself to Harris's works as their principal trademark, and rightly so. But only to a point, for I think perhaps a lot of what has been imputed to Harris has gotten in the way of his being more completely understood.

There is a static quality to Harris's sense of musical expression that, I think, goes far deeper than any mere preoccupation with evoking ''prairie'' sounds or strictly ''American'' emotions. Large sections of many works - the Ninth Symphony (1962), for example - often get caught up in overlong, suspended-sounding constructions that stay beyond their welcome without the relief of variation or change, and aren't always so tonally arresting in and of themselves.

I wouldn't for a moment wish to leave the impression that there isn't a lot that is telling and vital about Harris's thirteen symphonies and other assorted works, for there is indeed. And we could do with far more performances - careful , understanding ones - of works like his Sixth, Seventh and Eleventh Symphonies, to help us get an even clearer picture of what he was about, and to deal better with those frequent occasions when there is a great deal more promise than delivery.

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The stereotyped image of Harris as a supernationalistic creative artist, of the Thomas Hart Benton variety, simply won't hold up anymore. Harris did, in fact, make some broad, vague statements concerning the writing of an ''American'' music, but I think these have been exaggerated by an overeager posterity. As with Howard Hanson's alleged Swedishness, of which, in his music, there is actully a lot less than meets the ear, so it is with Harris, the ''Cimarron'' composer. Harris compares, in nationalism, more with someone like Vaughan Williams, rather than Sibelius, because Vaughan Williams let native (English) elements - rhythms, melodic types - interpenetrate his personal language, rather than trying consciously to be nationalistic.

There is still today a great difficulty in finding most of Roy Harris's music. He was constantly revising his scores, apparently, and the difficulty for publishers to keep up with all the changes has made for an almost diasporic disarray in his sizable output.

That is changing now, slowly. The Roy Harris Society, based in Los Angeles, where he spent his last years, is a devoted group (I would say, to the point of reverence), dedicated to getting his music published in definitive editions and to recording as much of it as it can. Its activities give a feeling both of the pressing toward a reasoned assessment and the tending of a flame.

What will Roy Harris's flame kindle in other composers, today and henceforth? What influence? Frankly, I don't know, mostly because it is too early. In rehearing him, we might stand to discover how a glowing symphonic talent matured and thought over the years; or we might simply learn more about how certain kinds of reputations show a staying power while the careers that spawned them drift away. In either case, there is plenty in Harris's music to make his reappraisal well worth the effort.

Roy Harris: a listening list.

* Symphonies Nos. 1, 3, 5, 7

* Sonata for Violin and PIano

* Quintet for Piano and Strings

* Sonata for Piano

* American Ballads (for piano

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