There was a time when Roy Harris (1898-1979) was one of the most-played American composers, particularly after the première of his 'Symphony 1933' and even more so after the introduction of his Third Symphony in 1938. He is remembered primarily as a writer of symphonies, having composed thirteen of them. But, alas, he is poorly remembered today and even less remembered are his piano works. His wife Johana was a fine pianist and he wrote much of his piano music for her. However, his Piano Sonata, the first work on this disc, antedates his marriage to her. It is a four movement work which lasts only twelve minutes. It is almost but not quite in one movement; that is to say, that although there are four distinct sections, they are played virtually without pause. Although written earlier than any of the other pieces on this disc, it is the most consciously 'modern' of the lot, having more than a little resemblance to Hindemith or even Bartók, but with Harris's penchant for long melodies and copious use of harmonies based on fourths and fifths, almost certainly stemming from his fascination with medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony. 'Little Suite' (1938), although lasting only 3 minutes, has four pieces: 'Bells' which explores bell-like harmonies (based, not surprisingly, on fourths) and whether it is conscious of not, Harris makes use of a melody that sounds suspiciously like 'Joy to the World'. 'Sad News' lasts less than a minute and is a resigned little thing. 'Children at Play' catches the hither-thither running about of children playing outdoors. 'Slumber' is not a lullaby, but an evocation of the utter peace of deep sleep.
'American Ballads, Set I' (1942-45) sets folk or folk-like melodies, beginning with 'Streets of Laredo', radically reharmonized and entirely charming. This is followed by '(I am a) Poor Wayfaring Stranger' whose dour harmonies evoke the true meaning of the song's lament. The sprightly 'The Bird' quotes 'The Blackbird and the Crow' and 'Hop Up, My Ladies'. 'Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair' is slow and mysterious and makes use of layers of impressionist harmonies. 'Cod Liver Ile' is treated like a kind of call-and-response tune with the inspired use of the sustaining pedal creating washes of color. There were to be more sets of American Ballads, but Harris never got around to writing more than two additional settings: 'Li'l Boy Named David', set to slow broad harmonies using blue notes and a beguiling countermelody; 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home' is very slow and melancholy and its extended harmonies are quite unusual for such a well-known melody.
'Piano Suite' (1939-42) contains three movements: 'Occupations', which makes use of African-American work-song ambience; 'Contemplation', a quiet musing piece that sounds almost like an improvisation; the charming 'Recreation', quotes 'London Bridge is Falling Down' and a variation on the 'Ya-ya ya-ya YA ya' playground taunt.
'Toccata' (1949) is probably the most formal of the pieces here, based as it is on baroque models and containing gigue-like rhythms. But its sections are fragmentary and over its four-minute span it gathers more and more energy to end in a blaze of energy. At times it sounds like free jazz!
'Variations on an American Folk Song ("True Love Don't Weep")' (1944) has an arch form in that it begins plaintively, builds to two climactic variations, and then lapses back to its beginning tentativeness. The last four pieces are all new recordings. They were found in manuscript in the Roy Harris Collection at California State University at Los Angeles. They are an untitled piece from 1926, the earliest work here, which has long passages of unaccompanied octaves interspersed with bluesy harmonies and jagged rhythms; 'Scherzo' is a movement earlier intended for the 1928 Sonata, almost completely different from the movement Harris eventually settled on; 'A Happy Piece for Shirley'(not dated) is a one minute charmer. And finally, there is 'Orchestrations' (1972), Harris' last piano work, a work of mysteriously grave granitic chords that ends in mid-sentence.
Geoffrey Burleson, a pianist I'd never encountered before, is a terrific proponent of these all-but-forgotten pieces. He also wrote the excellent booklet notes. He does unfortunately repeat a mistake found in the Grove Dictionary (and repeated all over the Internet), namely that Harris was born in the Oklahoma panhandle. He was, in fact, born on a farm just outside Chandler, Lincoln County, Oklahoma Territory, which is in the center of the state about fifty miles east of Oklahoma City. As a native of that county I am more than a little sure that it is not and never was in the Panhandle.