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Symphony for Band

Roy Harris
The West Point Band's recording of Roy Harris's 1952 commission for USMA’s Sesquicentennial Celebration

West Point Band Releases the Roy Harris Symphony for Band

The West Point Band is proud to release its recording of the Roy Harris Symphony for Band, a monumental work commissioned as part of the United States Military Academy's sesquicentennial celebration in 1952. Through this recording, the West Point Band invites listeners to explore and appreciate the significance of this iconic composition, shining a light on a lesser-known masterpiece in American musical history.

In 1952, as West Point prepared to celebrate its sesquicentennial anniversary, a special commissioning project was initiated to commemorate this historic occasion in a truly remarkable way. Recognizing the significance of music in capturing the spirit and essence of West Point, the band's commander at the time, Francis Resta, embarked on an ambitious endeavor to commission new works from some of the world's most esteemed composers.

Thirteen composers, including luminaries such as Morton Gould, Roy Harris, Darius Milhaud, Robert Russell Bennett, William Grant Still, and Henry Cowell, were enlisted to create compositions that would encapsulate the essence of West Point and its rich heritage. Each composer brought their unique style and perspective to the project, resulting in a diverse collection of musical masterpieces that reflected the spirit and tradition of the Academy. Among the commissioned works was the Symphony for Band by Roy Harris. Harris, known for his innovative approach to American music, crafted a symphony that captured the essence of West Point’s legacy and the values it embodies.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) stands as one of America’s most distinguished composers, celebrated for his contributions to the development of American classical music. His distinctive compositional style, characterized by bold rhythms, expansive harmonies, and evocative melodies, reflects the vastness and vitality of the American landscape. After serving in the Army during World War I, Harris began serious musical study at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1926 he traveled to Paris to study composition with Nadia Boulanger for three years, after which he returned to America to establish himself as one of the leading composers of his generation. In all, Harris composed over 170 works, including nearly all genres of orchestral, vocal, choral, chamber, and instrumental music. The backbone of his output was his series of 13 symphonies, which span his career from 1933 to 1976.

How to Listen

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Harris's Thoughts on his Work

Along with the score, Roy Harris included the following written thoughts to Captain Resta:

The writing of this work has been extraordinarily difficult for me because I hoped to achieve a work of symphonic breadth for your noble West Point symphonic band. My attention has been given, for many years, to writing for symphony orchestras wherein one can draw heavily on the sustaining quality of the strings. The problem of writing for wind instruments is much more difficult in that one must make proper allowance for breathing. At this time, it seems to me that a symphonic band is like a cross between a pipe organ and a chorus, yet it has a great deal more agility than a chorus and more expressive control than a pipe organ.
The symphonic band is really a very great medium, and one which I feel American composers should recognise and write for extensively, this is espscially true since the trend of the last ten years would seem to indicate that American youth is more interested in playing woodwind and brass instruments than in playing string instruments. In fact, it is quite possible that the symphonic band may take the place of the symphony orchestra in America, for the simple expedient reason that America is not producing enough string players to supply the growth of our symphony orchestras comparable to our growing population.
The form of the symphony is: (a) the introduction, which is a variation development on the opening bugle call of the military service; (b) the middle section in which I tried to capture the sense of noble tradition of West Point not by using themes but trying to capture the sense of idealism which has motivated the fighting men of our nation throughout our history; and finally, (c) the last movement which is fugal and of a dance nature. The coda again emphasizes the sense of profound gratitude which all mothers and fathers of our nation hold toward our fighting forces - one might call it almost a religious expression.
In scoring the work I have thought of the woodwinds in two families (1) piccolo, flutes, clarinets (2) oboes, English horns, bassoons, saxophoness and the brass as in two families (1) trumpets, trombones, (2) cornets, horns, baritones and basses.
I want to take this opportunity to say that I consider it a great honor to have been commissioned to write a major work for the Sesquicentennial of the United States Military Academy. I can only hope that my endeavor has been worthy of the occasion.

About the Recording

The West Point Band was much larger at the time of the 1952 commissioning project. To recreate the ensemble of that time, our concert band was supplemented with musicians from around New York City, nearly doubling the size of the ensemble. The band’s sound engineering team was led by Master Sgt. Brandie Lane, who has a GRAMMY award for classical engineering and now leads the West Point Band tech team. The producer, Dan Mercurio, worked with the band virtually using streaming technologies to listen to the sessions in real time. The guest conductor was esteemed wind band director and educator Robert Ponto. While not a member of the band, Ponto has worked with the West Point Band many times. The recording and rehearsals took place at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Special thanks to Retired Lt. Col. Tod Addison, former commander of the West Point Band, for his leadership and contributions to this project.