Harris; Piano Sonata
somewhat impressionistic exploration
of an Opus 1
I was speaking to a friend of mine
the other day about Classical music.
She was musing that there are three
fundamental ways of approaching any
Firstly there is the great mass of
folk who just pop the CD into the player.
They are mostly indifferent to what
they hear, as long as it moves, inspires
or amuses them. The history of music
is largely a closed book to them. They
may have an idea of when a piece was
composed, but do not consciously relate
it to any other works or composers,
nationalities or schools of composition.
The second group builds on this minimalist
information by reading the programme
or liner notes. This often gives an
insight to the life and times of the
composer and more importantly his influences.
Often a more or less detailed analysis
of the work is presented to the listener.
This second group is likely to own a
musical dictionary and perhaps even
discusses the piece with friends. For
most people this is enough information.
There is no need to go further.
However my friend suggested a third
approach. This is the 'narrative' method
of musical analysis. It is predicated
on the basis that composers are human
beings as opposed to minor divinities.
And of course it works and is interesting.
Consider the fact that I remember an
elderly lady telling me about a senior
English composer bathing nude off the
coast of Ventnor. Or perhaps the fact
that C.H.H. Parry was the first composer
known to have received a ticket for
'speeding'. And then there is ... but
let’s leave that to another day. The
important thing to see is their sheer
The piece of music we are considering
is easily described in the first category
mentioned. It is Donald Harris’ Piano
Sonata Op. 1. It was composed in
Paris in 1955/56. For the record the
composer is American. The second group
of people would probably be interested
to know that the work is in four movements
and is based on a ‘Schoenbergian’ tone
row. Further it was dedicated to lady
called Gusta Rotner.
However the purpose of this essay is
to look at this work from its historical
as well as musical setting. I do not
propose to analyse the music as this
has been done admirably by Daniel Beliavsky
and, besides, it is the ‘Sitz in Leben’
rather than the technical construction
that interests me, although craftsmanship
does feature in any consideration of
a work of this type and age. So this
will be a somewhat impressionistic view.
Let’s start with hats. I was fortunate
enough to have a considerable input
from Donald Harris before preparing
these jottings. In fact his memories
of those days were set out in an exceptionally
literary style. So I will not hesitate
in liberally quoting his words where
The score of the Piano Sonata
is dedicated, as noted above, to Gusta
Rotner. Now, not only had this lady
held the high office of milliner at
a time when hats were of extreme importance
in French female fashion, but she was
also Harris’ ‘logeuse’ during the late
1950s. Now Harris disputes whether the
common term ‘logeuse’ was appropriate
in her case. Her hat shop was located
at 19 Rue La Boetie which was just a
few blocks away from the Champs Elysées
and the Place de la Concorde.
In fact a little research has shown
that this house was where Henry James
stayed as a thirteen year old boy during
1856-57. It was one of the pleasures
of researching this essay that revealed
this fact. The composer was unaware
of this. Donald Harris tells me that
his studio was the one on the right
that is shuttered. Madame Rotner’s ‘atelier’
or workshop was located on the ‘deuxième
étage’; it had been established
by her mother. This apparently gave
her considerably more prestige than
if the shop had been a ground floor
boutique. She traded under the name
of Caroline Roma.
When Donald Harris arrived the hat-making
had begun to slip into decline: ladies
hats were just beginning to go out of
fashion. Of course in its hey-day ‘haute
couture’ had been an expensive business.
Each hat required a number of sittings
to get it correct. After the war there
was perhaps less money around to spend
on these luxuries. So in these straitened
times she was quite glad to let out
a couple of rooms to an aspiring musician.
One served Harris as his bedroom and
the other was his studio. At that time
most of the building was commercial
so there was no problem in playing the
piano at any hour of the day. There
was an exception to this. Madame Roma
did not allow practice in the afternoons
as this was the favoured time for the
few clients she had to pay their calls
Now Madame Roma or Gusta Rotner as
she was really called was an exceptionally
cultured lady. She had previously studied
at Montpellier University. Her interests
extended to art and literature and she
apparently had a wide ranging appreciation
of French authors. She was a huge influence
on the twenty-five year old composer
introducing him to such ‘greats’ as
Paul Valéry, Arthur Rimbaud,
André Gide, Roger Martin du Gard
and Marguerite Yourcenar. She was also
well acquainted with Paris as a city,
knowing ‘every nook and cranny’. She
particularly enjoyed showing Harris
around the less well known ‘arrondissements’.
She was also interested in music. However
Harris suggests that perhaps her taste
was not quite up to the ‘New Music’
that was being explored at that time.
It was in gratitude for her interest
and help and companionship that he dedicated
his first work, the Piano Sonata
There are three things to be said about
‘Opus 1’ works in general. Firstly there
are some that really ought not to be
remembered. They are of academic or
historical interest only. If we consider
K1 which was Mozart’s first known work.
It was a Minuet and Trio in G major
for Piano and was composed when
he was 5 or 6 years old. We play it
now only for curiosity’s sake. Then
there is the ‘Wunder-kind’ Erich von
Korngold. His first work was a rather
accomplished Trio in D major.
It was very much a sign of the great
things that were to come – including
the film music. Then there are the composers
that lose their early efforts; for example
William Alwyn reputedly destroyed or
suppressed most that he had written
before 1936. And lastly there is the
present work. This really does not fit
into any of the categories above. It
can be best defined as an excellent
example of an early work that displays
ingenuity, awareness of both tradition
and the prevailing contemporary idiom
and a close attention to detail.
Next year (2006) will be a full half
century since this work first saw the
light of day. And of course much has
happened in music since that time. It
is not necessary to reflect on all the
movements, trends and fads that have
held sway since the mid-nineteen fifties.
From the perspective of the early years
of the 21st Century we are
much more prepared to accept diversity
in musical tastes than we were in those
days. Composers in those days who wrote
conventional tunes were regarded as
being either light music composers or
Who is Donald Harris? A brief survey
of my musical (and not so musical friends)
came up with a few answers. Some had
heard (vaguely) of Roy Harris, the more
Episcopal amongst them recalled William
H. Harris and his church music. One
asked if 'Jet' Harris from the Shadows
was relevant. I had a brief look at
the CD databases and discovered that
Donald Harris is represented by only
one work on one disc - Ludus 2
for chamber ensemble. However, I have
just received an excellent disc full
of his music, which I have heard, enjoyed
and intend to review. However, it is
not an unfair statement to make that
his music is not as well known as it
could or should be - at least on this
side of the Atlantic. Yet a brief perusal
of his biography reveals a long and
consistent success in America and Paris.
Donald Harris has many interests in
music other than composition - he has
not single-mindedly dedicated himself
to the composer’s art. For example he
served as an administrator at the New
England Conservatory of Music (1967-1977)
and at Hartt School of Music at the
University of Hartford (1977-1988).
He became the Dean of the College of
the Arts and Professor of Music at Ohio
State University in 1988. However after
nearly a decade in that position he
has returned to the faculty of composition
at Ohio State.
During his time in Paris (1955
-1968) he was heavily involved
in the promotion of music (especially
American music). He was a consultant
to the United States Information
Service and was responsible for
staging the first post-war Festival
of Contemporary American Music.
Other commitments have included
co-editing the Berg/Schoenberg
correspondence which was extremely
well received in music scholarship
circles. In between all this activity
he has found time to compose a
great deal of music in virtually
However his early career in Paris
is the focus of our interest.
Harris had studied with Ross Lee
Finney at the University of Michigan.
He had further lessons with Lukas
Foss and Boris Blacher at Tanglewood.
He had begun to study for a Doctor
of Musical Arts (DMA) at Michigan.
This was a new degree programme
that had just been introduced
and was enrolling its first students.
Basically the raison d’être
of this course was to ‘provide
the composer with the requisite
tools and skills to be able to
gain employment in college teaching’.
In spite of that fact that Harris
was later to spend much of his
career in academia, he was not
enthusiastic about doing so in
1954. He had a life-long dream
(he was 23 at the time) to go
to Europe in general and Paris
in particular to study composition
with the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger.
He set sail for France in September
1955 armed with a letter of acceptance
from Nadia and a letter of introduction
from Finney who had studied with
her before the Second World War.
Harris writes that at this time
he had ‘high expectations, eagerly
expecting to be inspired as [he]
had never been inspired before.’
His initial plan was to spend
some two years in Paris and then
return to Ann Arbor and continue
his Doctorate. However, the best
laid plans of mice and men ...!
He did not reckon on falling in
love with Paris and Gallic culture.
It was to be 1968 before he finally
returned to the United States
– and he never achieved his DMA!
On arrival in Paris in 1955 Harris’s
thoughts were about as far away
from degree work as possible.
He had some six weeks before his
first interview with Mademoiselle
Boulanger. She taught a summer
season at Fontainebleau before
resuming lessons at her apartment
in Rue Ballu. So the delights
of Paris presented themselves
to him – with the small proviso
that he took some time out to
learn to speak French. I quote
extensively from Harris’ own words:-
In September 1955 James
Dean was tragically killed
in a motor car accident.
Cy Young the baseball hero
died from a fatal heart
attack aged 88.
Honegger died in France
The Yellow Rose of Texas
sung by Mitch Miller was
at Number One for 5 weeks
Alan Hovhaness Symphony
No.2 'Mysterious Mountain'
Bohuslav Martinu completed
his masterpiece, The Epic
Juan Peron was deposed from
office in Argentina.
were gathering pace in Hungary
Alan Ginsberg first read
Howl in San Francisco.
were first used in car radios.
finally Gunsmoke made its
debut on US television in
"My most immediate objective
was to learn the language. Even
though I had studied French in high
school and college (I even won the
French medal when I graduated from
high school), I soon discovered
that although I could read fairly
well, I had considerable difficulty
understanding what was said to me
when addressed in French. Conversely
I found that those who were trying
to understand what I was trying
to say in my heavily American-accented
French were having just as much
difficulty. A female companion whom
I had met while looking for lodgings
proved to be an invaluable teacher.
But I devised another plan, which
I anticipated would satisfy both
my need to be immersed in French
culture and my desire to speak and
converse properly. The Comédie
Française was in session
during September and October. I
went to every play that was being
given. In the afternoon, I would
read the text, try to learn all
of the unfamiliar words, and then
attend the performance in the evening,
hoping that as time went by the
language would become second nature.
Unfortunately the language of Molière
or Corneille was hardly what one
spoke in daily conversation, thus
the plan was only moderately successful
when it came to participating in
everyday life. But I was becoming
increasingly familiar with French
classical theatre and this gave
me immense pleasure."
Parisian music was in a state of flux
in the 1950s. Of course there were performances
of the classics. Grand Opera was not
forgotten and there was a regular diet
of recitals and orchestral concerts
featuring the great music of the past
from France and further afield. Harris
suggests that not all concerts were
up to scratch - there was quite a disparity
of quality. However his approach was
to attend as many concerts as possible.
Yet performances of contemporary music
seemed to be few and far between. The
exception to this was the Domaine Musicale
concerts championed by Pierre Boulez.
Harris had heard about Boulez back in
Michigan, so the style and content of
the programmes came as no surprise to
him. Here in 1956 he heard one of the
earliest performances of Boulez’s Le
Marteau Sans Maître with the
composer conducting. The list of composers
presented at the Domaine Musicale is
impressive. Harris heard works by Messiaen,
Pousseur, Stockhausen, Nono, Henze and
Barraqué. Over the next few years
performances were given of music by
Maderna, Berio and Barraqué.
Although nowadays we take Schoenberg
and Webern for granted, in the late
fifties they were still being discovered
and re-appraised. Once again Boulez
was the champion. Harris recalls seeing
a stunning performance of Wozzeck
at the Opéra de Paris.
Along with this venue he spent as much
time as he could watching productions
at the Jean-Louis Barrault/Madeleine
Renaud Theatre Company. The musical
director at that time was Pierre Boulez.
He recalls being impressed by an excellent
production of Aeschylus's Orestes.
This play had been translated by Paul
Claudel and the incidental music was
provided by the director. Harris recalls
that the score was 'highly intricate
and difficult music for actors, all
We remarked earlier on his sterling
attempts to master French, but Donald
Harris need not have worried too much
about his lack of the vernacular! Nadia
Boulanger taught all her American students
in English. Harris was disappointed
by this, as he had wanted to learn as
much French as possible and felt that
the lessons would have been an ideal
opportunity. However he soon "realized
that one did not contradict Mademoiselle".
It is well known that she was a feisty
lady who always got things her own way.
Harris was impressed by Boulanger and
recalled that "I was in awe of
her musicianship as I was of the fact
that I was in the presence of one of
the world’s great pedagogues".
However there were to be problems in
the relationship. He felt that she did
not express sufficient interest in what
he was composing. Boulanger emphasised
the tools that she believed a composer
needed to express their craft. She emphasised
the need to study traditional harmony
and counterpoint. Harris was well versed
in these disciplines before arriving
in Paris, but did not object to further
exercises. He writes, "I would
painstakingly complete the harmony exercises
in Dubois or Vidal that she would assign,
and I must confess that I enjoyed doing
them. But I soon discovered that I was
not composing, that the will or desire
to do so was more or less gone."
The composer recalls bringing the score
of Igor Stravinsky’s Septet (1953)
which had just been published, to Mademoiselle
Boulanger. He was full of enthusiasm
for this interesting work and he pointed
out to her how the Russian had made
use of tone rows. Her response was to
dismiss this technical methodology out
of hand. She accused Stravinsky of being
an ‘old man playing with his jewels’.
Her reply was never to be forgotten.
Shortly after this interview Harris
suffered a bout of jaundice and ended
up in hospital. He wrote a letter to
Mademoiselle Boulanger stating that
he needed to take some time off to convalesce.
A holiday in the Swiss Alps and the
South of France served to restore his
perspective on being a composer, and
I imagine boosting his self confidence.
When he returned to Paris, Harris was
able to secure a larger and less expensive
apartment in the Rue la Boetie under
the auspices of Madame Rotner.
However, as a kind of footnote it must
be said that his relationship with Mademoiselle
Boulanger had a happy ending. A few
years after his last lesson with her,
he renewed contact. This was when Harris’s
Symphony in Two Movements won
a prize at the Concours de Monaco. Boulanger
was President of the Jury. Shortly after
this Harris paid her a personal visit
and they had ‘a pleasant conversation.’
A number of years later in 1966 she
did him the honour of attending the
Paris premiere of the Symphony.
They kept in touch until her death in
1979. Harris writes, "In spite
of the fact that we were sometimes at
odds, I did learn from her, from her
flawless musicianship, her high and
uncompromising standards and from the
strength of her convictions."
Donald Harris does not remember why
he chose to write a solo work for piano.
He suggests that he did not mean to
write a sonata at that time.
Work on the Sonata was begun
in October 1956 and was completed the
following January. It was the first
work that he wrote on his own and, apart
from Boulez, whom he had not yet met
but to whom he showed the piece after
it had been completed, had not shown
it to a teacher of musical composition.
Harris writes that he had a basically
traditional framework in mind when he
was sketching out the four movements.
However he claims that he had ‘unwittingly
adopting some principles of twelve-tone
composition.’ Now this is, I believe,
arguable. Daniel Beliavsky, in a detailed
and extremely learned analysis has identified
a tone row that is used in all four
movements. I attach this sequence at
the end of the essay. Harris himself
"While composing this [third]
movement, initially conceived to
be a short piece for piano, I discovered
that I was playing around with a
twelve-tone row. I proceeded to
write down some row charts and explore
some of the possibilities that they
opened up for me. I then wrote what
is now the final movement, Theme
and Variations, and only then
did I think that I had the material
to write an entire sonata."
Further analysis by Beliavsky shows
that the work is actually quite tightly
derived from this basic material. However
due to the particular nature of the
series and its basically diatonic relationship
between successive pitches gives the
music a pseudo-diatonic feel.
So I actually think that what he has
achieved is a fine balance by ‘playing
around in both worlds, the tonal and
This traditional impression is reinforced
by the ‘French’ feel to much of the
music. It is no accident that Poulenc
and other members of Les Six sprang
to mind as I was listening to this work.
Harris writes that the "waltz in
the last movement (Theme and Variations),
or the entire third movement (Scherzo)
have a decidedly French flair that even
now with nearly five decades’ hindsight,
seem to me to reflect the feelings of
warmth and happiness experienced in
The Sonata is written in four
well-balanced and quite contrasted movements.
Interest is never lost. The basic form
is quite classical. Harris writes that
the first movement nods to the Sonata-Allegro
form, even if it is not a full-blown
sonata movement. That said, there is
an alteration between tempi that gives
a sense of ‘first and second’ subjects
without being quite so explicit.
I find the slow movement attractive,
yet I do not feel that it is the heart
of the work. It is quite introverted
but perhaps just does not have the depth
that would make it essential.
Of course my favourite part of this
work is the Scherzo with its generic
French feel. This was actually the first
movement to be written. This is 'light
and airy’ music that just shouts out
Paris and things Parisian. One cannot
listen to this short movement without
images of springing into the mind. I
wonder if this is a genuine ‘American
The last movement harks back to the
opening movement and makes the work
cyclic. It is a short set of contrasted
variations which uses a ‘chorale’ theme
which is repeated at the end of the
The story of how Donald Harris first
met Pierre Boulez deserves to be recorded.
It was after a concert at the Domaine
Musicale that he decided to meet the
great man. But there was a problem as
to how to do it. As a first step he
consulted the Paris telephone directory
... but let the composer tell the rest
of the tale ...
"I decided to consult the
Paris telephone directory, and sure
enough, there was an entry, Boulez
P., rue de Beautreillis, in
the Quatrième Arrondissement.
I picked up the phone and called
him. To my great surprise, he invited
me over. He lived in a fifth or
sixth floor walk-up (I forget which)
in what was called at the time chambres
de bonnes or pigeonniers.
His accommodation, small
but comfortable, were simply decorated
with only the necessary including
an upright piano. After a few minutes
of conversation, I showed him my
Piano Sonata. He looked it
over carefully and made some suggestions,
principally that my harmonic language
was based upon intervals that were
spaced too close together, in other
words that I ought to seek to widen
the space between the intervals
I was using so that thirds, sixths,
etc. would exploit different ends
of the spectrum and create more
varied sonorities and juxtapositions.
"Ça rappelle trop
le passé," was one
way he justified his reservations.
While this was an admonition I was
certainly willing to consider, I
ended up following his advice to
a far lesser extent than I believe
he intended. I was not about to
completely abandon a more traditional
harmonic language with which I felt
comfortable. And this has remained
a concern of mine to this day as
my harmonic language continued to
develop. I have never felt that
I wanted to break with the past.
With respect to this sonata,
I perceived then and continue to
perceive that one of its chief virtues
is its deliberate attempt to provide
a link with the tradition from which
After Donald Harris’s visit to Pierre
Boulez the Sonata was put ‘into
the drawer’ and largely forgotten. He
did not know many people in Paris at
that time and was not really sure how
to get a new work performed.
It was at this time that Harris began
to explore what Musique Concrète
had to offer. He enrolled for a
training course at the studios. He worked
briefly with Philippe Arthuis who was
at that time in charge of the courses.
Harris recalls that at that time, "Technology
was a far cry from what it has become
today. I remember a lot of cutting and
splicing of tape, working with large,
cumbersome reel-to-reel machines and,
by our (today’s) standards, rather primitive
It is unfortunate perhaps that Harris
never actually completed a piece of
music during the few weeks of his studies
here. However he was fortunate to meet
there the Italian composer Girolamo
Arrigo. Arrigo introduced Harris to
Max Deutsch, the pupil of Arnold Schoenberg,
who was to become his teacher for the
next few years.
The Piano Sonata Opus 1 was
given its first performance by the British
pianist Susan Bradshaw. At that time
she was about 23 years of age. Bradshaw
had studied at the Royal Academy of
Music under the auspices of Harold Craxton
for piano and Howard Ferguson for composition.
However it is likely that her interest
in modern music was stimulated by the
exiled Hungarian Mátyás
There is a story told of how Bradshaw
and Hans Keller had produced a ‘spoof’
composition by an imaginary composer
called Piotr Zak. It was cobbled together
in a recording studio making use of
a few percussion instruments. The work
was called Mobile (1961) and
caused considerable consternation when
it was broadcast. Apparently many people
took this work as an important contribution
to modern art! However her aim was to
make a serious point about ‘the excesses
and self deceptions of the chaotic new
music scene.’ It was a critical attitude
that Susan Bradshaw was to retain all
However, in the late fifties she had
been awarded a French Government Scholarship
to study in Paris with Pierre Boulez.
Her fellow student at the time was Richard
Rodney Bennett. It would be during the
latter part of 1958 that she found herself
in one of Max Deutsch’s weekly classes.
Although somewhat hazy about the precise
circumstances, Donald Harris remembers
that there was a private concert at
the apartment of a Parisian patron of
the arts. This concert aired a number
of works by Deutsch’s pupils including
the Piano Sonata Opus 1. Harris
recalls that it was a fine performance,
although because of its private nature
was largely ignored by the critics.
It is sad to note that Susan Bradshaw
died in February 2005 after many years
of devoted service to music, especially
The first public performance of the
work was given some three years later
by Geneviève Joy at a concert
presented at the Centre Culturel Américain
on the Rue du Dragon. Joy was, in fact
the wife of the great French composer
Henri Dutilleux and was renowned for
her devotion to twentieth century music.
Some 15 years previously she had premiered
her husband’s great Piano Sonata
(1947) to huge acclaim. She had gained
an impressive reputation for her ability
to sight-read the most complex and avant-garde
scores at the piano. She championed
Harris’s Piano Sonata by arranging
a recording by Radio France. This recording
was one of two works presented to the
Deuxième Biennale de Paris in
1961 to represent the United States.
The other was Robert Wykes’ Quatre
chants indiens d'Amérique,
Harris was introduced to the music
publisher Denise Jobert-Georges by fellow
student Eugene Kurtz. Editions Jobert
published the work in 1965 and remained
Harris’s publisher for the remainder
of his time in Paris. The Sonata
is only one of a number of works in
Edition Jobert’s 2005 catalogue.
Harris wrote that "for a young
composer in an unfamiliar country, this
was a most welcome opportunity that
fortuitously rather auspiciously launched
my career in Paris."
The Sonata languished for nearly
forty years until it was revived at
the ‘Festival of the Hampton’s’ in Long
Island. It was taken up by its new champion,
Daniel E. Beliavsky.
Beliavsky has not formally recorded
the work, although I understand that
he will in the near future. The recording
I used in the preparation of this article
was from a live performance given in
So after all these years, this fine
work has been given the new lease of
life it so well deserves.
1. I thank Donald Harris for a stunningly
interesting and beautifully written
résumé of his early career
in Paris. I have freely quoted from
2. The note row used in the Piano Sonata
G –Bb-F# -C# -A –F –D –C -G# -E
3. Donald Harris attended the funeral
of Arthur Honegger. He had had
a letter of introduction to meet him
but died before he could take advantage
of it. Harris vividly remembers
seeing Jean Cocteau at the funeral,
in the full regalia of the Académie