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Donald Harris; Piano Sonata

A somewhat impressionistic exploration of an Opus 1

by John France


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 musical work.

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 humanity.

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 appropriate.

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 for fittings.

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 to her.

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 passé.


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 every genre.

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.

Arthur Honegger died in France aged 63.

The Yellow Rose of Texas sung by Mitch Miller was at Number One for 5 weeks

. Alan Hovhaness Symphony No.2 'Mysterious Mountain' was premiered.

Bohuslav Martinu completed his masterpiece, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Politically, Juan Peron was deposed from office in Argentina.

Events were gathering pace in Hungary and Egypt.

Alan Ginsberg first read Howl in San Francisco.

Transistors were first used in car radios.

And finally Gunsmoke made its debut on US television in this year.


"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 wearing masks'.

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 states: -

"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 the atonal.’

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 that country."

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 in Paris’?

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 work.

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 it sprang."

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 recording equipment."

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 Seiber.

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 her life.

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 contemporary.

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, 1957.

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 November 2001.

So after all these years, this fine work has been given the new lease of life it so well deserves.

John France


1. I thank Donald Harris for a stunningly interesting and beautifully written résumé of his early career in Paris. I have freely quoted from it.

2. The note row used in the Piano Sonata is:-

G –Bb-F# -C# -A –F –D –C -G# -E –B -D#

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 Française.


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