Roy Harris became a renowned composer on the American scene in the 1940s, owing to the immense popularity of his Third Symphony. His mature compositions incorporated folk music or folk-inspired elements with fresh harmonies, often in orchestration that favored wind instruments, fashioning a style that could embrace a mixture of savagery, lyricism, celebration, tenderness, and rural Americana. His choral music divulged characteristics of both chant and the hymn and folk styles of his rural background.
Harris was born in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. After the family moved to the San Gabriel Valley when Roy was about five, he began showing talent on the piano. He quickly developed his keyboard talents and even learned to play the clarinet in high school. By the time he was 18, his skills on the piano and clarinet were quite advanced, but he had not yet written any music. In 1919, he enrolled in the University of California at Berkelely to study sociology, philosophy, history, and economics. He had a short-lived marriage in 1922 to a woman named Davida, and two more unsuccessful marriages before 1936.
Harris began studying composition in his college years, first with Charles Demarest and Ernest Douglas, organists both, and in 1924 with Arthur Farwell. While studying with Farwell, he wrote the Andante to a projected symphony titled, Our Heritage. It was premiered in 1926 by Howard Hanson and the Eastman School Orchestra and later that year performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
At the behest of Aaron Copland, Harris departed for France in 1926 to study with Nadia Boulanger. While there, he wrote the Concerto for Piano, Clarinet and String Quartet, his first major success. A 1929 fall in France temporarily crippled the composer, necessitating surgery in the United States and a period of convalescence for most of 1930. In 1933, Copland introduced Harris to Serge Koussevitzky, for whom he would produce his first symphony, "Symphony 1933." This was the composer's greatest success to date.
In 1936, Harris married for the fourth and last time. His bride was Beulah Duffy (whom he called Johana), a pianist on the faculty at Juilliard. Harris' Third Symphony premiered in 1939 and became a sensation, achieving many performances and recordings. While Harris scored triumphs with succeeding symphonies such as the 1940 Fourth ("Folksong Symphony"), and with other works, he would never again experience success so overwhelming.
Harris' restless nature is underscored by his positions with a number of colleges and universities beginning in the late '40s: Utah State (1948), Peabody College (1949), Chatham College (1951), Indiana University (1957), UCLA (1961), and the University of the Pacific (1963). He did produce a violin concerto in 1949, but his Seventh Symphony (1952; rev. 1955) was perhaps his finest work from the post-war era.
In 1958, Harris, along with Peter Mennin, Roger Sessions, and Ulysses Kay, traveled to the Soviet Union on a cultural exchange mission for the Department of State. There he conducted the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra in a performance of his Fifth Symphony, and met prominent Soviet composers, including Dmitri Shostakovich.
In the late 1950s, Harris' inspiration slowed, and even when he experienced productive periods thereafter, the results were uneven at best. Canticle of the Sun (1960) and San Francisco Symphony (Symphony No. 8; 1961-1962) were examples of his less successful endeavors.
After the failure of his Eleventh (1967) and Twelfth Symphonies (1967-1969), the composer wrote mainly choral, vocal, and band music. Harris died in October 1979, after a fall the previous month.