Tamsin Waley-Cohen champions an underappreciated Violin Concerto.

Violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen explains why she believes Roy Harris’s Violin Concerto should rank among the greats

Tamsin Waley-Cohen champions an underappreciated Violin Concerto.
Tamsin Waley-Cohen (credit: Patrick Allen)

I believe there are two reasons we listen to music. Firstly, for enjoyment, pure pleasure, the uplifting euphoria that music can bring. Secondly, to understand something more profound about ourselves: who we are, why we are the way we are, to explore in depth a certain experience, or a moment in time or history. Music, by its nature the most abstract of the arts, is also able to be the most emotionally precise and lucid.

Roy Harris’s Violin Concerto of 1949 fulfills both of these requirements. His music is joyful and expansive, and full of beauty. He also encapsulates a specific kind of ‘Americanism’, of hope, freedom, generosity of spirit, and inclusiveness, and we hear this in his music. 

Born to a poor family in Oklahoma, and raised on the rural farmlands of California, Harris in many ways encapsulates the American dream, of hard work, success, and duty to give back to the community. He grew up on the great American plains, and the huge vistas and endless horizons must have been ingrained in his psyche - we can certainly hear them in his music. 

Virtually self-taught till his early 20s (his mother taught him the clarinet and the piano), Harris maintained a strong interest in folk music throughout his life, including jazz and Native American music, which is sublimated in his musical language and woven throughout the concerto, in the melodies, the rhythmic games, and unusual use of modality in his rich harmonic language. We can hear the great plains of his childhood in the music, in the rhapsodic, expansive melodies, the sense of joy and freedom imbued throughout, unfettered by the constraints of European tradition, despite his studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, which he largely rejected. Perhaps in part due to his modest beginnings, throughout his life he was a champion of equality and equal opportunity. His final symphony addresses themes of slavery and the civil war. 

Many of the motifs in the concerto are derived from folk music, enhanced by Harris’s brilliant orchestration. The violin is not always treated purely as a soloist. Sometimes, it is in dialogue with another instrument, sometimes part of the orchestral texture. Harris coaxes a kaleidoscopic palette from the orchestra, using unusual harmonics in the strings, col legno, and punchy polyphonic textures. Throughout the concerto, the overwhelming feeling is of joy and optimism, this is music of endless possibility. 

Roy Harris’s 3rd symphony is firmly established in the USA as one of the great ‘American’ symphonies, championed particularly by Leonard Bernstein. Yet many Europeans have never heard it. Born in London to an English father and New Yorker mother, I have always had a strong interest in exploring my American cultural heritage. However, while we in Europe may accuse America of being culturally isolationist, perhaps the same could be said of us. Surely, in our modern global society, listening to each other’s music is vital way to understand each other better and to explore our shared experiences, as well as our different outlooks.


Tamsin’s latest recording of Roy Harris and John Adams violin concertos is out on Signum Classics on 30 September. Tell Tamsin what you think by commenting below, or by tweeting her @tamsinwaleycohe

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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