• John Michael Cooper

RACIAL JUSTICE AND AMERICAN PATRIOTISM

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Resurrecting a Blacklisted Musical Affirmation of Freedom from 1976 in 2021


[Update (March 8, 2021): The June 13, 2009 revival of Harris's "Bicentennial Symphony" has been repackaged and is currently available for broadcast to any interested NPR station beginning today thru June 30, 2021. The repackaged audio and video versions are also available via MusicUNTOLD website and the MusicUNTOLD YouTube channel.]



Two seemingly unrelated facts:

  • On February 10-12, 1976, the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Murry Sidlin (b. 1940) premiered the Bicentennial Symphony (Symphony No. 13/14[1]) of U.S. composer Roy Harris (1898-1979) as part of that year’s many celebrations of the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, celebrations that collectively sought to establish what patriotism meant for the country and sprawling global empire that had grown out of the thirteen colonies who broke away from Britain in 1776.

  • On January 6, 2021, about eight hundred (800) terrorists described as "patriots" by then-President Donald Trump laid siege to the United States Capitol, following the incitements of the commander-in-chief to prevent at all costs the Congressional certification of an election that he had lost by 7,052,770 votes. As is well known, that executive-incited siege, the most violent U.S. domestic uprising since the Civil War (and, before that, Shays’ Rebellion), resulted in the deaths of seven Americans and nearly destroyed the process of peacefully transferring power at the highest level of the government that has grown out of those thirteen colonies’ 1776 declaration.

And – also as is well known – the terrorists, almost all of whom were White Republican males, were waving flags that, so they believed, visually symbolized their patriotism: TRUMP flags, the United States flag, a version of the Confederate flag.


The Confederate flag.


The connection between these two facts is that whereas the executive- and self-described “patriot” terrorists of the January 6 insurrection were driven by racism and were, like Trump, committed to White supremacy, Roy Harris understood that racial justice is the sine qua non of patriotism for the country that declared its independence from Britain in 1776 – and his Bicentennial Symphony is a compelling musical testimony to that effect. You can hear and see it tomorrow, February 12, 2021, at 1:00 PST on KLBP 99.1 FM, hosted by Michele Anderson Esq., or get the full audio and video versions at mUSICUNTOLD.com or YouTube.com/MusicUNTOLD.


A quick note about the piece:


Harris composed it late in 1975 in response to a commission from the California State, Los Angeles, Foundation for the US Bicentennial. It turned out to be his final symphony, and like its Beethovenian counterpart (the Ninth) was written for orchestra with soloists, and chorus who take a modified version of well-known previously written texts that proclaim the imperative for universal equality in the human condition. It’s laid out as an orchestral introduction (titled “Revolution for Freedom”) followed by five accompanied vocal movements:

  1. Preamble to the Constitution;

  2. Freedom versus Slavery 1976;

  3. Civil War, Brothers Kill Brothers;

  4. Emancipation Proclamation; and

  5. Freedom.

Harris makes clear from the outset that turning a blind eye to racial injustice is a recipe for disaster and anathema to the pursuit of freedom that was the reason for this country’s founding. In “Freedom versus Slavery 1976” (the title is a pointed and telling assertion that slavery was still very real in the United States in 1976!), the sopranos and altos, singing, solemnly and insistently declare that “Our forefathers found this new land in search of freedom” but are interrupted by shouting men’s voices: “We demand the right to own slaves! Slave men! Slave women! Slave children!” – and the remainder of the movement is a jarring juxtaposition of those same concepts and forces. Harris emphasizes the conflict musically in the orchestra, with the accompaniment to the women’s admonitions to freedom sounding as tranquil and solemn chords whose peace is destroyed by discordant harmonies accompanying the men’s hateful retorts – and the deadly stakes of that unresolved conflict are underscored in the “Brothers Kill Brothers” movement. The last two movements, “Emancipation Proclamation” and “Freedom,” are conjoined, asserting that true freedom (the goal of the second movement) can, at last, be achieved if and only if racial equality under the law is achieved. To make certain that this imperative of universal inclusivity and racial equality is not overlooked, the final movement returns to the Preamble to the Constitution, but with pointed interjections authored by Harris: “'We the people of the United States – all of us – to form a more perfect union – for all of us – promote the general welfare – for all of us – must secure the blessings of liberty – for all of us. But despite the similarities to Beethoven's Ninth, this Symphony ends without resolution rather than with a jubilant peroration. There is a reason for that compositional gambit -- for a traditional triumphant ending would suggest that freedom in racial justice had been achieved. Harris's point was the opposite: that two centuries later, the conflict laid out in this Symphony's second movement was still with us; that freedom in racial justice was still a thing of the future, a goal that had not yet been attained and that would become real only after significant further work.


When Roy Harris penned his Bicentennial Symphony in a year that provided ample occasion and validation for the sham-patriotism that ignored the racial injustice that defined and defiled the United States’ commitment to freedom up to that point – the same sham-patriotism that fueled the Trump Terrorist Attack – he was, in the words of Malcolm D. Robertson, “risking both critical and popular scorn.”[2] And indeed, for Harris, the gambit failed: the Bicentennial Symphony was effectively blacklisted and boycotted. Washington Post critic George Gelles (1942-2019) scoffingly labeled it “a caricature of music, a parody of Abraham Lincoln’s message and a travesty of all it sets out to do,” while musicologist/critic Robert Strassburg more politely damned it with faint praise, noting that critics were “unsettled by what they felt was a fearsome and unfriendly approach to the course of events in the United States these past 200 years.”[3] (As if a “friendly” and less “unsettling” approach to slavery and racism would have been more appropriate . . .) The critics’ offense sealed the Symphony’s fate: it was not performed again during the composer’s lifetime and remains unpublished today.


But perhaps – as the United States, in the wake of the Trump Terrorist Attack of January 6, 2021 and the eventual ascendance to the executive branch of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, true public servants committed to racial justice – tries to come to terms with the grotesqueness and horror of a sham-patriotism driven by racism and hate, this Symphony’s time has finally come.


Perhaps its time has come.


I knew nothing of Harris’s Bicentennial Symphony until I was informed about it by Mr. John Malveaux, founder of Music UNTOLD and tireless promoter of musical and other artistic ventures that foster human dignity and equality. John organized the posthumous premiere of the work in 2009 (performance by the MusicUNTOLD Orchestra & Chorale, conducted by Joseph R. Taylor), and a few years ago he prepared a short video on the project of reviving this work unjustly blacklisted because of its forceful insistence that racial equality is essential for freedom and had arranged for a major revival performance in the summer of 2020. That performance fell prey to the COVID-19 shutdown, but it will be rescheduled – stay tuned.


In the meantime, you should check out tomorrow’s broadcast. By doing so you’ll be part of the resurrection of a work whose time, finally, has come.


(Special thanks to John Malveaux for his help in drawing attention to Harris’s final symphony and its significance.)



[1] Harris numbered the Bicentennial Symphony “No. 14” out of superstition regarding the number thirteen, but his widow later gave permission for its correct numbering to be reinstated. See Malcolm D. Robertson, “Roy Harris’s Symphonies (Part II),” Tempo (New Series) 214 (October, 2000): 26. [2] Robertson, “Roy Harris’s Symphonies (Part II),” 26. [3] Quoted from Robertson, “Roy Harris’s Symphonies (Part II),” 26.

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