The Harris Ninth for Saturday, January 19, 2019

Composers—like anybody else—can be quite superstitious about numbers. Gustav Mahler, for example, was reluctant to assign the number “9” to his song cycle symphony, “Das Lied von der Erde,” fearing that work would turn out to be his last: after all, Beethoven and Bruckner had only completed nine symphonies. Ironically, Mahler did go on to complete a Ninth Symphony, but died before he could finish work on a Symphony No. 10. For the most part, American composers have avoided this problem by rarely if ever producing more than one or two symphonies of their own. Naturally there have been exceptions. On today’s date in 1963, the Ninth Symphony of the American composer Roy Harris had its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, who had commissioned the work. Like many of his other symphonies composed during and after the Second World War, Harris’s Ninth has a patriotic program, and each of its sections bears a subtitle from either the American Constitution or Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” This music, from the symphony’s opening movement, is titled “We the People.” Harris went on to write 13 Symphonies in all—although, perhaps submitting to a bit of numerological superstition himself—when his symphony No. 13, a Bicentennial Commission, was first performed in Washington, D.C. in 1976, it was billed as his Symphony Number Fourteen!