Lou Harrison – Symphony No.3

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison – Photo by Eva Soltes © 2002

I hope that this article you will help you discover a relatively modern work that has fascinated me for some time. Composed in 1982, the Third Symphony of American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) is quite an interesting work. I can’t even count how many times I have listened to this piece (although iTunes has in fact done the counting for me, and it is 18 times so far!). I personally fell in love with this work on first hearing. I am betting it will be the same for you.


I discovered Lou Harrison’s Symphony No.3 almost by accident. Harrison was a composer who I didn’t know existed before reading the excellent autobiography by John Adams, Hallelujah Junction. Adams appears to have a great admiration for his composer colleague. So I wanted to know who this Harrison really was. Listening to excerpts of his works at random on iTunes, I came across this third symphony, and it charmed me right away.

The music of Lou Harrison

According to Wikipedia, Harrison’s music was heavily influenced by the music of non-Western traditions, such as Asian music and Balinese gamelan music. From what I have heard of his works, his music gives a prominent place to melody, while maintaining a relatively simple harmonic structure. Despite its apparent simplicity, Harrison’s music is thoroughly modern and completely succeeds in bridging the gap between classical tradition and the contemporary period.

A closer look

The third symphony of Lou Harrison is a work for large orchestra, divided into 6 movements and lasting a total of around 33 minutes. Of these six movements, three have subtitles, each representing a folk dance.

1st movement – Allegro Moderato

Duration: 7 min 32 sec

This movement differs from the first movement of the typical traditional classical symphony by being rather short and having a relatively simple form with little development. The first 45 seconds introduce a theme with several melodic turns. The orchestration then thins out to make way for contrapuntal interplay between different groups of instruments. This very quickly leads to a slower and calmer central section (around 2:15), where we hear violin and cello solos. Harrison then returns with the same theme as at the very beginning of the movement (around 5:20).

We soon become aware of some Asian influence in the melodic lines of this movement. I also hear some brief echoes of the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.

2nd movement – A Reel in Honor of Henry Cowell

Duration: 2 min 11 sec

First of the three movements named after of a dance, this reel was written in honour of Henry Cowell, well-known among 20th-century composers and Harrison’s former teacher. The percussion that accompanies the entire movement stands out noticeably and gives it a pronounced rhythmic drive. This movement exudes a contagious energy.

Here again, oriental influences can clearly be heard. The evocative power of this music is even surprising. Listening to this movement, I can’t help but imagine a festive banquet in the courtyard of a sultan in Central Asia during the Middle Ages.

3rd movement – A Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen

Duration: 2 min 19 sec

In a more lyrical mood, the third movement is a waltz tinged with nostalgia. Even though the accented beats are subtle, we can still feel the traditional waltz rhythm in three.

This waltz was written in tribute to Evelyn Hinrichsen, long-time friend of the composer, who worked as a score editor at C. F. Peters.

4th movement – An Estampie for Susan Summerfield

Duration: 4 min 3 sec

The last of the three dance movements is dedicated to Susan Summerfield, an early music specialist. Harrison himself was interested in baroque and pre-baroque music. As a performer, he took part in specialized ensembles dedicated to these periods. He also composed in this style.

One of Harrison’s favourite pre-baroque forms was a medieval form called the « Estampie ». This highly rhythmic genre features musical phrases grouped in pairs, the first presentation having an open ending with the second one closed. It is a form that he used again and again in many of his works, and we have a good example of it here in the third symphony.

5th movement – Largo Ostinato

Duration: 6 min 37 sec

My favourite movement of this symphony, this Largo Ostinato is reminiscent of daydreaming. Harrison chooses to use a harmonic ostinato formula and continues it for the entire movement. Simply listening to the bass line, it is easy to see that the whole is very static, constantly repeating the same pattern. Despite the harmonic stillness, long melodic lines lead us into a musical universe that is simply sublime.

6th movement – Allegro

Duration: 10 min 26 sec

Harrison concludes his symphony with the longest and most substantial movement of the work. It contains a mixture of various elements heard in previous movements, with emphasis on the juxtaposition of melodic lines in contrapuntal fashion. From the very beginning, the brass section give some echoes of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, just as in the first movement.

Suggested recordings

To my knowledge, there is only one recording of this symphony, the version by Russell Davies and the Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestra, released in 1991 on the Amerco label. In addition to the Third Symphony, the album also contains the Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, another very interesting piece.

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/lou-harrison-third-symphony/id297401678
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Lou-Harrison-Third-Symphony-Violin/dp/B001L2GJWE

If you happen know of any other recordings of this symphony, please feel free to let me know.


Lou Harrison on Wikipedia

Documentary film about Lou Harrison: LOU HARRISON: A World of Music (a film by Eva Soltes)

John Adams’ autobiography: Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life by John Adams

Share your thoughts

How do you like this symphony? Did you know about this work or the composer before reading this article? Do you own or have you bought a recording of this work? Did this article help you enjoy this piece?

Share your thoughts and comments. Hope to hear from you!

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4 thoughts on “Lou Harrison – Symphony No.3”

  1. D Hepler says:

    Very pleasing to the ears. Seems lots of Dorian mode which is so natural and soothing. The far eastern feels seem unique and lively. Looks like Hoosier ties from photo.

  2. Byron Souder says:

    Lou Harrison is one of those seldom-heard but, for me, always enjoyable composers whose music enlightens and lifts. This symphony is no exception. I appreciated your words to guide me through the piece.

    I also thoroughly enjoy his Piano Concerto.

  3. Madeleine Phillips says:

    Many thanks for providing such superb notes about this Symphony. To my knowledge, this was my first hearing. I am listening on Music Choice through my cable provider. It is soul satisfying to hear a piece for the first time and become immediately enamored and wish to hear it many more times. Thank you again for your insight.

  4. Jeremy Shapiro says:

    I just heard this symphony for the first time (also on Music Choice) and it blew my mind. Such richness, such freshness, with force and drama. Unfortunately I tuned in after it started and only heard the last 30-40% of it. So now I have to buy it and listen from the beginning before saying more.

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