The Kennedy Center

Roy Ellsworth Harris


Roy Harris was known as one of America's most significant twentieth-century composers of classical symphonic music. Known for trying to express an American spirit theme in his music. His greatest symphony the ‘Third 1937' is his best known work. He was born LeRoy Ellsworth Harris into a modest family of mixed ancestry in Lincoln County, Oklahoma. He grew up one of five children living in a log cabin until 1903 when his father sold the family farm and moved the family to the San Gabriel Valley California.

His first music training, he studied piano with his mother and later clarinet while in high school. By the time he was 18, he was a virtuoso performer on the piano and clarinet. He farmed and did odd jobs to support his music studies. After serving in the Army during World War I, he began serious musical study at the University of California at Berkeley in 1919. At Berkeley he studied sociology, philosophy, history and economics and he was mentored by composer Arthur Farwell. Who introduced him to Walt Whitman poetry and helped him to develop a ‘distinctive' style. He also studied under Charles Demarest, Fannie Dillon, Henry Schoenfeld and Modest Altschuler.

After university he studied in Paris for 3 years on Guggenheim Fellowships with Nadia Boulanger. He received musical grooming in her master classes and under her guidance he began to study of Renaissance music and wrote his first noteworthy works. Some of Nadia other students were Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland both friends of Roy Harris.

Roy Harris was the first American composer to conduct his own works in Russia, Leningrad Philharmonic as a cultural ambassador for the United States State Department. From 1934 -1960 he taught at various Universities. In 1957 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1979. He was designated Composer Laureate of the State of California.

In 1936 he married Beula Duffey, a young pianist who changes her name to Johana, to have a successful musical career. She also taught the piano at the Juilliard School and had a great collaboration working with her husband. The couple had two sons, Shaun and Dan both musicians. Roy Harris died October 1, 1979, in Santa Monica, California after a fall.

Roy Harris


  • "O Holy Night"