Library and Archives Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Institutional links

The Virtual Gramophone
Canadian Historical Sound Recordings

Biographies

Johana Harris - Concert and Recording Career

Sketch of Johana Harris by Boardman Robinson, 1943

Source
Sketch of Johana Harris by Boardman Robinson, 1943

Johana had been preparing for a career on the international stage since childhood, but when legendary impresario Arthur Judson offered to manage international tours for her, she declined and explained, "I wanted a family and Roy needed me" (Bohuslawsky, 1998). She maintained an active concert career in the United States, however, performing a vast repertoire that included standard works by Bach, Chopin and Liszt, early music by Gibbons and Sweelink, and twentieth-century compositions by Hindemith, Schoenberg and Chavez.

Her performances received excellent reviews. In one such review Dr. Hans Rosenwald, Editor of Chicago's Music News, noted that whether she played from the classical repertoire or performed contemporary music (as she often did), Johana Harris was among the very best. Of particular note to him was her exquisite sense for diversified musical styles, her warmth and her pianistic dexterity. He also commented on her fabulous memory and the unforgettable hours of music she offered her audiences.

Johana also regularly included her husband's compositions on her programs. At Bailey Hall (Cornell University) on November 8, 1942, she performed his Variations on an Irish Tune. On other occasions, she performed Harris' Contemplation, Toccata, Sonata Op.1, and she premiered a number of his piano concertos.

In 1941, Johana returned to Ottawa to play a benefit concert that also featured soprano and Ottawa native Jean Dickenson. Hundreds of music lovers attended the concert and Johana's program of Bach, Mozart and Schubert was well received. For an encore she improvised on folk tunes such as "Danny Boy" and "Cotton-Eyed Joe". Isabel Armstrong reviewed Johana's performance in the Evening Citizen: "Technique has been so completely mastered that it is her unobtrusive instrument to express the shade of thought or feeling she wishes to convey" (Bohuslawsky, 1998).

Johana's extraordinary talent could also be heard on television and radio broadcasts. She was involved in an ambitious series for station WWSW in Pittsburgh called "Master Keys", a live weekly television show that broadcast Johana's performances on National Educational Television across the United States and in Europe. She and her husband shared a passion for American folk music, which they featured in radio broadcasts in the early 1940s with Johana singing and playing the folk songs and her husband providing spoken commentary.

While Johana was renowned for her mastery of the major piano repertoire, she was also known for her improvisational skills. For an encore, she would often improvise on the repertoire performed during the rest of the concert. Maria Bohuslawsky wrote about Johana's unique talent: "Her improvisations would contain as many as 115 references. She wove all the bits and pieces to suit the mood of the moment…. 'This is a free-for-all,' she would wink at her audience. 'And I'll probably have more fun than you will'" (Bohuslawsky, 1998).

Johana made over 100 recordings in her lifetime. In 1937, she made the first recording of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and it was chosen by RCA Victor to demonstrate outstanding piano recording at the New York World's Fair in 1939. Her earliest recordings of works by Roy Harris include his Sonata for Piano, Children's Suite, and Piano Quintet (1936), which he composed for Johana as a wedding present.

Other recordings include most of the keyboard solo and chamber compositions of Beethoven, discs of Irish and American folksongs which she sang to her own accompaniments, and assorted compositions by Debussy, Schoenberg, Schubert and Piston. During a period of three months in 1937, Johana recorded, without repeated takes, more than 100 works by 35 composers.1

Charles O'Connell of the Radio Corporation of America once remarked that Johana Harris was a formidable virtuoso whose interest in recording work and understanding of microphone requirements led to the production of highly unusual records, both musically and technically.

Johana also was a talented composer, and she supported and encouraged other composers, especially her husband and students.2 Her compositions consisted of mainly piano works and accompaniments for folk song collections -- one of her special interests. A number of her compositions have been performed on programs under various pseudonyms, one of them Patrico Juan Eire. When Johana taught at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), she was the only faculty member who performed compositions by students in concert.

Between 1944 and 1957, Johana gave birth to five children: Patricia, Shaun, Daniel, Maureen and Lane. The Harrises moved frequently, and as a result, she taught in many different institutions during her life, including Juilliard, Colorado College, Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, the University of Sewanee, California Institute of the Arts, Cornell University and UCLA.

They settled for a number of years in a luxurious 32-room house in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The Harris household was lively, and frequently received distinguished visitors such as composer William Schuman, folksinger Burl Ives, poet Robert Frost, Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, and Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood".

They experienced difficulties, however, due to Johana's and Roy's poor spending habits and extravagant tastes in cars and entertainment, and often found themselves in financial trouble. Furthermore, Roy Harris's frequent mood swings caused tension in the house, particularly when, in 1952, he was under investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and his career and reputation were thrown into question.

While Johana and Roy experienced many trials during their marriage, they also shared a love of music and talent for creativity. Nicknamed "Mr. and Mrs. American Music," they often worked on musical projects together. Cellist Janos Starker commissioned Roy Harris to write a composition in the early 1960s, and after struggling with the composition for some time, Harris consulted with his wife. The resulting composition was Harris's Cello Sonata (1964) for cello and piano. Janos Starker remarked about the piece, "If truth be told, it was mostly Johana who wrote that composition. Roy was basically close to a genius but he was a very strange man. She was a very gifted composer. She was the one who helped him materialize his ideas" (Bohuslawsky, 1998).

Notes

1. Richard Perry, "Johana Harris revisited". MCA Classics was interested in the project, but released only a few discs by Bach and Debussy. CRI later released a disc, which incorporated performances from Johana's 1987 recordings.

2. Louise Spizizen, Johana Harris' biographer, has argued controversially that many of Roy Harris' compositions should have been attributed to Johana Harris.