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Johana Harris - Later Life

Years after they married, Harris described his feelings for his wife in a letter:

Beloved lover and great colleague: Surely we were ordained for each other! How else would we have found each other on this revolving globe in this vast universe drifting in the trillions of humanity of the human sea of lost people? How else would our bodies, minds and souls been shaped to accommodate us as man-composer and woman-pianist par excellence (Bohuslawsky, 1998).

Photograph of Johana and Roy Harris

Photograph of Johana and Roy Harris

In his final years, Roy developed Alzheimer's disease, and he died in 1979 at the age of 81. At the time of his death, he had completed 178 works. Johana and Roy had been married for 43 years.

In 1982, three years after her husband's death, Johana announced her engagement to violinist Josef Gingold. They had been sweethearts at Juilliard, but their romance ended because he was Jewish, and she was Catholic. They remained friends throughout their lives, however, and in 1950, Johana recorded Roy Harris' Sonata for Violin and Piano (1941) with Gingold. By 1982, Gingold was elderly and in poor health, but Johana was willing to join him in Illinois, as long as she could bring three of her most talented students with her.

One of these students was a young pianist named Jake Heggie, who was also a promising composition student. Johana and Heggie developed a close relationship as teacher and student, reading poetry together, going for walks, and working on music. When Heggie informed Johana that he could not go with her to Illinois, she was distraught. Just before she turned 70, Johana surprised her family and colleagues by breaking off her engagement to Gingold and marrying 21-one-year-old Heggie.

Johana and Heggie married on December 18, 1982 and as husband and wife, performed numerous two-piano concertos across the United States. Johana also took an interest in her young husband's compositions, and as she had done with Roy Harris, she helped him to refine his work.

Their marriage eventually began to deteriorate and Heggie revealed to Johana that he was gay. After the couple separated, Heggie went to work for the San Francisco Opera where general director, Lotfi Mansouri, named him composer-in-residence. Johana and Heggie remained friends.

Johana died of cancer on June 5, 1995 at the age of 82. Her last public performance took place only a year before her death. Throughout her eventful life, she premiered works by many contemporary composers, including her first husband Roy Harris, Rodolfo Hallfter and Blas Gelinde. Composer Alberto Ginastera dedicated his Piano Sonata to her, and she was the first to record this work. She appeared as soloist with many orchestras including the Toronto Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony and Ottawa Symphony, and had multiple series of network broadcasts on CBS, NBC, ABC and Mutual.

In a tribute to Johana Harris, Stephen Fry, a music librarian at UCLA, described an informal performance she gave on the lawn of the UCLA campus:

She began to play, and the noisy campus was suddenly still. She began with the thundering opening of the Grieg piano concerto, deftly modulated into Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, then Tommy Dorsey's "Getting Sentimental Over You," Debussy's Clair de Lune, a Shostakovich prelude, a Chopin étude, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Harold Arlen with modern jazzy chords, Rachmaninoff with full powerful chords.

The shorter numbers she played completely, and of the larger works she played only a portion -- the most musical and beautiful portion. All the works were treated as equally precious by her skilful and sensitive fingers, and using amazingly inventive improvised modulations, the melodies flowed non-stop from one to another creating their own logic and relationships.... She looked up, finally, from the keyboard, and there arose a deafening applause from the more than 300 students, faculty and staff who had gathered, attracted by her music, during the lunch hour (Fry, 1996).

As a teacher, Johana encouraged and mentored many aspiring piano and composition students. In 1987 she became the first music professor to win the UCLA's Distinguished Teaching Award. Composer Virgil Thomson, who nominated Johana for the award wrote, "What she communicates is music, not ideas about it, but the real thing: how it goes, how it sounds, and how it feels to be on the inside of it, sharing it" (Bohuslawsky, 1998).

By sharing her love of life and of music, Johana Harris touched the lives of friends, family, students and music lovers all over the world.

For more information on Johana Harris's recordings, please consult the Virtual Gramophone database.


Bohuslawsky, Maria. -- "Canada's child star : great triumphs and great loves marked musical prodigy's life". -- The Ottawa citizen. -- April 5, 1998. -- AMICUS No. 8087699

Bond, E.J. -- Correspondence. -- Library and Archives Canada files

Fry, Stephen M. -- "Johana Harris : in memoriam (1913-1995)". -- IAWM journal. -- June 1996. -- P. 48-49. -- AMICUS No. 14420725

Perry, Richard. -- "Johana Harris revisited". -- The Ottawa citizen. -- May 23, 1999. -- AMICUS No. 8087699

Slonimsky, Nicolas. Perfect pitch : a life story. -- Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1988. -- 263 p. -- AMICUS No. 7192763

Stehman, Dan. -- Roy Harris : a bio-bibliography. -- Westport : Greenwood Press, 1991. -- xii, 475 p. -- AMICUS No. 10654980