A Footnote in the History of Radio Music
I recently unearthed a musical work that has been lost for eighty years: Roy Harris’s Time Suite.
To be sure, in the Music Division we have many works which are essentially “lost” because no one knows of their existence. In the case of the Harris work, the composer cannibalized the original score for a later work, leaving no complete source of the original. Fortunately, he did not keep the orchestral parts, which remained the property of the Columbia Broadcasting System (today known as CBS). I found these parts, somewhat dispersed, in our vast CBS Collection, reunited them and cataloged them.
To understand the significance of this work, let me provide background and context:
In today’s world, “radio music” refers to music played over the radio. But there was a time when music was composed specifically for the radio, at times taking advantage of attributes unique to the medium. In 1936, CBS hired Deems Taylor (already well-known as a radio commentator and composer) as music consultant, in an apparent attempt to raise the station’s musical standing. One of the first steps Taylor used to raise the station’s standing was to commission new musical compositions. Originally conceived as a contest, the Columbia Composers’ Commission sought to identify composers who would create new works for the radio. The resulting works would receive their world premieres as live broadcasts.
Although one might admire CBS for promoting musical culture, there was another force at work, the Communications Act of 1934. Among the many reforms articulated in the Act was that the newly-created Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) had the power to immediately revoke a station’s license if it ran afoul of the standards articulated in the Act. This included both sponsored and sustaining programing. (In brief: In the 1930s, individual stations understood the Act to obligate them to reserve part of their programming for non-profit and educational use. For this kind of programming, known as “sustaining,” stations would “sustain” (that is, support) such programing without commercial advertising. Programing that included commercial advertisements were known as “sponsored” programing.)
The fear of license revocation made CBS take great efforts to maintain sustaining programming so as to prove to the FCC that it had the public good in mind. In that context, the Columbia Composers’ Commission was not just an effort to promote music, but an attempt to show (to the FCC) CBS’s commitment to non-profit educational programing.
The news release announcing the Commission read in part:
“The commissioned works may be in any form, the only restriction placed upon the composers being that we have suggested time limits suitable to broadcasting. Thus, if the composer elects to write a symphony, a cantata, or an opera, it is not to exceed 40 minutes in length; if a suite or concerto, its maximum length will be 22 minutes; if a work in one movement, between eight and fourteen minutes.” [excerpt from “Music Especially For Radio Sought,” Broadcasting, Oct. 15, 1936, page 28]
Taylor selected the Commission recipients, all leading composers of the day: Aaron Copland, Louis Gruenberg, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and William Grant Still. Rather than turn the composers loose to compose anything they wanted, CBS prepared a special broadcast on October 26, 1936, designed to illustrate idiomatic aspects of radio composition.
As narrated by Taylor, the presentation sought to illustrate idiomatic radio scoring through orchestrations of three works. Each work was heard first in a typical scoring, and then an orchestration which would show some of the unusual techniques frequently used in radio. (The orchestrations were made by staff composer Amadeo De Filippi whose works are well represented in the CBS Collection as well as in his personal archive, both belonging to the Music Division.) Some effects were purely orchestral, such as innovative use of mutes and incorporating the versatile saxophone within a symphony orchestra. The more interesting effects were achieved by taking advantage of what radio could do. For example, specific instruments could walk up to the microphone and be heard against a full orchestra, an effect which could not be reproduced in the concert hall without electronics and the ability of radio engineers to achieve an artificial balance.
The resulting works were heard over the course of Spring and Summer 1937 on the weekly program Everybody’s Music. Some of the composers chose to ignore the radio technique (Hanson’s Symphony no. 3 and Piston’s Concertino for Piano and Orchestra were begun prior to the composers' selection for the Commission). Others tried to incorporate some of the techniques into their resulting compositions: Aaron Copland’s Music for Radio, Louis Gruenberg’s opera Green Mansions and William Grant Still’s Lenox Avenue all take advantage of some of the orchestration techniques illustrated on that October broadcast.
Roy Harris took a different tact: Rather than utilize unusual orchestration techniques, Harris took note of the commission’s particular attention to time (see the news release mentioned above) and incorporated this aspect into his work. But why such attention to time?
In the 1930s, most of American radio was live. Thanks to the efforts of the Musician’s Union to ban recordings from being broadcast, most music had to be played live. In this environment, broadcasters took a very serious attitude toward the clock, making sure that programming did not exceed the time allotted for a scheduled show. Radio scripts from the 1930s all show numerous timings—evidence of multiple rehearsals attempting to accurately gauge the length of programming and make it fit into thirty-minute time slots (the length of a typical radio program).
Taking his cue from radio’s necessary attention to time, Harris created a Time Suite where each of the six movements correspond to an increasing specific length of time (from one to six minutes). The work had its first performance on Sunday, August 8, 1937 on Everybody’s Music. (The cello part of the first movement is at the head of this blog post.)
Apparently there was consideration about renaming some of the movements. These descriptive words are penciled in on some of the parts for the first three movements. In addition to the timings at the head of each movement, the first three movements have additional designations of “Broadway,” “Religion,” and “Youth.”
Although Harris’s Three Symphonic Essays (his reworking of portions of the Time Suite) was published in 1938, there are a few curious markings on the parts which indicate the Suite had at least one performance after the 1936 premiere.
The inscription reads: "Erna Terminello-Barth / Schweiz. Radio-Orchester Zürich / unter Leitung von Herrn Dr. Scherchen / 29. Juli 1938." Apparently the noted conductor Hermann Scherchen performed this work (or part of it) with the Zurich Radio Orchestra on July 29, 1938. (I presume Erna Terminello-Barth might have been an orchestra administrator.)
Being in an orchestra can sometimes be boring. During rehearsals, some players have to wait while the conductor works with other orchestra members. Like typical orchestra players, CBS musicians occasionally showed their wit by writing on their musical parts. Time Suite has a few drawings done by musicians, among them this fanciful depiction:
I’m sure there are many things waiting to be discovered in the CBS Collection.
Hopefully this blog post will lead to the first performances of the Time Suite in eighty years.