Johana Harris, pianist, teacher, composer (1912-1995)

Pianist Johana Harris was an unusually gifted musician who performed, taught, and composed for over 70 years. She began her distinguished career as a child prodigy in both piano and composition, and as an adult, became a renowned concert pianist, recorded prolifically and held teaching positions in over 20 institutions. On the concert stage, and on radio and television broadcasts, Johana Harris astonished and delighted audiences in Canada and the United States with her original interpretations of classical and contemporary piano repertoire and her masterful improvisations.

Childhood and education

She was born Beula Duffey in Ottawa, Ontario. (She did not change her name to Johana Harris until her marriage at the age of 22.) Beula first demonstrated musical talent at the age of two when she sat at the piano and played tunes that she had heard on her grandmother's phonograph. Before long, her family realized that she had a perfect ear and excellent instincts for improvisation and composition.

Beula's parents, Claude and Laura Duffey, supported and encouraged their daughter's musical career. They enrolled Beula in the now defunct Canadian Conservatory of Music in Ottawa, where she took lessons first with Bertha LaVerde Worden, and then Harry Puddicombe. While at the Conservatory, the precocious seven-year-old participated with other pupils at a recital on February 22, 1922, performing pieces by Mendelssohn and Debussy, and also four of her own compositions. Beula graduated from the Conservatory at the extraordinary age of 11, in a class of women who were 18 or older.

Her first major performance occurred on June 13, 1925. Presented as "Ottawa's Wonder Child Pianiste," Beula performed a solo recital in the ballroom of the Chateau Laurier. Included on the program were works by Grieg, Chopin, Liszt, and one of her own compositions, "At Evening". A writer from the Ottawa Evening Journal reviewed the young pianist's first performance: "Confident, but unspoiled in her demeanour, undaunted in the least degree by the magnitude of her task, she presented an appearance that wafted her straight into the hearts of her audience, … where the soul is lacking no amount of musical instruction can place it there. Beula Duffey has the soul" (Bohuslawsky, 1998).

Shortly after her Ottawa debut, Beula moved with her family to New York to study with Ernest Hutcheson, the director of the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Before long, she began an intense performance schedule, giving recitals in Steinway Hall and in private homes.

At the age of 14, Beula was accepted to Juilliard's graduate program on a full scholarship. In addition to piano, she studied voice, composition, counterpoint, chamber music and literature. Upon completing her studies at the age of 17, she became a faculty member of Juilliard, the youngest in the history of the institution.

At this time, Beula began making the first of many radio appearances: "CBS Sunday" featured her performing two-piano concertos with her teacher Ernest Hutcheson on its evening broadcasts. This engagement lasted for two years.

When she was 20 years old, Beula was accepted to the Hochschule (University) in Berlin. She studied there for the next two years with scholarship funding. After graduating from the Hochschule, she returned to Juilliard to teach.

Beula was greatly admired for her talent, charm and beauty. Nicknamed the "Belle of Juilliard", she was petite - 4'11" - with light hair, blue eyes and a flair for fashion. In August 1935, at a garden party for Juilliard faculty, Beula met Roy Harris, an American composer who, after studying in Paris with renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger on a Guggenheim fellowship, embarked on a successful and prolific composing career in the United States.

Thirteen years older than Beula and already married, Harris had been teaching at Juilliard since 1932. During the summer of 1935, he and Beula taught an analysis course on "The Well-Tempered Clavier" by J.S. Bach; she performed the preludes and fugues for the class. Harris fell deeply in love with the charming young pianist, eventually divorced his wife, and pursued a romance with Beula. The couple eloped on October 10, 1936 in Union, Oregon.

After her marriage, Beula changed her name to Johana Harris. Her new husband disliked the name Beula, and, according to Nicolas Slonimsky, the author of Perfect Pitch, he chose to re-name her Johana "in reverence to [Johann Sebastian] Bach, the only composer whom Harris regarded as superior to himself. Harris was an amateur numerologist; his vital number was 5….To make the name of his bride divisible by 5, in alphabetical sequence, he dropped the second 'n' in Johanna" (Slonimsky, p. 246-7).

Concert and recording career

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. (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.)

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

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).

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-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.

Selected recordings available

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  • Bohuslawsky, Maria. "Canada's child star: great triumphs and great loves marked musical prodigy's life". The Ottawa Citizen. April 5, 1998. AMICUS 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 14420725
  • Johana Harris fonds, MUS 183 (Accession 2004-11), Library and Archives Canada. MIKAN 3699861
  • Perry, Richard. "Johana Harris revisited". The Ottawa Citizen. May 23, 1999. AMICUS 8087699
  • Slonimsky, Nicolas. Perfect pitch : a life story. Oxford [Oxfordshire] ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1988. 263 p. AMICUS 7192763
  • Stehman, Dan. Roy Harris : a bio-bibliography. Westport : Greenwood Press, 1991. xii, 475 p. AMICUS 10654980
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