Johana Harris

Johana (b Beula) Harris (b Duffey). Pianist, teacher, composer, folksinger, b Ottawa 31 Dec 1912, d Los Angeles 5 Jun 1995. Beula Duffey, a child prodigy, started publicly performing advanced piano pieces and her compositions at age eight.

Harris, Johana

Johana (b Beula) Harris (b Duffey). Pianist, teacher, composer, folksinger, b Ottawa 31 Dec 1912, d Los Angeles 5 Jun 1995. Beula Duffey, a child prodigy, started publicly performing advanced piano pieces and her compositions at age eight. She began studying at Ottawa's Canadian Conservatory of Music with Bertha Laverde Worden and Henry Puddicombe. After turning down a scholarship offered by the Hambourg Conservatory in Toronto, at 11 she travelled to New York to study privately with Ernest Hutcheson. In 1927 she won piano and composition scholarships at the Juilliard School of Music. She became Hutcheson's teaching assistant and the youngest member of the faculty. There Duffey pursued composition with Rubin Goldmark. The scholarships were renewed annually until 1933.

Duffey performed with Hutcheson on WABC Sunday evening radio broadcasts 1929-30. During 1929 and 1932 she received scholarships to study voice at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. In 1933 she graduated from Juilliard with distinction. In 1936, she married Roy Harris, the American composer. Following his recommendation, Duffey renamed herself Johana, after J.S. Bach.

Performer, Educator, Recording Artist

One of the 20th century's most outstanding pianists, Johana Harris collaborated with Josef Gingold, Yehudi Menuhin, William Primrose and Tommy Dorsey, and the Juilliard, Walden and Blair quartets. She performed as soloist with the New York, Chicago, MGM and San Francisco symphonies, among others. Harris became internationally known for her piano interpretations of the works of Debussy, Roy Harris and others. Composer Alberto Ginastera dedicated his Piano Sonata to her; she was the first to record it. The pianist Olga Samaroff Stokowski said, "No artist before the public is better equipped in repertory, keyboard mastery and playing experience."

Johana Harris recorded for Columbia, RCA, Capitol, MGM and Contemporary Records, making over 100 solo recordings. In 1937 she made the first recording of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, which in 1939 was selected by RCA Victor for New York's World's Fair. In the 1950s, Harris's weekly television broadcast, Master Keys, aired in the US and Europe. She later performed for Hollywood film and television scores.

Harris' ability to improvise dazzled audiences. Her improvisations often included references to "O Canada."

For 43 years she taught piano, on 18 college campuses, especially at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) 1969-93. In 1987 Harris received UCLA's first music faculty Distinguished Lecturer Award.

Johana and Roy Harris

Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.

Johana Harris, Composer
Johana Harris's expertise often aided Roy with his keyboard writing. The full extent of her contribution remains undetermined; however, some believe her help extended beyond technical consultation. Cellist Janos Starker remarked, "If truth be told, it was mostly Johana who wrote Roy Harris's Cello Sonata (1964) ... She was a very gifted composer. She was the one who helped him materialize his ideas" (Bohuslawsky, 1998). Louise Spizizen, author of an unpublished biography about Johana, claimed the pianist had written up to one third of Roy's compositions. However Dan Stehman, Roy Harris's biographer, concluded that her compositional role was not that significant.

Roy Harris died in 1979. On 18 Dec 1982 Johana married American pianist-composer Jake Heggie. Harris and Heggie toured the US as duo pianists. In 1987, Harris recorded over 100 works; MCA released two CDs - one devoted to Bach and one to Debussy.


Further Reading

  • Slonimsky, Nicolas. Perfect Pitch: A Life Story (Oxford 1988)

    Spizizen, Louise. "Johana and Roy Harris: Marrying a real composer," Musical Quarterly, vol 77, no. 4, 1993

    Perry, Richard. "Ottawa's hidden prodigy," Ottawa Citizen, 18 May 1997

    Bohuslawsky, Maria. "Canada's child star: Great triumphs and great loves marked musical prodigy's life," Ottawa Citizen, 5 Apr 1998

    Perry, Richard. "Johana Harris revisited," Ottawa Citizen, 23 May 1999

    The Johana Harris fonds, MUS 183 (Accession 2004-11), Library and Archives Canada

    Music of the Americas, KPFK FM Los Angeles, Jeannie Pool interviews Johana Harris, 15 Mar 1993

    Portrait of Johana Harris, CBC Radio 2, 24 May 2001