Work: Symphony no 2, "Romantic"
About This Work
The frequent classification of Howard Hanson as a neo-Romantic composer is certainly not without merit, though the case is perhaps disproportionately affected by the overwhelming success of his Second Symphony, which has maintained a stronger
foothold in the canon than any of his other works. Still, the composer himself lists as his greatest influence -- even above Respighi, with whom Hanson studied at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome -- the last great romantic symphonist, Jean Sibelius. Indeed, the melodic warmth and accessibility of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony (which itself seemed to revert to a more traditional style than had been reached in the Fourth) can certainly be heard in the more tranquil moments of Hanson's "Romantic" Symphony, though it is often interrupted by the sort of endearingly melodramatic "plot-thickenings" of Grieg.
The development of Hanson's music materials in the Second Symphony proceeds in a very direct manner, which is perhaps why the work has been so well-received by audiences. Take for example, the opening of the first movement (marked Adagio; Allegro Moderato): a simple stepwise ascent of a minor third is reiterated in different instrumental guises, gradually amassing volume and strength before being carried by the crash of cymbals into the next episode. Such buildups of orchestral weight and dramatic tension are set in contrast with passages of rhapsodic lyricism, in which long, arching lines float above ebbing accompanimental textures. These same characteristics are found in the subsequent two movements as well.
The second (Andante con tenerezza) begins with a simple melody doubled in harmonious thirds; this is eventually joined by a countermelody in the horn, then a high descant in the strings. Here we find Hanson employing a few harmonic surprises, albeit in an extremely conservative fashion: suspensions remain dissonant just a bit longer than we expect them to before resolving; the horn line occasionally leaps beyond its melodic mark before settling into consonance with the flutes. It is often in transitions between sections that we find Hanson stepping furthest outside of traditional tonality: as this idyllic flute episode ends, a menacing, polytonal dissonance in the bass emerges, leading to a recollection of the haunting minor third descent that began the entire work.
These opposing forces gradually find reconciliation over the course of the middle movement, though not without considerable difficulty (and a few heart-wrenching harmonic deceptions). As the third and final movement opens, a carnival-esque, Petrushka-like fanfare build and breaks into a subdued and pensive string passage, which itself cedes to an even more explicit allusion to Stravinsky: the insistent ostinati and heavy-handed drums that follow underscore a brass line that owes an unmistakable debt to Rite of Spring. This initiates yet another orchestrational snowball, which gathers thunder before finally exhausting itself and languishing in a return to the lush melody that sought repose in both the previous movements. The ease with which the ear makes these large-scale, structural connections, adds to the accessibility as well as the emotional engagement of this work.
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