Howard Hanson

Biography

Born: October 28, 1896; Wahoo, NE   Died: February 26, 1981; Rochester, NY  
Howard Hanson was among the first twentieth century American composers to achieve widespread prominence. In contrast to the angular Stravinskian and Americana-influenced sounds that dominated American concert music prior to World War II, Hanson wrote in an unabashedly Romantic idiom influenced by his Nordic roots. Of particular importance to the composer was the music of Sibelius; however, he also acknowledged the influence of composers such as Read more Palestrina and Bach.

After boyhood studies on the piano, Hanson studied music at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City and Northwestern University, where he earned a degree in 1916. In 1921, he became the first American to win the Prix de Rome, which provided him the opportunity to study with Ottorino Respighi, whose colorful orchestral language was clearly an influence on Hanson's own. Upon his return to the United States, Hanson was appointed head of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester at the age of 28. Under the composer's guidance over the course of more than four decades, Eastman became one of the world's preeminent educational institutions. During his tenure there Hanson continued to compose prolifically; he also embarked on a career as a conductor, in which capacity he proved himself one of the great champions of American music. At Eastman, it has been calculated, he presented some 1,500 works by 700 composers. Hanson also commercially recorded a number of modern works in a series for the Mercury label in the 1950s, drawing much attention to otherwise neglected repertoire.

Hanson's most characteristic works are undoubtedly his seven symphonies. The first of these, the "Nordic" Symphony (1922), dates from the composer's studies in Rome. The Second Symphony ("Romantic"), remains Hanson's best-known work, a characteristic realization of the lush, lyric aesthetic with which he is closely associated. Further notable among Hanson's symphonies are the Symphony No. 4 (1943), awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Symphony No. 7 (1977), one of a series of works inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Other important works in Hanson's catalogue include The Lament for Beowulf (1925) for chorus and orchestra; the opera Merry Mount (1933), well received at its premiere and in subsequent productions, but now rarely performed; and a variety of other chamber, vocal, and orchestral works. Read less

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 Read more 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. Read less

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