I first came across the name Howard Hanson, many years ago, when I impulse
purchased the Charles Gerhardt/RCA recording of the composer's Second 'Romantic'
Symphony on the basis of having enjoyed Gerhardt's Classical Film Score
recordings. I wasn't disappointed; in fact I was bowled over by this unashamedly
Romantic music. I then determined to seek out more of Hanson's music.
David Hall writing in Stereo Review commented, "Even more than Samuel Barber,
Howard Hanson can be described as the American Neo-romantic composer par
excellence. It would not be amiss, for that matter, to speak of Hanson as
a U.S. counterpart to Rachmaninov, though with a Scandinavian accent instead
of a Russian one..." Hanson's hallmarks include rhythmic vitality, emotional
and dramatic intensity and such unmistakeable stylistic thumbprints as staccato
timpani stokes used as an ostinato device or for terracing climaxes.
In the late 1980s and early '90s Gerard Schwarz recorded much of Hanson's
orchestral music, including all seven symphonies, for DELOS who have now
reissued all their recordings on two convenient double CD albums.
Symphony No 1 in E minor "Nordic" (premiered in 1923)
This is a full-blooded, heart-on-sleeve, melodic, romantic symphony and Schwarz
really goes for all its tenderness and turbulence with all the stops out.
The first heroic/tender movement "sings of the solemnity, austerity and grandeur
of the North - its sombreness and melancholy" in the most colourful and evocative
music (including pastoral and watery evocations). The second movement is
warmly lyrical with long-spanned, and ardent melodies, while the final Allegro
con fuoco is, as the description implies, tempestuous and thrilling but the
intensely dramatic music, with its insistent, brutal timpani figures, also
sings of endurance and fortitude.
Symphony No 2, "Romantic" (premiered 1930)
This is, understandably, Hanson's most popular work. Its beautiful and very
memorable romantic themes make a considerable impact. Schwarz's performance
is perhaps more rugged than Gerhardt's singularly romantic conception but
it is no less compelling. After a misty atmospheric introduction, and a lengthy
and imposing crescendo, the glorious melody appears - it is actually made
up of two melodies projected simultaneously, one in the strings, the other
by solo horn. The music is developed wonderfully in the grand heroic tradition;
this thrilling movement is absolutely rivetting. The Andante has another
beautiful melody that speaks of yearning and nostalgia and again Hanson develops
it gloriously and builds it intensely to another big climax. The tremendously
exciting Allegro con brio finale is brilliant and dramatic and recapitulates
material from the first movement with a splendid fanfare and a fortissimo
announcement by the trumpets of the principal theme of the first movement.
Symphony No 3 (1936-38)
Hanson's Third Symphony is his most substantial, lasting some 36 minutes.
He wrote of it,
"Temperamentally, the Third Symphony is..closely related to [my] First Symphony,
Quoting the CD booklet notes, it "...springs definitely from the North, and
has its genesis in the composer's reverence for the spiritual contribution
that has been made to America by the sturdy race of northern pioneers who,
as early as 1638, founded the first Swedish settlement on the Delaware and
who were in later centuries to constitute such a mighty force in the conquering
of the west." The Symphony, accessible yet emotionally complex, evokes the
pioneers' "rugged and turbulent character [and] religious mysticism". The
Symphony's first movement is a brilliant tour-de-force in narrative tonal
writing - all the aforementioned emotions and adventures are suggested together
with sharply observed nature music; and the music of Bax as well as Sibelius
come to mind. The second Andante tranquillo movement has one of Hanson's
loveliest nostalgic melodies shadowed by insistent timpani ostinati that
forces the movement towards an agitated climax which is anything but tranquillo.
The rhythmically-charged scherzo third movement is a wild timpani-led dance
partly American Indian and partly Scandinavian; it also recalls Dvorak's
American music, a memorable movement. The finale composed after the first
three movements begins broodingly before building into an antiphonal chorale
leading to the reappearance of material from earlier in the work building
up to a blazing climax. This splendid symphony is perhaps Hanson's most
Symphony No. 4 "Requiem" (1943)
Hanson regarded this deeply-felt elegy for the dead as one of his favourite
works. Entirely orchestral, it is cast in four movements, the titles of which
are taken from the Requiem Mass. The first movement is turbulent, romantic
and reverential; a Kyrie theme alternating with dance and song-like sections
and a chorale statement from which develops a storm-tossed, timpani-pounding
coda as though suggesting the conflict between good and evil. The second
Requiescat (Largo) movement is a softly ascending processional that is most
affecting; the brief Dies Irae is a fast and ferociously bitter scherzo,
(I could not help visualising American Indian war dances and speeding trains);
while the Lux aeterna (Largo pastorale) has some of Vaughan Williams's luminous
mysticism as it sings eloquently and majestically of simple but strong piety.
A most unusual but engaging work.
Symphony No. 5 "Sinfonia Sacra" (1954)
The "Sinfonia Sacra" is a mere 15 minutes long but it is intensely dramatic
and committed, and very impressive. It comprises six short movements and
like Cesar Franck's Symphony it appears to represent a journey from darkness
into light, from turbulence into serenity and compassion. I was often reminded
of Respighi not only in his Gregorian moods but also in the violence and
piety of his Roman Tone Poems. The longest poco più movement includes
some arresting writing for strings in the extremes of their registers and
in multi-part counterpoint. The very agitated Largamente - Piu agitato and
Tempo giusto movements seem to suggest a tremendous conflict against the
beast A glorious ecstatic climax rounds off the work. Another magnificent
work beautifully realised by the Seattle Symphony.
Symphony No. 6 (1967)
Still resolutely tonal and persistently romantic in his writing Hanson gives
us here a another shortish continuous, six-movement work based on a simple
three note theme. The first movement is tenderly questioning; the second
movement is led by two snare drums and triangle leading us a merry dance
which becomes ever wilder with heavy brass punctuations; the mood is mischievous
and the colours remind one very much of Walton; the third is a tenderly romantic
song with important parts for strings and horns. The scherzo-like Allegro
assai propels the theme through an adventure of combat and colourful orchestral
explosions. A stately but rather sombre Adagio takes us forward to the final
Allegro which is vigorous and its shriekings, rattlings and thumpings might
not be out of place as music for a thriller or horror film.
Symphony No. 7 "A Sea Symphony" for Chorus and Orchestra (1977)
Hanson wrote his brief Sea Symphony at the age of 81. Because it sets the
same Walt Whitman texts, it must be compared with the Symphony No. 1- A
Sea Symphony of Vaughan Williams (strange how RVW began his symphonies
cycle with a sea symphony while Hanson chose to end his series of symphonies
on the same subject) and Songs of Farewell by Delius. Hanson begins
his Sea Symphony using very similar surging chords as RVW but with his own
individual phrasing nuances. Lo, the unbounded sea is the longest
movement and it is also the most confident and successful. It distills the
essence of Whitman's words and it is a thrilling evocation of the sea and
the ships, the chorus writing (and singing) cleverly evoking both sea breezes
and more turbulent winds. The untold want central movement is mysterious
and remote hinting at the more mystical reaches of Whitman's poetry in man's
ceaseless quest for knowledge and his voyaging into the unknown. The orchestra
and chorus proceed through a suspended chromatic escalation during which
we hear those famous words, "Now voyager go seek and find..." until some
sort of grounding and resolution is reached. The finale, Joy, shipmate,
joy! reminds one of the Britten's Peter Grimes Sea Interludes. It also
subtly reminds us of material in Hanson's earlier symphonies. This is not
only a joyful leave-taking but an apprehensive one too; Hanson, no doubt,
mindful that his own voyage into the unknown was maybe not too far off.
Piano Concerto in G Major (1948)
Hanson's Piano Concerto is another very accessible work. It has a subtext
in that it is associated with two members of his family: the gorgeous melody
of the first movement is linked to his wife, Margaret and the finale recalls
a theme from Hanson's Fourth Symphony which the composer's father had eulogised.
The Concerto has an arresting almost benedictory opening for brass choir
before the hushed entry of the piano couched by warm strings. This rather
reverential mood is soon dispelled however as the piano breaks into joyful
syncopated runs and we feel as if we have been ejected from the calm of the
cloisters into busy urban streets. A typical broad-spanned Hanson romantic
and homely melody follows which, in its beginnings, is reminiscent of Gershwin.
The material is developed through many moods until it reaches a quiet meditative
close. The Allegro feroce, molto ritmico is an essay in fast moving
syncopation giving Carol Rosenberger her chance to show off her dexterity.
In the slow movement, the piano is pensive and tender supported by warm lower
strings until gradually a shriller more abrasive note is sounded and the
brutality of the music has to be quelled before serenity is restored. The
final Allegro giocoso is brash and high-spirited suggesting the modern American
urban world of bustle and skyscrapers.
The other works:
Lament for Beowulf (1925)
On a trip to England, Hanson came across and was very impressed by the epic
poem Beowulf believed to have dated from 700 A.D. He began sketching his
Lament in Scotland in "an environment rugged, swept with mist, and wholly
appropriate to the scene of my story... My intention has been to realize
in the music the austerity and stoicism and the heroic atmosphere of the
poem.." Hanson wrote.
Beowulf is the nephew of the King of Geatus (now Sweden) who defeats a ferocious
monster but ultimately pays for its destruction with his life. The Lament,
scored for choir and orchestra, is about the people's grief over Beowulf''s
death. The Seattle Symphony and Chorus vividly and movingly depict the hostile
location, the grieving people and the scene where they are gathered around
the hero's funeral pyre. The opening is thrillingly evocative with horns
and trumpets calling across the soundstage over cavernous bass drum beats,
low bass string ostinatos and snare drums. A magnificent work.
Suite from the Opera "Merry Mount" (first performed 1934)
Hanson's opera and most ambitious work, Merry Mount, is based on Nathaniel
Hawthorne's short story, The Maypole of Merry Mount. It is a story
that is anything but merry. It is a tragedy set in a Puritan town in old
New England and it is about a pastor's obsession with a visiting Lady and
the unleashing of his repressed hedonism. The Overture, using modal writing,
is austere befitting the Puritans but the second movement, "Children's Dance"
brings a relaxation and the music becomes syncopated and much more colourful.
The lush romantic music for "Love Duet" has throbbing bass and percussion
to signify the Pastor's growing desire for Lady Margaret Sandys, and it reminds
one slightly of Bernard Herrmann. The Prelude to Act II and The Maypole Dances
use original themes and modes to depict the erection of the maypole, a pagan
totem that scandalises the Puritans. The music becomes more sensuous, reflecting
the abandonment that leads Pastor Bradford to murder. Schwarz relishes all
his expressive and dramatic opportunities.
Fantasy Variations on a Theme of Youth (1951)
This is an oddly named work; so called because it is based on a theme that
Hanson wrote as a student, but it dwells for much its length introspectively
and in dark places using the modal colours found throughout the composer's
opera Merry Mount. It is written in variations form for piano and
string orchestra. A few tender moments and some rushing figures to show off
the soloists dexterity offer some relief.
Mosaics, another but more colourful and optimistic set of variations, was
inspired by Hanson's visit, on the way to Rome, to the Cathedral in Taormina
where he was very impressed with a huge mosaic of Christ. The music graphically
suggests the majesty of the Church and the piety of its congregation. There
also grave and merry dance rhythms; and the music, by turn, is tragic, piercing
and winding etc.
Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings (1945)
Written as a wedding present for his wife, Margaret Elizabeth Nelson, it
is quietly, dreamily romantic. Quoting the booklet, "The work's chief voice
is the flute which unspools long flowing melodies to the harp's rhythmic
obbligato. It's gentleness notwithstanding, Hanson gives the Serenade a
propulsive dynamism that carries the listener with the inevitability of a
flowing brook." Solists Judith Mendenhall (flute) and Susan Jolles (harp)
capture its magic beautifully.
Elegy in Memory of Serge Koussevitzky (1956)
Hanson's lovely tribute to the late, great conductor is deeply felt and quiet
obviously very sincere. The music is both heroic and refined with subtle
influences including Wagner and, to my mind, Vaughan Williams. The multi-part
string writing impresses, and so, too, does the beautiful serene pastoral-like
A very rewarding collection for the adventurous music lover and unashamed