Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Symphony No. 6 (1968) [20:33]; Lumen in Christo (1974)* [21:33]; Symphony No. 7 A Sea Symphony (1977)* [18:13]
Seattle Symphony and Chorale*/Gerard Schwarz
rec. Seattle Opera House, Seattle, WA, USA, 15-16 October 1989 (No.6), 6-7 June 1994 (Lumen in Christo), 18-19 May 1992 (No.7).
Originally released on Delos International.
The sung texts can be found inside the booklet and are also at www.naxos.com/libretti/559704.htm
NAXOS 8.559704 [60:20]
First released on Delos International these last symphonies by American composer Howard Hanson confirm his place as one of the twentieth century’s great symphonic composers. Owing more to his Swedish family connections than his American home his music is Sibelian in feel with great sweeps of sound firmly in the romantic tradition and very beautiful to listen to.
The notes point out that as a composer he was considered an anachronism at the time he received the commission to write the Sixth Symphony. The occasion being marked was the 185th anniversary season of the New York Philharmonic in 1967. The dedicatee was Leonard Bernstein. Considered an anachronism by whom, you may well ask; no doubt by the ‘musical establishment’ – whoever they were! At that time there was a movement on behalf of this ‘establishment’ to eschew “tunes” in favour of ‘new music’. Anything that smacked of romanticism was given a hard time if it was newly composed, so Boulez, Xenakis, Cage and the twelve-tone brigade were much preferred by concert programmers. In the UK this led to point-blank rejection when it came to programming works by people like George Lloyd and Berthold Goldschmidt both of whom, amongst similar composers, experienced hard times getting their music heard anywhere; Lloyd gave up writing music and grew mushrooms to make ends meet! Thank God those days are over and we are allowed to see the wood for the musical trees. There is no danger of such behaviour now and we are able to appreciate these wonderful works on their own merit rather than having others try to tell us what we should like. In his Sixth Symphony, which is cast in six continuous movements, Hanson cleverly weaves his principal three-note theme throughout each movement taking the listener on a musically exciting journey full of lyricism and damn good tunes. Bernstein was a fortunate man to have such a lovely symphony dedicated to him.
Lumen in Christo, a choral work for women’s voices in two movements and which deals with light through the setting of sacred texts, is wonderfully satisfying. It carries echoes of early choral works from the 16th century and begins, as does Haydn’s The Creation, by describing the chaos out of which God created order, beginning with light itself. The second movement has at its heart a setting of Isaiah 9 from which Handel chose the sixth verse to set in The Messiah as “For Unto Us a Child is Born” as well as two other verses from Isaiah. The Lumen in Christo section is from IV Esdras (Ezra). The beautifully ethereal Lux Aeterna brings the work to a close.
Though written in 1977 when Hanson was 80 and constituting his last symphony he said of his Seventh Symphony: "I had wanted to write the piece all my life and when I finally got at it — I was eighty — I had no trouble. It came out just as if I were thirty or even twenty-five, and I had no inhibitions about it. I didn't work on it, I didn't go over it, I didn't redo it — whoosh — it came like that!" It is interesting to note that it was at the age of 30 that Vaughan Williams began sketching his A Sea Symphony; like Hanson’s it was also inspired by the poems of Walt Whitman. It was Vaughan Williams’ first symphony and Hanson’s last but we can see that the desire to write had been with Hanson since the very beginning of his composing career. In fact Whitman’s poetry had already inspired Hanson to write four other works which were written throughout his composing life, the first of them, his six songs Opp.2 and 3 as long ago as 1915, a mere five years after the première of Vaughan Williams’ first symphony and the others in 1935, 1957 and 1970 bringing his composing life full circle. This setting serves as a final stepping stone but also a summation of Hanson’s life’s work. It reflects the composer’s unquenchable thirst for life in this youthful sounding outburst of emotion - to paraphrase Steven C. Smith’s informative liner-notes. This music celebrates life without any hint of regret that his would soon be over. It is more of a statement to those left behind to join with him in the celebration that life continues, just as the sea itself is “unbounded” to quote Whitman. Affirming Hanson’s “romantic” (his Second Symphony even bore that subtitle) style this final work is lush, gorgeous and full of vitality. I’ve always found it fascinating that the sea is not only favoured by so many composers but that it is one of the most successful subjects to paint musically. There can almost never be any doubt about the source of the inspiration; Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, Debussy’s La Mer, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes as well as Vaughan Williams’ symphony to cite but a few. Hanson’s is no exception and we know exactly where we are from the first note. Once again the influence of Sibelius, Hanson’s idol is evident in the writing - just imagine a symphony from him inspired by the sea! - and the work ends to the words of Whitman’s “... our life begins, The long, long anchorage we leave, The ship is clear at last, she leaps! She swiftly courses from the shore, Joy, shipmate, joy!” All the works on this disc are lovingly played by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz who, himself was a student at the Interlochen Summer Music Camp for which the Seventh Symphony was commissioned to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 1977. At that very same festival Schwarz had conducted Hanson’s Second Symphony at the age of 11!
The obvious admiration that Schwarz has for both the man and the music makes all these performances both telling and convincing. The Seattle Symphony give their all while the Seattle Symphony Chorus (Chorale) is wonderfully impressive in the two works in which they feature. I read that the 120 members volunteer more than 30,000 hours each year – now that’s what I call “the big society”!
This disc is highly enjoyable and for anyone new to Hanson’s works it is a brilliant introduction to a really inspirational composer whose works are gradually achieving the exposure and success they richly deserve.
The Complete Schwarz Hanson symphony series
Vol. 1 - Symphony No. 1; The Lament for Beowulf Naxos 8.559700
Vol. 2 - Symphony No. 2; Lux aeterna; Mosaics Naxos 8.559701
Vol. 3 - Symphony No. 3; Merry Mount Suite Naxos 8.559702
Vol. 4 - Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5; Elegy; Dies natalis Naxos 8.559703
Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7; Lumen in Christo Naxos 8.559704
For anyone new to Hanson’s works this CD is a brilliant introduction to a really inspirational composer.